Interview Toerisme Transformeert - Future tourism is all about communities (ENG)
At the moment of our meeting she has just had a crazy run to get to Brussels but that doesn’t mean she’s not ready for exchanging thoughts on the future of tourism. She slides her suitcase aside, sits down at the lobby table and starts telling me about a Dutch documentary that has just been broadcasted. Apart from her, the television crew also interviewed Tony Wheeler, she explains, he is the founder of Lonely Planet and apparently, he is losing sleep these days about all the tourism that he’s caused. The title of the documentary says it all: Traveling is the new smoking. (Dutch)
Everything is connected
What is the essence of your story?
Mass international tourism as a phenomenon, as an economy, has exploded in the last fifty, sixty years, mainly since mass transportation took shape. Tourism is extremely successful today. There isn’t a country in the world that doesn’t want tourism. It’s made a major contribution to the world but it is dependent on moving people and extracting resources. It’s called a service industry but it still extracts space, and what we are discovering now is that it also extracts the welcome of the local host. Sometimes you can overexploit those resources.
Basically what we did is this: we took a successful consumption model and copied it to another sphere: we took it of the shelve and applied it to what really is an experience, not a good. That was fine for a long time but now we are starting to see major problems.
Not only are there some inherent systemic flaws in the model, also the planet is now getting pretty full and we are competing with other sectors of the economy for similar resources. And we are starting to have some negative impacts that we haven’t paid enough attention to. For example: we have not been asked to pay for the full cost that is produced by traveling.
And there are also the factors climate change and technology. The potential of jobs we promised will not occur because a lot of the jobs will be done by robots. All of this suggests that we need to think about: what kind of tourism can we create in the future that fits the circumstances of the future and that generates a more positive benefit to the host as well as to the traveller. I’m not suggesting that i have the answer but what i am saying is this: in order to cope with some of these challenges such as overtourism it’s not enough to come up with a tactical fix-it solution, because that won’t address the root causes.
What are those root causes?
‘Things like population explosion and affluence. Apart from that we are facing a fundamental challenge that we are not only facing in tourism: we are operating an industrial production model on a set of assumptions about how the world works that simply isn’t true anymore. We now know that these assumptions are obsolete.
One example of that is the notion that we are separate from nature somehow. This notion that the planet is not a living thing and that everything can be described in a physical or chemical relation. All of that flew out to the window a long time ago, it just hasn’t reached the consciousness of mainstream. When it does it will change everything because it will mean that the fundamental set of assumptions where we built everything on needs to be recrafted.
The most exciting thing right now isn’t what’s happening in physics or quantum physics, it’s what’s happening in biology. It’s life itself that has a degree of sentience or consciousness. We are utterly connected. Everything we do is connected.
The main concept you put forward is the idea of flourishing destinations.
Yes, we need to go back to the basics in what tourism is about. Up until now the sign of success has been the growing number of visitors. That has been the objective of every touristic destination. But as we have seen recently in many places - Amsterdam, Barcelona, Venice, Machu Pichu to name a few - success hurts and succes destroys. If your sole objective is growing, you are headed for disaster. The problem is: we have persuaded everyone that travel is good, travel is a right, travel produces benefit. Hundreds of institutions are oriented towards growing it, so how do you stop? And what do you replace it with?
What I’m saying is: we have to replace it with other positive impacts. The reason i’m using ‘flourishing’ is to refer to a living system. We can learn from how nature flourishes, it’s a much richer concept. We can measure it in all kinds of different ways. We are a living planet. Every single life form wants to be fully alive. When you are fully alive, you are flourishing.
Did you come up with this term?
It was Martin Seligman, a very famous positive psychologist, who first came up with this notion. He looked at what makes people happy. He realized that happiness is the wrong indicator. If you win the lottery you are happy, if your father dies you are unhappy, but you can’t measure how well someone is through happiness, you can if you measure whether a person is flourishing.
