“Could tourism possibly create more value with fewer visitors, giving them the space to discover the things we want to share, the things that make us unique?”
This is the provocative question offered by Peter de Wilde, the director of regional tourism authority Visit Flanders. For the past two years, this inquiry has been at the center of the organization’s quest to reimagine their industry – a quest they’ve been calling “Tourism Transforms” in acknowledgement both of tourism’s potential to transform us and of the need to transform tourism.
And indeed, there can be no doubt that transformation of the industry is urgently needed. More and more areas around the world are suffering from over-tourism, with accompanying destruction of ecosystems and heritage artifacts, as well as disruptions to local quality of life. On top of that, the industry contributes 8% of carbon emissions globally, prompting a growing call for a halt to non-essential flights. Yet despite these pressures, international tourist travel continues to grow at a rate of 4% per year. In the first half of 2019, that meant 30 million more trips than the same period in 2018, according to the UN World Tourism Organization. Clearly, something has to give.
The response among Destination Marketing Offices – in other words, among Visit Flanders’ peers around the world – has been to look for ways to divert tourists to less popular regions. But the model itself has remained unchanged. The conveyer belt that is the tourism industry is still going strong, continuing to churn ever more tourists through the ever more fragile human and more-than-human communities of the Earth.
In contrast, Visit Flanders has sought a more profound shift in practice and perspective, inspired by two influences in particular.
One is travel industry pioneer Anna Pollock of Conscious Travel, who has been speaking and writing on the future of tourism for decades and offering guidance to Visit Flanders for the past two years. Specifically, she introduced them to the concept of “flourishing destinations,” in which (1) places are recognized as living communities, with stories and patterns of aliveness; and (2) residents, enterprises, community, visitors and the ecosystem are all supported in their ability to thrive.
The other influence is Visit Flanders’ own Holiday Participation Centre, which focuses on ensuring that every citizen of Flanders has access to a vacation, regardless of disability or poverty. The underlying belief is that everyone has a right to a holiday, in the same way that many countries recognize a new mother’s right to maternity leave. Quite apart from the larger organization’s marketing activities, the Centre facilitates a network of more than 2,400 voluntarily participating service providers, partner organizations and citizens. Thanks to their collective efforts, more than 150,000 people experiencing poverty or disability are able to go on day trips or short holiday breaks in Flanders every year.
The lifeblood of this work – what feeds it and keeps it going – is the practice of “storyweaving.” Many of those who experience a holiday are thoughtfully interviewed about their experience, helping them reflect on and recognize what was meaningful and giving them the feeling of being seen and valued. Each account is crafted into a short, authentic story that portrays the renewing, transformative power of a holiday. And as those stories are shared across the network, commitment to the movement grows.
For Visit Flanders, these two influences – Anna Pollock’s concept of flourishing destinations and the Holiday Participation Centre’s place-based network of story-inspired collaboration and service – converged to create the sense that tourism may have the potential to be a powerful force for good.
In response, Visit Flanders launched the Tourism Transforms initiative, engaging in meetings with hundreds of tourism professionals; convening five think tanks; and conducting a listening survey eliciting more than 1,600 travel stories. The outcome has been an emerging intention to cultivate “meaningful encounters in flourishing destinations.”
To add more detail to that vision and to begin to build a movement around it, Visit Flanders collaborated with Pollock and others to convene a two-day summit called Travel to Tomorrow, bringing together close to 300 tourism professionals from across Western Europe. The video invitation (below) offers a beautiful reflection on what is needed and what is possible.
The summit featured international speakers (including me – here’s a video of my talk). But more importantly, it highlighted stories from local initiatives that were conceived and conducted in new ways. To commemorate the 100-year anniversary of World War I at Flanders Fields, for example, the local tourism office initially followed the conventional conveyer belt model: they created branding and signage that linked multiple sites together; they modeled the expected increase in visitors to ensure adequate local capacity; and they prepared to broadcast a marketing campaign across the globe. It was at that point that they were hit with a local newspaper article criticizing them for commercializing something so sacred and tragic, a sentiment that turned out to be widely felt. In response, the tourism authority made a bold move – bold because they didn’t know how it would turn out: they gathered local residents together in a series of open conversations about what this place and this anniversary meant to all of them; about what invitations they wanted to extend to the world; and about what principles they would have to abide by if the encounters were to be meaningful. The outcome was an explosion of sufficiently coherent yet entirely citizen-driven initiatives that were filled with personal connection and significance. In one case, visitors were offered poppy seeds and encouraged to plant them when they returned to their home places; the region’s Facebook page is now filled with images of poppies from around the world. In another example, hundreds of local volunteers gathered at dusk to stand along the former line of battle that snakes unmarked through the countryside; each person held a glowing torch, in a silent, solemn display.
Stories like these and those shared by the Holiday Participation Centre are fundamentally at odds with the concepts of “tourism” and “industry” – those lifeless abstractions that demand our subservience. As a bridge concept, Pollock talks about the “visitor economy,” inviting a focus on the human visitor. But the presence of “economy” reminds us that it is about money above all else. As tourists or visitors, we are encouraged to show up with our money and our immediate, uncompromising demands. Ours are the only needs and wants to be considered.
Yet a place is more than a destination for demanding tourists. It is first a story and a shared home. Or it could be, with some support. Many communities have been ravaged by individualistic capitalism. They don’t know who they are together anymore. They have lost touch with their shared story, with the soul of their place. But what we have seen in the examples of Flanders Fields and others is that it doesn’t have to stay that way.
Indeed, what if we talked not about the “local tourism industry” but about the “local hosting community”? Imagine if the emphasis were on helping hosts understand who they are together in community, in this place, at this time in history. Imagine if they could be brought together in regular reflection about the invitation they want to extend and what flourishing might look like for everyone involved. What if they could be supported in discovering “sufficiently coherent yet entirely citizen-driven initiatives that are filled with personal connection and significance,” as we saw with Flanders Fields? Imagine if a local self-organizing network could be enlivened and set into motion, powered by stories of meaningful encounter and transformation, as the Holiday Participation Centre has demonstrated? What if the mandate of Destination Marketing Offices changed from “marketing destinations” to “hosting the hosts”?
Such a shift in perspective has implications for those being invited, too. If you are hosting me for dinner, I will arrive with a certain measure of respect for you and your home. I will come ready to see the many gifts in the experience. This is quite a contrast to how I would show up to your home as a tourist, unthinking demands in hand, seeking only to extract and consume.
In these ways, our hosting and our visiting might become far more human, thoughtful and personalized. And importantly, we might feel less need to venture to places that require a carbon-heavy journey. We might discover that the rest and re-creation – the transformation through meaningful encounter – we’re looking for can be found close to home. As we work together locally to develop the skills and orientation of hosting visitors from afar, we may also find new openness to hosting our own neighbors in conversation and in shared participation in society, even when our opinions differ. We may also find that our hosting practice more readily extends to those who come not with money to spend but with need for refuge and support.
“If you ask me about the opportunities with regard to the tourism of the future,” says Chené Swart, author of Re-authoring the World and an advisor to the Holiday Participation Centre, “I think that tourism is part of a larger transformation across the world. It is coming back to the connections with one another, coming back to the connection with the earth. Then tourism will become participative citizenship.” Visit Flanders’ own Peter de Wilde adds, “I have hope, since every journey brings more tolerance and opens our minds to the rest of the world so that we know and recognize others and have a better understanding of what’s really precious.”
What are your thoughts and stories about the future of hosting?