There’s a lot of talk about developing a better future for tourism. This is a vision of tourism that encourages participation from communities and adheres to strict sustainability standards. This is a model that supports local residents and protects the integrity of a place over profit. It aggressively mitigates carbon emissions and minimizes the negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts.
These are all worthy and important steps for reducing and even reversing the harm and damage caused by generations of exploitative and extractive tourism practices.
Yet, all of these actions are weakened if they aren’t matched with mindful, responsible communications practices.
The fact that communication is so ingrained in everything we do is exactly the reason why we need to specifically recognize and address it when conceptualizing and implementing any tourism practices.
People and companies are in communication all the time, so it’s not surprising that we as individuals and the tourism industry in general overlook this key piece in reframing tourism’s scope. Yet, the fact that communication is so ingrained in everything we do is exactly the reason why we need to specifically recognize and address it when conceptualizing and implementing any tourism practices.
We communicate with others through spoken and written words, imagery and video, body language and non-verbal cues, oral storytelling, and music and other visual and auditory arts. We send messages based on what we emphasize, de-emphasize, and don’t communicate at all. Who is allowed to communicate and under what conditions, the impact of power dynamics, and accessibility are also tied up in this. Making space to listen and hear what is being communicated shouldn’t be overlooked either.
I’ve worked in various communications capacities with countless travel-related companies over the years, and for the most part, they mean well in the work they do and the services they offer. Yet, they often don’t realize the impact their messaging choices have on other people, the environment, and the places in which they work. And, they’re often surprised that their intended message is not always what they actually share with the world.
In the tourism context, communication considerations include everything from the storytellers a destination chooses to promote to being mindful about how the colonial gaze shapes marketing materials. These choices impact everything from how on-the-ground partnerships are developed to the stories travelers share with other people when they return home. Why and how travel service providers and destination representatives share stories can make a difference in traveler expectations and behavior, and whether local representation and agency is supported or oppressed.
Communication is also specifically related to how a more equitable, responsible tourism model is being scaffolded from within the industry. It determines who can access and participate in key conversations, how commitments are framed and communicated to external stakeholders, and whether messaging makes sense and is accessible to those it is intended to reach.
After generations of harmful tourism practices, it is promising to see momentum and interest in delivering more responsible and sustainable travel experiences.
Dismantling and rebuilding a tourism framework requires intentionally dismantling and rebuilding communication practices as well.
Unfortunately, all of these efforts are diminished if we don’t acknowledge the harm caused by current communications practices and intentionally prioritize more mindful messaging moving forward. Harmful tourism models are reinforced by harmful storytelling. Dismantling and rebuilding a tourism framework requires intentionally dismantling and rebuilding communication practices as well.
So far, I’m not seeing that happening at the scale needed for real change.
For example, the Future of Tourism Coalition has outlined 13 guiding principles, but nowhere on the page outlining them are the words “communication,” “messaging,” or “storytelling.” SUNx offers a climate-friendly travel diploma, but public-facing information about the program doesn’t note whether any content is dedicated to the role marketing and communications play in this space. A sample agenda for the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s three-day sustainable tourism training program doesn’t include dedicated time to discuss the role communication plays in supporting this tourism model either.
Communication and storytelling are built into every aspect of what we create, implement, execute, and support through the travel experience. However, without intentionally addressing storytelling’s role within the tourism ecosystem, the industry falls short in its commitment to building a better, safer, and more sustainable tourism model for the future.