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When my Place is the Product - The Power of Our Words

better tourism
When my Place is the Product - The Power of Our Words

"Are our words a barrier to achieving true engagement and consultation in place-based tourism?"

When a place picks you

I became captivated by North Clare on the West Coast of Ireland in my early 20s. It took another ten years for me to actually move here and I continue to feel a deep spiritual connection to the place. As soon as I moved, I knew I had found my place. I knew I wouldn’t move again and that I would make it work here. In fact, I ruled out any other possibility. The place is very beautiful, with magnificent landscapes and coastlines, a very vibrant popular culture, and an intriguing history. It’s no surprise then that it’s also a very popular tourist destination. Perhaps also inevitable that I fell into the tourism industry about a decade ago. 

The multi-dimensional nature of place-based tourism

In the time since then, I have learned how complex place-based tourism is. I have come to appreciate its value and impact. I believe in its potential to bring people together, sustain places and transform futures. I see tourism as what many others have described as an ‘enabler of place’.

But it’s complex. The kind of tourism that enables a place is one that reveals a place to the visitor, that allows the community to share what they love about their place. At the same time, it is a kind of tourism that is profitable and economically viable, one that provides not ‘survival livelihoods’ but ‘thriving livelihoods’. It appeals to young people who see in it a viable career path and financial security. And of course, the place itself has to have the power to endure for a solid tourism industry to flourish – it has to be a kind of tourism that actively enhances and preserves the place. 

The two-dimensional debate

It’s complex and multi-faceted. Yet the discussion around tourism can very often be very black-and-white. If people care about tourism at all, they tend to fall into one of two camps: either the pro-tourism sector that sees the industry as "economic development," or the anti-tourism voice that also sees it only as “economic development” but that damages communities or places. I’ve been surprised at how categorically people put themselves in one camp or the other. This was brought home to me recently at a national conference in Dublin on the subject of Visitor Management.  With my background in linguistics, the choice of language really struck me. What stood out for me the most was the use of the little word ‘but’. For example:

  • “I’m in favour of tourism but…”
  • “Yes the monuments are important but…”
  • “Yes communities are at the centre of tourism policy but…”
  • “Yes overtourism is a challenge but…”
  • “I’m not saying I’m against tourism but…”
  • “Yes we want to achieve a balance between economic, social and environmental interests but…”
  • “Ireland may not have an overtourism issue but…”

Speaker after speaker acknowledged the perspective of others in the room and then, with the use of that little word ‘but’, simultaneously dismissed it.  This little word had the effect of separating people into one of the two camps. I thought to myself, what if they had just chosen ‘and’ instead of ‘but’. Wouldn’t that have had the effect of bringing them together? It would have placed them on the same side.

The discourse of place-based approaches

Language has power and greatly affects our perception of ourselves and others. Critical Discourse Analysis (the subject of my MA thesis) views language as a form of social practice. It makes and sustains the worlds we live in. It shapes and frames us.  Our language, often subtly and subconsciously, betrays our true views and reveals those of others to us. Language is the tool for defining ‘them’ and ‘us’.  

Place-based approaches to tourism are couched in a general discourse that includes concepts such as sustainable tourism, ecotourism, cultural tourism, heritage tourism, responsible tourism, civic tourism, community tourism. This week, I even noticed a fleeting headline that talked about ‘sincere tourism’. 

The choice of language describes what these approaches to tourism are. Crucially, they also describe what they are not. By being ‘alternative’, they are by definition not ‘mainstream’. An analysis of the body of words that co-locate around ideas of ‘alternative’, we find recurring words such as ‘responsible’ and ‘sincere’ and ‘sustainable’. The consequential implication is that mainstream approaches are ‘irresponsible’ and ‘insincere’ and ‘unsustainable’. Equally, if mainstream tourism seeks its justification in the economic benefit of tourism, it reinforces a view that the alternative approaches are economically weaker.

What’s truly important is the impact of this language on the people who work in each sector.  Debates and policies are shaped by people who are emotionally driven.  If I find myself in a sector that is implicitly viewed by others as ‘unsustainable’ or, alternatively, in a sector that is implicitly viewed as ‘economically weak’, my natural reaction is to defend rather than engage. This is what is being played out when people choose ‘but’ over ‘and’ in debates.  Nobody wants to be labelled insincere, irresponsible or unsustainable. Equally nobody wants to be labelled an economic basket-case. Yet this is what’s reinforced through the current language framework on place-based tourism.

New words, new mindsets?

Imagine if we swapped ‘but’ for ‘and’, ‘protection’ for ‘enhancement’, ‘sustainable’ for ‘strategic’, ‘calling each other to account’ to ‘working together for common objectives’.  Let’s review the word ‘sustainable’ and call it instead an approach to tourism that is strategic, logical and collaborative. Let’s not shy away from calling it economically-charged and even go a step further and call it High Performance Tourism, where we together set and achieve stretching targets for place, people and profit, simultaneously.   This re-framing through language would require us to put indicators in place that call for collaborative deliberation to achieve them, indicators that imply that all stakeholders must be at the table, their roles and priorities must be respected and the language used must be inclusive.  

Me and my place

For me, my place is product. It is livelihood. It is potential. It is inspiration. It is home. It is refuge. It is comfort. It is my cradle. It is my future. It is my grave. My choice of words tells you that it’s a deeply emotional concept for me. I want this place to endure at all levels. I want it to be far more than a commodity that is consumed by me and others. I want people from ‘here’ to be able to share it with people from ‘there’.  I want strong businesses and communities. I want the land and seascapes to flourish. I want it all. I admit, it’s complex.

My work leads me to think a lot about how to build businesses and destinations that last.  In place-based tourism, this may mean accepting nothing less than high performance for place indicators, high performance for people indicators and high performance for profit indicators. This is often called 'Sustainable Tourism'. I sometimes call it ‘Tourism for Lasting Success’.  


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