SUSTAINABLE TOURISM - IMAGINE IF EVERYONE JUST GOT IT!

May 10, 2018

My life in tourism started in the area generally referred to as ‘sustainable tourism’.  It’s the area where I’ve done the most work and possibly made the most difference.  Yet, when it came to setting up my own business last year, I went out of my way to avoid using the word ‘sustainable’ (or any of its linguistic cousins such as ‘eco’, ‘responsible’, ‘green’, ‘conscious’) on my website, products or general business narrative. 

I asked a colleague to review my website and he thought the omission a bit odd.  “Wouldn’t it make more sense to play on your achievements and your experience and use this in your marketing?”, he asked.  Whether rightly or wrongly, my gut instinct was telling me that promoting my expertise in sustainable tourism, ecotourism, responsible tourism would not serve my new business well. 

Why? Too often, I have observed the eyes of others glaze over as soon as the discussion enters sustainable tourism territory.  I can practically hear the mental switch turn off.  For many who don’t switch off, the word ‘sustainable’ has connotations of guilt or being preached to, both of which evoke a defensive reaction or withdrawal.  I’ve read destination development plans and strategies that include a token section on ‘sustainability’, ensuring the concepts are included but without any direct link to action.  I have listened to conference presentations sharing with those who are still listening all that is of concern and that needs to be addressed.  The trouble is those that are still listening already agree. 

The truth is, and I hesitate a little to admit this, that I avoided the words so as to keep my potential audience and clients engaged with me and what I could offer.  I did not wish to be viewed as occupying a space often regarded to be ‘fringe’ or ‘alternative’.  I wanted to integrate my belief in the principles of sustainable tourism into every project with every client, not just those who professed themselves interested in sustainability.    I did not want to be discounted by ‘mainstream’ tourism clients before they really had a look at me or what I could offer.

I didn’t abandon the principles however.  I simply chose different words to carry my meaning.  My mission is expressed in my promotional tagline  ‘helping build businesses and destinations that last’.  It’s interesting that in much of the unprompted feedback I got on my website, people remarked on this tagline with many saying ‘yes, I get it!’   This was the best feedback I could have wished for - for people to just get it without explanation.  This meant we could start on the same page with a shared level of understanding, without a need to explain, justify or persuade.  This was a pleasant new sensation.

I once heard the expression ‘Communication is the response you get’.  In other words, good communication is tested not in what you have to say, but in how people receive it and respond to it.  I was happy with the response to my tagline.  It reminded me of another occasion when the reaction from people was ‘I get it’ or even ‘I finally get it!’.  This was when, as part of the GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Project Team, we first revealed the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism to tourism enterprises in the Burren Region last year. 

The brief background is that the lead agency, the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark, had worked closely with a pioneering group of enterprises, the Burren Ecotourism Network, over a number of years.  Their shared goal was the creation of a premier, internationally recognised sustainable tourism destination.  As part of this, they had, for a number of years, engaged with sustainable tourism standards, national and international, working with a variety of certifying bodies and engaging in much study, training, evidence-gathering, audits and reports.  They were (and still are) committed to having transparency and integrity on their claims of truly practicing sustainable tourism.  Finally, for many reasons, they opted to move away from using global standards or third party certification criteria as their minimum participation standard.  Instead, they created a localised framework of standards which became known as the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism.

I had the privilege of leading this project on behalf of the Burren & Cliffs of Moher Geopark, working with a large number of engaged stakeholders in formulating the Code.  One of the major considerations in formulating our own localised standards, that would also be subject to external expert verification, was the use of language.  We concentrated on demystifying the standards and criteria we had become used to.  We retained their meaning and purpose, but wrote them in everyday language, using layman’s vocabulary.  We opted for an active voice, written in the first person, stating exactly what action a business or agency needed to take in order to animate the principles of sustainable tourism in our region. 

The Code is presented in topline format below.  It comprises a commitment to 6 principles of sustainable tourism practice.  Behind each commitment, the Code defines a series of actions or measures (62 in total) that businesses or agencies can take to make this commitment a reality within the destination.  The widespread adoption of the Code is what makes the difference – it’s the cumulative impact of many businesses making the same commitment and collectively taking similar actions at the same time.  The businesses provide evidence of implementation and this is independently assessed and verified.

By adopting the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism, we commit to a process of continuous improvement in sustainable tourism practice.  We observe the following principles and practices:

  • Working Together: We collaborate with all stakeholders to collectively develop the Geopark as a sustainable tourism destination.
  • A Cared-For Landscape: We actively participate in conserving our natural and cultural heritage.
  • A Well-understood Heritage: We offer quality information and interpretation to communicate our stories and the unique character of our Geopark to guests.
  • Vibrant Communities: We work to ensure that tourism makes a positive social contribution so that it benefits our community as well as our guests. We aim to make our services available to the widest possible audience.
  • Strengthened Livelihoods: We contribute to the local economy by maintaining and supporting local employment, by sourcing services and produce locally wherever possible, and by engaging with other businesses in promoting our Geopark as a sustainable tourism destination.
  • Sustainable Environmental Management: We are guided by our Environmental Policy and we work to an Environmental Action Plan, which includes actions and targets for improvement that are reviewed annually. We have effective systems for monitoring and adequately managing our waste, water, wastewater, energy, travel impact and purchases.

 The Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism was developed as part of the GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Project 2013-18

 

The reaction on the day it was launched of ‘I finally get it’ was again more that we could have wished for, coming as it did from tourism operators weary from a number of years trying to understand what exactly they were being asked to do in order to be legitimately considered ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’’.  A change of language and approach radically changed the reaction and response.  

I’d love to hear your views.  Do you feel the Code captures what sustainable tourism is all about?  If you substituted the word ‘Geopark’ with the name of your destination, your business or product, would it remain meaningful and relevant to you?

My own view is that this is a transferable Code. I find it ironic that in deciding to create something local that would work for tourism people on the ground in our small area, we may have created something that could be truly global in application.  If the Code captures the key principles and purpose of sustainable tourism in language that the average person can readily understand, then it can be relevant and meaningful to every tourism business, destination or management organisation wherever they are in the world.

Imagine a world with a common Code and readily understood concepts!  Imagine a shared level of understanding, just of these core first principles! Imagine if everybody just got it.

 

To find out more about the GeoparkLIFE Tourism for Conservation Programme and the details of the Geopark Code of Practice for Sustainable Tourism, go to: http://www.burrengeopark.ie/geopark-life/.  To learn more about the members of the Burren Ecotourism Network who adopt the Code, visit www.burren.ie.  

 

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