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The tourism industry must do a better job of integrating into communities versus extracting their most palatable features for marketing purposes. | Photo by Xavier Smet on Unsplash

In Defining Destinations, We’ve Lost the Power of Place


Published on October 26, 2021


On the press page for Avani Hotels & Resorts, it says that the properties celebrated Earth Day 2021 “with stories of inspiration and caring for the environment through sustainable well-being.” According to the press release, for many years, the company has “committed to implementing eco-conscious initiatives focused on preserving the planet for future generations.”

Yet, that doesn’t appear to be the case at Avani Sepang Goldcoast Resort, which opened in the coastal town of Bagan Lagang, Malaysia, in 2014. According to an article published by Mongabay Bay, at the time, the Mah Meri Indigenous community was “restricted from entering or foraging in certain parts of the coastal area.” And, they continue to be forced off of land where they’ve lived for more than 500 years to make way for “eco-centric” tourism projects, the first of which is this Avani property.

Similarly, in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA), the Maasai people who have lived there for hundreds of years are facing increasing restrictions on their traditional livelihoods. These restrictions favor tourists, who are catered to with high-end safari lodges and infrastructure to admire native wildlife. Despite the influx in tourism money, NCA income spent on community development has dropped from 12.6% in 2014 to 4.8% in 2018.

The tourism industry has succeeded in flattening places so they are marketable, easy to understand, and appealing to travelers.

And in Hawaiʻi, a history of colonization that has upended Hawaiians sustainable subsistence culture has led to water shortages requiring local people to curb their usage while tourists are free to use as much water as they want.

Traveling is very much a place-based activity. Each place is distinctly unique from every other place: A city’s architectural style and classic food dishes came from somewhere. The language and music have a history. The land has been shaped by centuries of stewardship, conflict, colonization, capitalism, cohabitation, and conservation. And, of course, there are the people who live in this space — people who have both contributed to and been impacted by all of these forces.

Places are three-dimensional, complex, and diverse. They are living, breathing, evolving beings.

Yet, the tourism industry has succeeded in flattening places so they are marketable, easy to understand, and appealing to travelers. These travelers can rest assured knowing their holidays will be relaxing, comfortable, and fun.

We even have a name for these places: Destinations.

The tourism industry promotes "destinations" as if they are static beings, but places are more than areas contained by lines on a map. They evolve. They are shaped by the forces around them, and they encompass more than just a visual moment in time.

It is impossible to separate people from place. And, it is impossible to separate tourism from these places that travelers visit.

Stripping places of their complexities and repackaging them as “destinations” seems to have given the tourism industry a pass when it comes to parceling out pieces of a highly interconnected, and diverse ecosystem. It’s given the industry permission to highlight the aspects it deems beautiful in the moment — the stunning scenery, the cozy accommodations, the delicious food — without taking responsibility for the negative impacts it has had on places and the people who have lived there for generations.

But, it is impossible to separate people from place. And, it is impossible to separate tourism from these places that travelers visit.

It is increasingly obvious that nothing exists in isolation, and everything is intimately interconnected. The global ecosystem is struggling from a myriad of challenges, but it isn’t technology or money that will solve these problems. We can look back in history and see very clearly that regenerative practices creates resilience, supports biodiversity, builds healthy communities, creates abundance, and cultivates a thriving planet for all beings. Further, nature-based climate solutions are powerful, but only when they recognize that people are not separate from place and nature is not something to be used with a one-way frame of reference.

Tourism has the potential to be a partner for helping individual communities and the world as a whole overcome many of its challenges. But in order to do that, the tourism industry must accept, celebrate, and support places in all their complexity and vibrancy. 

The tourism industry must acknowledge the harm it has done and commit to doing better, starting with a commitment to see beyond the flattened definition of “destinations” and recognize the power of place.

When local people, their needs, and their desires are prioritized, communities flourish. And when communities flourish, they don’t have to put on a façade to please travelers.

It must acknowledge the people who call a place home — the people who are the true stewards of the land — and it must prioritize their needs and desires. It needs to remember that wilderness areas and natural landscapes that it seeks to protect are likely someone else’s generational classroom, home, and garden. Even if it means well when introducing travelers to these areas, the tourism industry must seek guidance from local communities on how tourism can meaningfully support sustainable initiatives in a place. 

It must work with all stakeholders, but especially ensure that those who are rarely heard — those who must be heard — are accommodated so that they not only have a seat at the proverbial table but that their voices are not overpowered by those with more money, clout, and technology.

It must stop framing places as something to be packaged up and sold. Rather, it must become a partner in protection and stewardship — a tool that can be used to further protect the land, the people, the history, and their stories rather than exploit them.

The tourism industry must understand how it is one part of a much larger ecosystem. It can support and be part of that ecosystem, but it can only do that by learning from, collaborating with, and learning to integrate within other spheres of life. Tourism’s global reach and multi-faceted presence means that it must complement regenerative agriculture, transportation, infrastructure, aquaculture, waste, and conservation practices.

Tourism should enhance places, not mold them into marketable destinations. It can not exist in a separate silo; it must be integrated into more comprehensive and holistic frameworks of sustainable living. When local people, their needs, and their desires are prioritized, communities flourish. And when communities flourish, they don’t have to put on a façade to please travelers.

This is a long game: Prioritizing place, people, and purpose over profit is far more sustainable than prioritizing profit above all else.

Regardless, the tourism industry must be willing to accept that, sometimes, travelers are not welcome. It must be a partner to the communities it impacts; it can not sidestep them for the sake of the bottom line. This is a long game: Prioritizing place, people, and purpose over profit is far more sustainable than prioritizing profit above all else.

Sometimes, the tourism industry must do the uncomfortable thing by admitting it’s wrong. Sometimes, it has to take a financial hit when it needs to stop construction, step back, financially compensate communities it has harmed, and move on. Too often, those working in tourism have focused on action when it would be wise to listen, learn, reflect, and reframe the way it conducts business. The tourism industry needs to be a better ally for those people who have helped places thrive in the name of tourism.

Avani Hotels & Resorts and every other developer involved in the Bagan Lagang eco-centric development needs to press the pause button. Businesses operating within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area need to reassess how their presence is impacting the Maasai people and work with local communities with intention. Anyone traveling to Hawaiʻi needs to ask themselves how and why they are visiting, and any company operating there needs to ensure it appropriately acknowledges and supports local communities.

The tourism industry can do all of this and still deliver an incredible experience for travelers. In fact, it can do all this and deliver an even better experience for travelers than what currently exists.

But it can not do any of this if it doesn’t look beyond “destinations” and return to the power of place.

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is a writer, public speaker, solutions advocate, and founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, storytelling, and social impact. Get in touch with her for partnership and collaboration opportunities.


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