If you think of a company for example, it goes like this: a company is made up of people, to the extent that people are flourishing at work - this means bringing their whole selves, feeling alive - that will manifest in the profit lines of that company. In that case the company is flourishing materially and the people in it are flourishing because they are growing. That is a sustainable system.
What I did is apply this notion to a destination. A destination is a living system in the same way that a forest is a living system. All of the hearts that make up that living system are in total communication and connection with each other. I have taken some of the measures that are used in ecology to determine the health of destination.
In your manifesto you say: the best way to change a system is changing its purpose. Could you explain a bit more on that?
To bring it back to plain language: the current purpose is to increase the number of visitors on the assumption that if you have more visitors, you have more income, and in that way you contribute to the grandiose GDP and you are playing your part in the economy. But we all know that GDP is a crappy indicator of success.
What I am saying is: what would happen if we begin to see the destination and the visitors economy as a human living system, embedded in life on the planet. That would mean you want to be in sync with the purpose of life, which is a process of becoming, in sync with the whole. If you relate that back to tourism, being in sync with the whole means that every employer that you have is growing and developing, and that every visitor that you have is having an experience that helps him become more then he was. Therefore the place will also develop and blossom. When you suddenly see it, it becomes absolutely obvious! (put her hands together and smiles)
And when you are past that aha of ‘of course, it’s a living system’, you can’t go back to the old way of thinking. Of course you can’t run tourism like a factory with an assembly line with fixed processes and standardized parts and bits.
Efficiency for example is a classic word that is used in an economic structure: we have to produce more with less. Everything is about cutting costs. In that model it makes sense but the model doesn’t make sense for a visitors economy. In the natural world there is no efficiency, there is abundance but no efficiency.’
You also say: as a mass model ages, it creates diminishing returns for all participants. What do you mean by that?
Over time you will try to produce more for less. For example: i’m selling a room in my B&B. If i’m not there, i can’t stock it and sell it tomorrow. So if it’s five o’clock in the afternoon and i haven’t sold it, the automatic response will be to drop the price.
Or in the case of a destination: if a volcano goes off and people can’t fly in, the rooms will be empty and there is a cash flow problem. The reaction will be to try to persuade people with low prices.
Or when you have a competitor coming in, like a low cost airline, you will drop the price in reaction. It means the marginal return goes down so the supplier has to make it up in volume. At the same token the level of service goes down: they cut the costs in looking after their people, the people are rude, the service is crappy. The rate of return in terms of pleasure for the guest and the employee and even the investors is always downward. This is something we haven’t been honest about.
Do you think we are at a special momentum in time where things can change?
Definitely. Several great thinkers are saying we are taking an evolutionary leap. It could be compared to the emergence of the enlightenment, that was another big cultural leap. I think this one will be even bigger because of the scientific progress that we are making. It means that we are consciously changing.
What do you think this means for the world of tourism?
Well, we cannot look at tourism in isolation, which we tend to do. We huddle away and have tourism conferences. I’m going to a conference of European cities marketing departments in Sweden next week. It will be full of destination marketing people, all talking the same stuff that i have heard for fifty years now. But they don’t bring in philosophers, they don’t bring in scientists, they don’t bring in anyone that’s talking about what’s happening outside. And yet tourism is utterly derivative and embedded. With that i mean: it depends on the rest of society functioning. If there is no peace, there is no tourism. If there is no economic surplus, there is no tourism. It should be utterly aware of the changes that are taking place.
I guess one of the big problems is that there is not enough long term thinking going on?
‘This is inherent in the system we installed after the war. The system was designed to produce compliend workers, it wasn’t designed to educate the mind. Once the industrial machine got going they needed compliend workers who didn’t question anything.
