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In making decisions related to tourism, it's important to consider social impact, storytelling, and sustainability. | Photo by Justin Bautista on Unsplash

Social Impact + Storytelling + Sustainability: The Win-Win-Win Tourism Solution


Published on July 8, 2020


Throughout the global lockdown, countless organizations and industry bodies developed guidelines and playbooks for the “new normal.” Understandably, destination representatives and travel service providers want a road map for operating in the months and years to come.

Making mindful, forward-thinking decisions related to tourism can easily be summarized in three key phrases: social impact, storytelling, and sustainability.

The suggestions outlined by the World Travel & Tourism Council, UN World Tourism Organization, and others offer a foundation from which tourism professionals across the globe and supply chain can start getting back to business. I understand and appreciate the value of these universal guiding principles.

However, I would argue that making mindful, forward-thinking decisions related to tourism can easily be summarized in three key phrases: social impact, storytelling, and sustainability. (For the sake of COVID-19, we could add one other “s” for the foreseeable future: sanitization.)

With a critical eye toward these three key concepts, those working in tourism can build and promote an economically viable industry while placing an emphasis on people and the planet.

Let’s break this down, shall we?

Social Impact

What this means:

Social impact is the effect that actions and activities have on the well-being of a community. It generally refers to a significant, positive change that happens by addressing environmental, social, and cultural issues.

It’s important to note the idea of “a community” in this definition: While social impact initiatives, organizations, and projects tackle global issues (like human trafficking, food waste, and deforestation), they do so with a hyper-local lens. This means the solution is developed from the ground up with locals’ input and a consideration of local challenges and context.

Social impact initiatives, organizations, and projects tackle global issues with a hyper-local lens.

Putting a hard focus on social impact has a double benefit in the tourism industry: Locally empowered solutions that bump up against tourism position travel as more than just a “leisure” activity. They also address global concerns that have a wider ramification. And, using social impact as a way to educate travelers and support local communities has long-lasting financial effects long after travelers have returned home.

Though social impact has a positive connotation, the tourism industry should consider its overall impact on the people and places with which it intersects. Some of these impacts are visible and obvious (such as overtourism). Others are largely unknown and unrecognized by travelers. These are called “invisible burdens” and include issues such as water scarcity and waste management.

For tourism to be a so-called “force for good,” it can’t operate in a vacuum. It’s imperative that tourism professionals consider the ripple effects of their offerings across all aspects of the tourism supply chain and ecosystem. They need to take responsibility for their impact and put plans into action that mitigate negative consequences and amplify local benefits.

At the core of all of this is that key piece of social impact — the local community. A recent paper focused on local solutions for climate resilience highlights the importance of local people in driving impact. When given agency to drive meaningful change, local communities approach problems with a holistic approach, generate more equitable results, and have higher social, economic, and environmental returns.

Because tourism is inherently tangled up in the space it occupies, the industry must consider social impact in all of its decision making.

Questions to ask:

  • What are the environmental and social challenges in this destination?
  • What local organizations are addressing these challenges, and in what way?
  • How can we support these organizations?
  • How can we make travelers aware of the invisible burdens of tourism in a way that activates positive change?
  • What can we learn from local social impact projects that allow us to be changemakers in and support our own communities?
  • How can we build social impact projects into the story we share about this destination?

Examples:

> Global Himalayan Expeditions (GHE) is a social impact tour company that leads treks in India to install solar grids and provide electrification for remote mountain communities. Travelers go on a multi-day hike to reach these villages, help install the grids, and participate in a two-way dialogue to learn about local lifestyles and traditions. For their part, locals in newly electrified villages are able to adopt healthier, more environmentally friendly habits, more economic opportunities emerge, and youth are choosing not to migrate to larger cities.

> The Great Barrier Reef’s Coral Nurture Program takes advantage of the vast tourism infrastructure — and tour operators’ local knowledge — to mitigate damage to Australia’s coral reef. This program piggybacks on tourism to implement localized reef recovery and adaptation interventions, which must be localized due to the reef’s size and diversity. Because tour operators come into contact with countless travelers, they’re able to use this opportunity to create awareness about coral damage and the climate crisis.

BONUS: Download the free Invisible Cities case study.

> Invisible Cities raises awareness of the homelessness problem in the United Kingdom while empowering people who have experienced homelessness to become walking tour guides in their own cities. This social enterprise economically supports formerly homeless people, educates local residents throughout the United Kingdom, and provides tourists with a new way of visiting a destination.

Storytelling

What this means:

Tourism is often packaged as “pristine” and “perfect” — a way to “escape” reality. But there isn’t a place or experience that actually fits this “perfect” definition. Life is inherently messy, but that’s also what makes it interesting and rich. It’s this complexity that also makes travel worthwhile. If everything was as mundane as our lives at home, there wouldn’t be any reason to travel.

Life is inherently messy, but that’s also what makes it interesting and rich.

There are two separate things to consider here: First, there is nothing wrong with people wanting to take a relaxing holiday, but simply landing in a place without any historical or cultural context paints a two-dimensional destination that doesn’t accurately represent it. This is not only dishonest but can be downright destructive.

Secondly, people are increasingly interested in having more “authentic” experiences (a problematic term in its own right, but we’ll let it slide here) and are looking for chances to learn about and from destinations and the people who live there.

