Sustainable Tourism - just tell me where to start!
Just over 2 years ago, I spent a very privileged hour in the company of Hotelier John Burke of the Armada Hotel in Spanish Point in Co. Clare. John summitted Mount Everest in 2017 and I had invited him to give a keynote address at our inaugural national conference, The Tourism Space LIVE. We met to chat through what John had experienced and learned during his journey that our audience of tourism business owners and managers would draw inspiration and learnings from.
Lessons from Everest
John shared several moments with me that each delivered a strong lesson for business and life in general. One was when he described being in sight of the summit but still quite a distance away. He was shattered both physically and mentally, laid out on the ground, unable to stand up or move forward. His eyes fixed on the summit and he felt devastated to be so agonizingly near and yet unable to budge even a centimetre forward. In his mind, it was a moment of catastrophic failure – it would have been better to fail at base camp than fail here so near the summit.
A Sherpa stopped at the right moment. He knelt beside John and whispered in his ear with words to this effect: ‘One step at a time. Stop looking at the top, look down at your feet. You can take one more step. All you have to worry about is taking one step. You can do that. You can take one step’.
It’s an image and moment that has stayed with me. John’s message to our delegates was: Know your destination, be clear on your vision but then focus on the first step and then the one after and then the one after that.
Sustainability: the challenge of the summit
The image of that moment has stayed with me and resonates with many aspects of business and life. One area it particularly resonates with is the complex question of how to enable businesses and destinations to develop sustainable or regenerative approaches to tourism. To fix our eyes and our focus on the scale of the challenge and the endpoint of achieving a sustainable or regenerative state seems to overwhelm most people. Many observe a significant connection gap between those who have the lucidity, fortitude and opportunity to see the view from the mountaintop and those much further down the hillside who are challenged to take the first step.
Sustainability: empowering the first steps
How can we make it possible and palatable for tourism enterprises to engage in sustainable and regenerative tourism practices? How do we enable businesses to own the Grand Vision and at the same time get started on the journey? How do we make the first steps possible while also keeping an eye on the endgame?
Those questions formed the basis of 5 years of applied research for me, working hand-in-hand with tourism businesses and destination stakeholders in the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark in Ireland. One of the key findings of that research was that the words, discourse and narrative around sustainability often act as a barrier to engagement and empowerment. To labour the analogy, they tended to focus on the summit more than basecamp.
The Super Six of Better Tourism
Arising from this applied research, I created The Super Six of Better Tourism Business. This is a set of six objectives and principles that together provide a framework for bringing businesses and destinations together on a shared journey:
A goal of the Super Six is to provide a common and accessible language for people to come together, to speak about complex global principles and how they can distil them into a series of first steps. They aim to allow people to start and get on the same page. They aim to create a language of common purpose, a set of principles that can be adapted to each destination and to each business - a set of principles that can get a group of stakeholders within a destination to get to basecamp together.
Try out this Super Six Quiz
To illustrate how these global principles might help map first steps, I’ve created a quick self-assessment quiz. This quiz is made up of a simple series of statements that a business can say Yes or No to. It's designed to give the business a snapshot of where it might be on its sustainability journey. It prompts thinking about all of the activities of the business and how they contribute to the long-term success of your community and destination.
There's no right or wrong answer, no pass or fail - just a moment to take stock of where you are right now. In fact, the statements I include in this quiz are generic. To be meaningful, a business or destination would craft its own set of actions that best reflect their place, communities and visitor opportunities.
Why not try out the quiz! When you're done, we'll also send on our Guide to The Super Six of Better Tourism Business. In it, we'll show you how to use your quiz results to build a Sustainability Policy and prioritize future actions.
To value the Super Six means to value and respect the journey to basecamp, a lesser but necessary stage on the journey to the summit.
Are the Super Six of Better Tourism an end solution? No.
Are they overly simplistic? Those who see the view from the top might say yes. Those who are wondering what the first step is might say no.
Are they a dumbing down? Absolutely not!
What they are is accessible, understandable and possible. What they do is open the gates and invite tourism businesses and destinations to start a different journey in tourism, a journey to adds value in multiple ways to multiple parties. What they provide is a framework and language for sharing the journey. Importantly, they reflect the global principles of sustainability contained in frameworks such as the GSTC (Global Sustainable Tourism Council) and ETIS (European Tourism Indicator System) and, at the same time, allow for them to be adapted in a meaningful way at local level.
For tourism to become sustainable or regenerative, it must absolutely become very meaningful at local level. It must be tailored and localised. The principles can be global but the practice must be local.
Like the Sherpa that stopped for John Burke, it must encourage people and empower them to take the first steps so that we can them move forward together.
The Super Six is based on award-winning research on how to adapt internationally established sustainable tourism standards to the needs and capacity of individual businesses. This research was part of the GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Programme which resulted in the creation of the The Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism. The Code was first adopted by around 50 businesses in the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark in 2014 and continues to be upheld by more than 60 members of the Burren Ecotourism Network today. This network of businesses and the Code that binds them were awarded the Lonely Planet Best in Travel Award 2020.
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