One of the other things typical for that system are the specialists, there are specialists in specialties and no one looks at the bigger picture. This means that people don’t see connections. It also means that they don’t ask questions, in my opinion the moment they brought in multiple choice questions for taking exams in the US, that was the beginning of the end. (smiles)
The system we installed has bred an army of experts. You see it also in tourism: these days you can study sustainable tourism, it’s a degree you can get in three years time and then you can go work in sustainable tourism. This sort of thing disempowers people. If you are a small town and you want to attract tourists, you have to go and hire an agency to come and brand you or do a strategy for you, as opposed to sit down together as a community and say: who are we, what is this place?
Do you see sustainable tourism as a segment of tourism?
Let me be clear: I am not anti sustainable tourism. But what i’m saying is: listen to what the word actually means. It’s the hope that we can sustain things the way they are. So it’s fundamentally about doing less harm: producing less harm through waste and negative impact. That is vital. But don’t kid yourself that it is enough. This analogy with the Titanic is often used but it applies: you just slow down the Titanic, you don’t change its course.
The challenge at the moment I believe is that the powers that be that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo - which is growth and volume - are the ones that are now embracing sustainability as a means of maintaining the status quo. I actually feel more rejection of my thinking from the sustainable tourism economy that from the others. I think they feel threatened by it. I’m not saying ‘stop’ but ‘go further’. They idea of flourishing destination works a lot more deeply than the idea of sustainable tourism. It’s about looking at the destination on a whole and as part of a whole and about allowing it to become more then it is now.
Instead of thinking about doing less harm you can start thinking of engaging with the system, to enable it to grow and flourish. That means that it can become more then it is.
Do you see already good practises?
I could name some things but i always feel a bit reluctant to answer this question about best practises. One of the flaws in the old system that we are trying to break away from, is that you can come up with a practise or a process that can be scaled up and that becomes big. Then what happens is that it ends up being a checklist. This place did this and that, here is the how-to manual. The minute you move into that direction you stop thinking and you stop connecting to the uniqueness of that specific place.
So no examples?
‘There is this company called the Regenesis group. One of the fundamental principles of regenesis thinking is the notion of singularity. Every single person, plant and place is unique. You work with that uniqueness rather then with what is common. You can take the principles but the practise itself has to emerge from the conversations, the thinking and the interactions rooted in the local. There is no formula in nature. There are certain principles. That’s the beauty.
The Regenesis group are architects, they were called in for example to help a resort developer in Costa Rica interested in sustainable building. But what they did is take it a step further, starting from the question: how can we help the place become healthier and more productive, a place where people live longer and happier. They also built a school on this principle, a farmers market, etc. They completely change how produse is made, how businesses grow out of the environment. So it isn’t just architecture, it’s about how to make a thriving community.
So it’s rather the principles we should honor than the concrete practises.
You can’t sell transformation
One of the megatrends for 2018 is personal fulfilment. Do you see this as an opportunity or rather as something to be careful with.
(sighs) I wrote a text some years ago, it had as a title: transformation beware. Over the last few years what we have seen is that people have grown in affluence in the Western world. With that growth in affluence people have come to realize it doesn’t satisfy them. There is now a real interest in asking deeper questions. This is a normal stage in Maslow’s hierarchy: when you move up from needing to be fed, needing to be loved, needing to be recognized, you come at this moment when you say: is that all there is? It’s the moment of looking for meaning and purpose. Often it takes the form of some sort of midlife crisis (laughs).
On a society level the same thing happens. In tourism people are not buying products, they are having an experience. So people went into adventure travel, which is an outer experience: can I push my limits? This has been going on for a while: adventure travel is something I wrote about in the seventies!
What happened since then is that the adventure moved from the outer to the inner: how can I find out what I can be, how can I push that. So we had the trend from yoga to drugs and back, the whole countercultural thing.
Now we have the millennial generation who want to be transformed by the experience. This is all well and good but the only thing I’m concerned about is that these are marketers who are busy with all this. Ninety percent of the people involved in tourism are marketers. Their job is to spin the story to take your need and turn it into something that can be sold. Personal transformation is personal, it’s inner. You cannot offer a transformation, maybe you can offer some conditions in which transformation could occur. It worries me when people offer ‘transformative’ experiences because that word will get so debased from its value.
