Every year, tourism professionals converge at massive industry events like World Travel Market, ITB Berlin, and FITUR. And every year, I watch from afar, not all that envious about missing out.
Yes, these trade shows and conferences are important networking events, and a who’s who of tourism is always present. But when it comes down to pinpointing the interactions and conversations that spark meaningful ingenuity and insight, these big events don’t seem to create the ideal conditions. From the stage, C-suite executives are far removed from the actual people who live in the places travelers visit, their perspectives and understanding of place, and the experiences they want and are able to offer visitors.
By its very nature, tourism is big: People travel across countries and around the world. Transportation takes hours to traverse entire continents, even when moving more than 500 miles per hour. Cruise ships are nothing short of small cities carrying thousands of passengers. Hotel chains have dozens of brands, thousands of properties, and millions of rooms in nearly every country. It’s an industry that employs 10% of the world’s population.
The language we use to describe this space is also oversized and, therefore, often doesn’t describe anywhere and anything specific at all. Distinctive and ever-evolving places are “destinations.” The diverse mix of people spanning a spectacular array of identities living in a place are “locals.”
Even, as my colleague Celes Davar pointed out in a recent exchange, the word “industry” has led to the commoditization of tourism and all that entails — increased volumes, quantitative KPIs, and the capitalization of growth — while ecological, social, and cultural impacts are treated as economic externalities. Tourism is not (or should not) be these things.
Instead, as Davar noted: “(Tourism) is a relationship between host communities/businesses welcoming and inviting travelers to come, to learn, and to potentially be transformed by encounters within the community, initiated by the community. By taking part in these encounters/experiences, travelers can leave potentially transformed and be advocates for these places, people, and what defines them culturally, artistically, and ecologically.” Financial benefits, Davar pointed out, are only one of many possible outcomes from tourism done well.
This is all to say, those of us working in tourism often think and work on a large scale. (Yes, even me. And yes, I still use terminology like “destinations,” “locals,” and “industry” in my own work. I try to meet people where they are while also encouraging them — and myself, through my own work — to move toward more accurate and appropriate ways to communicate intention and meaning.)
But, high-quality (though not necessarily expensive) travel experiences are usually equated with intimacy, moments that feel personalized and unique, locally specific experiences, and personal transformation.
If these small, micro-moments are the bedrock of tourism’s success, perhaps there’s value in stepping back from our global focus and giving local, place-based stories, knowledge, and solutions more time and space.
As noted in a recent Ensia opinion piece about agriculture and food systems, writer Philip Loring notes that, when a potential solution to a problem surfaces, there’s a tendency to ask whether that solution can be scaled and implemented widely. Yet, Loring notes, “scalability as a value derives from an industrial way of thinking: that the best solutions are those that can be replicated and implemented widely, and that uniformity breeds efficiency and productivity.”
High-level conversations about topics like the climate, diversity, and access are relevant when it comes to creating awareness and offering operational building blocks for those working in tourism. These high-level, more macro issues seem to take the stage at global tourism events and overwhelm conversations about the purpose of travel and mission of those working within the space.
This overwhelmingly high-level perspective is also one of the main problems with certification schemes built on a checklist of criteria; their reductive nature often simplifies and overlooks highly place-based context.
Similarly, while blanket statements like “don’t fly” and “don’t eat meat” are often made with good intentions, they fail to acknowledge the diverse nature of the world we live in. These statements risk alienating those people living with other logistical and cultural realities. Instead, we should be open to listening to people, their perspectives, and their ideas for addressing macro issues like the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, gentrification, overconsumption, accessibility, and equality through a more nuanced and locally focused lens.
When it comes to creating and supporting the place-based ecosystems within which travel experiences happen, the tourism community needs to make more space for relational thinking and locally focused questions, concerns, solutions, and ideas.
Herein lies the value of global tourism industry spaces, which can be used more thoughtfully to showcase case studies and destination-specific tourism practices alongside the typical menu of high-level topics. That is, reflecting upon what people in a variety of places have done and learned — and using the high-level information and skills that currently lead industry conversations — how can local people working in travel-related positions honor their unique situation, culture, and history in a way that creates a well-rounded place to live and, secondly, a compelling place to visit?
We ought to ask “whether a practice works in and for specific people and places, and whether it can align with or enhance existing culturally valued practices and systems in other places,” Loring writes. “‘Is this approach in harmony with the people and other living things in this region?’ ‘Does it work with or against the goals and needs here?’ And so on.”
The recently held Furneaux Futures Forum is a great example of what this can look like in the “event” format. As noted by Dianne Dredge on LinkedIn, people living in this group of Australian islands were not eager to be told what to do by outsiders. This event, which included conversation on topics related to tourism, agriculture, and business, is “designed to encourage entrepreneurship and business development throughout the Furneaux Islands community.” It offered space for more than a dozen local people to “present their vision of the future” with regeneration and holistic community care at its core. After all, these islands are their home. They hold their history, their culture, their stories, and their knowledge. Who better to share their understanding of this place and their vision of the future in this place than local people?
If we’re looking for a regenerative route forward in tourism, it won’t be found in the form of a silver bullet or one-size-fits-all blueprint. Nor will it be found in tourism-centric spaces. Rather, it will be found in forums highlighting the ideas and individuality, encounters and interactions, and challenges and solutions that prioritize local people and a holistic appreciation of the places they call home.
As suggested by Loring, “In certain circumstances, the question of scalability may indeed be relevant and useful. But given the high stakes of problems like climate change, it’s time to move away not only from the technologies that have failed us, but the ideologies on which they are based as well.”