Instead of hiding behind a sanitized story, the tourism industry needs to embrace the diversity and complexity that is woven into the fabric of life. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable and difficult to embrace this mixed mindset, especially if you represent a destination. But, again, if tourism truly is a “force for good,” then those working in the space have to be willing to grapple with and find ways to tell meaningful stories. Just as they celebrate those uncontroversial historical and cultural touch points like food and art, they have to be willing to engage in conversation about issues like racism and oppression.

This powerful article recently published in The Telegraph highlights a key point when it comes to storytelling in tourism: “Enjoying a city and knowing its history aren’t mutually exclusive.”

Questions to ask:

  • What message are we trying to convey?
  • What historical, cultural, and environmental stories do we avoid telling about this destination and the people who live here?
  • Do we have a diverse array of people and perspectives included in the conversation?
  • How can we empower those who have been oppressed to tell their own stories?
  • How can we turn learning opportunities into engaging, memorable experiences tied to people and place?
  • How can we work with local tourism partners to piece together a thematic story?

Examples:

> Mejdi Tours embraces a multiple-perspective approach to its offerings. This means that, in many of the destinations where it operates, the company uses two guides and incorporates conversations with a wide variety of local people, including religious leaders, activists, academics, artists, policymakers, and refugees. Each of these people brings a different perspective to the conversation. This complicates the narrative and creates the conditions for deeper understanding and appreciation of a destination and the people who live there.

> Alabama’s Road to Freedom self-guided itinerary outlines several destinations that help tell the story of slavery in America. Instead of encouraging travelers to cram centuries of racist history into a single must-see stop, this multi-day itinerary includes a variety of nationally funded sites, museums, cemeteries, churches, and memorials that all offer a different perspective into this violent and often untold story in the United States.

> Most people walk into a museum and take it for granted that what they see is indisputable fact. Uncomfortable Art Tours challenges that notion at six museums in London. These tours focus on how colonialism shaped the United Kingdom and the museums’ collections, which largely tell a one-sided story.

Sustainability

What this means:

The idea of sustainable tourism is often incorrectly considered a “type” of tourism, but it’s really about applying sustainable practices to the travel context. “Sustainability” means something can be maintained at a certain level or rate. Applied to tourism, this means the impact of transportation, accommodation, interactions, and other travel-related activities do not have a negative effect on the environment, society, or economy. Tourism should do no harm and, ideally, it should have a positive impact on people, the planet, and profits.

Tourism is a multifaceted and complicated industry. Pre-pandemic, it employed approximately 10 percent of the world’s workforce, but it has deep ripple effects in tangential industries. It touches urban and rural spaces from the deep sea to the highest mountains on all seven continents. It bumps into every group of people imaginable. And it isn’t concentrated in a single place: The very act of travel spans a wide variety of destinations as people move from one location to another.

Tourism should do no harm and, ideally, it should have a positive impact on people, the planet, and profits.

When you think about the enormity of tourism’s footprint, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But overlaying sustainability principles on a tourism framework isn’t impossible if you take one step at a time and proceed with mindfulness and humility.

The concept to keep at the forefront of all things travel is this: Do no harm. Even better: Do good as directed by local people.

Over the years, travelers have embraced a sense of entitlement. Their dangerous and destructive behavior was accepted (and sometimes encouraged) in the name of financial gain. Yet, every traveler is a visitor in someone else’s home. Those working in the tourism industry need to establish protocols, guidelines, and expectations about what that means, and they need to be clear about the consequences if travelers engage in harmful behavior.

There is an unspoken belief that people should actively engage in sustainable behavior when they travel, but this assumes people know and understand what that means. It also assumes they care enough to actively pursue the idea of no harm. While many people specifically seek to be more sustainable when they travel, the responsibility of making sustainable tourism the norm must lie with those in the industry. If sustainability in tourism is established as the norm, travelers have no choice but to engage in it by default.

Questions to ask:

  • Does our travel-related product or service do harm to the environment, society, or economy?
  • How can we mitigate the damage we cause?
  • How can we encourage travelers to adopt more sustainable practices?
  • What can we do to model sustainable behavior for travelers?
  • What local initiatives can we learn from or partner with to appropriately benefit the places we operate and the people with whom we interact?
  • What do we need to measure to ensure our business is operating at a sustainable level while endorsing sustainable practices?

Examples:

> In 2019, Natural Habitat (Nat Hab) ran the world’s first zero-waste tour. This trip was carefully curated and monitored as a learning experience. Long known for its generosity in sharing what it learns with the wider tourism community, Nat Hab compiled 12 lessons for other tour operators based on this experience and zero-waste tips for travelers.

> The Faroe Islands developed a sustainability plan with intention focused on its people, environment, and economy. This plan clearly stated the travelers it wants to attract, involved local people in the decision-making process, and defined long-term initiatives and goals. The destination integrates tourism into its societal fabric without letting the industry define the country or its future.

> EcoCamp Patagonia is built around its environmental ethos, social commitment, and cultural preservation efforts. The local staff is invested in its eco-conscious efforts, which include using renewable energy and an organic composting system. While staying on site, travelers are encouraged to learn about Patagonia’s original inhabitants (namely the Tehuelche, Selk’nam, Yaghan, and Kaweskar) and participate in activities that have a minimal impact on the environment.

The Win-Win-Win Tourism Solution

The tourism industry can convene at meetings and draw up guidelines that clarify every detail on what to do and how to act. Everyone loves a checklist to make sure they’re doing the right thing.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t have to be that hard.

Each company, each destination, each individual working in this space only needs to consider three simple things to chart a better way forward: its social impact, its story, and its commitment to sustainability.

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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