So you are not happy with the trend of transformational journeys?
There is a travel movement, particularly in America, associated with travel for social impact and travel for transformation. I have to say: it concerns me. The idea that you can justify traveling around the world in making it a better place, by meeting with the locals and being responsible and having a transformative experience... well I’m sorry but that’s just justification for an indulgence really.
I’m not against traveling of course but don’t try and make out that you going around the world and dispensing pencils in schools is transformative to either you or the other party. You aren’t necessarily questioning the fundamental nature of who you are and your relationship to everyone else. You can stay in your backyard and be transformed.’
So what should we aim for?
‘I think we need to focus our attention on the host. How do we enable hosts to have confidence in their own transformation? In their relationship with the place they live in? Their sense of love for it, their awareness of it, their desire to express it in authentic ways to come across. Therefore it doesn’t matter where it is, it will be the encounter between the guest and the host, between the guest and the place, that will have the power to be transformative. You can’t fix or standardize it.
As a result people can be empowered in their community to want to interact with each other and move out of their silo’s and link up schools and hospitals and old peoples homes. If you can engage all that talent into ‘how do we welcome people’, then tourism will be incredibly enriched. That’s the vision. Then you have created something that is worth sustaining. It doesn’t have to grow, it just has to live.’
So tourism could be about empowering communities?
(knodds) ‘And if you want some math to go with that, look at this: five percent of what a visitor spends stays in the local community. So out of a hundred dollars, only five dollars stays in the local community. At the moment the goal is to increase the hundred dollar to 110, 120 maybe, but you still only get five percent of that going into the community, and in the meanwhile you’ve got an awful lot of people wondering around. If, on the other hand, you say: we are going for an impact of 5 percent to 20 percent, you wouldn’t have to have any more people at all.
It’s plane common sense really, and yet we are not thinking like that.
Why aren’t we thinking like that?
Have you ever seen the cartoon of Mickey Mouse with the swirling water barrels? He’s trying to become a magician and he thinks that if he can learn the spell, he could get the water barrels to go to the well all by themselves, fill up and do the job for him. Of course what happens is that he learns the spell to turn it on but not to turn it off. That’s where we are at.
I feel like going to the conference in Sweden next week, playing the cartoon and saying: any questions?
We have learned how to turn tourism on and now we don’t know how to turn it off. Tourism is growing exponentially, it will have doubled in a decade from now. The demand is like a tsunami, it’s going to crush us all, but we don’t know how to turn it off now.’
To touch base again back here in Brussels: you have been involved in the trajectory Tourism Transforms, what’s your view on that?
I’m very pleased with the work that Flanders is doing. The right questions are being asked. What does transformation look like? What does transformation mean for people? People have gone out to collect stories and try to see patterns. That’s really good. If people in their communities start to have conversations with each other, things can start to grow. Conversations are the essence of storytelling, but it’s also about deep listening. Out of that listening interactions and new ideas will certainly emerge.
The only thing to beware of of course is to come up with a fixed recipe.’ (smiles)
One last thing. What questions do you think the people working on the future of tourism in Flanders should be occupied with?
(thinks for a moment) ‘When do you feel most alive as a person? What are the conditions when you feel alive. Then move forward from that: if you run a small company, what can you do to help your people feel alive. Do you know what makes them feel alive? Having those kinds of conversations are important. Often people haven’t even thought about it at all.
Our current culture doesn’t encourage self-reflection but it is so powerful.’
We do seem to be arriving at a time where self-reflection is becoming a part of our lives, that’s encouraging wouldn’t you say?
‘Very encouraging!’ (smiles)
Eva De Groote of 'Handelsreizigers in ideeën' for the trajectory Tourism Transforms