What makes sustainable tourism, ‘sustainable’?
My team and I at MakeSense Philippines hosted a panel discussion yesterday, March 11, 2019 to talk about exactly that. We had speakers from the local sustainable tourism sector talk about their initiatives, best practices, and things to improve on for the sector. For this discussion, we focused on tours held in tribal communities.
It’s important to note that sustainability is nowhere near the realm of “simple”. When you talk about a sustainable kind of tourism, it becomes even more complex because now we’re talking about three sides of the equation: social, environmental, and economic impacts of tourism activities. In the case of sustainable tourism initiatives such as those highlighted in our panel discussion, there’s a lot of things to consider. However, there are nonetheless a few important things that need to be highlighted.
Impact assessment of sustainable tourism initiatives. It’s hard to measure impact. It’s still a young practice in itself. We can go very technical and quantitative about it, and we can also become qualitative. But one thing’s for sure, sustainable tourism activities would need to have a comprehensive set of impact metrics to measure their actual sustainability. From carbon footprint, plastic waste, higher income of the target community, number of trees planted, demographics of the community — you name it. There’s a lot to measure, and these kinds of initiatives would actually need to spend a lot to be able to track all these different kinds of impact.
But why measure impact in the first place?
For one, it lets the project or initiative know more if what they’re doing actually created changes in their communities. Since our panel discussion talked about sustainable tourism in tribal communities, they would need to know the social, environmental, and economic impacts that their initiative created for their target tribal communities.
One of the most commonly cited experiences in the initiatives when talking about social impact in tribal communities is how one interacts with the community. This brings us to…
Traveling etiquette in tribal communities. One important thing to note when visiting tribal communities is that you’re mainly there to visit. Realistically speaking, you’re not obligated to give donations or cash to these communities, because not only are these dole outs or unsustainable, they somehow create an ‘imbalance’ in the community.
What does it mean that it creates an ‘imbalance’? For one, it gives the tribal communities the impression that they can just rely on cash and donations from tourists all the time. When that happens, it’s going to become a cycle until the tribal communities would just become dependent on tourists for alms. While the hearts of the tourists are at the right place, that is honestly not the right time to give cash or donations. We would rather immerse ourselves in their culture, understand where they’re coming from, hear out their stories, and come home with fresh ideas on how we can contribute to this initiative. If you want to further get involved, you can simply join a relevant organization, volunteer your time, and create initiatives that will actually last long-term for these communities. The bottom line is to not rely on dole outs to help these communities — we’d rather help them through more sustainable ways.
Designing travel experiences that cater to both travelers and the targeted community. What’s unique about the projects and initiatives in our panel discussion is they have different designs and business models. One enterprise is focused on environmental preservation, a second on poverty alleviation, and the others on cultural immersion. One thing in common, however, is that they are all ultimately trying to design experiences that matter, experiences that promote social impact.
Another thing to note is that when designing sustainable tourism initiatives, it’s important to keep all your stakeholders in mind. For instance, in the case of one of the initiatives in the panel discussion, their focus is on providing a booking platform for impact-driven tours managed by local tour guides. It aims to give travelers local experiences.
In this sense, it goes beyond the traditional notion of travel wherein you go to a place to take Instagram-worthy shots or visit the most famous landmarks. You can say these are the types of tours that involve off the beaten tracks. But in this case, they are off the beaten tracks that promote social impact, and I think that’s beautiful.
Making sustainable tourism initiatives truly sustainable. This is not easy. The whole discussion around sustainability is not easy. What more if you’re going to actually make a sustainable tourism initiative a truly sustainable one?
I’ve been to a number of similar events and one of the running and typical questions when the open forum comes is on the aspect of the initiative’s sustainability. Let me be the one to address the elephant in the room that there can never be a “perfect sustainability”. All we can do is make the most of what we have.
To give a better perspective on this, one of the speakers in our panel mentioned positive and negative externalities. He explains that there can never be a perfect kind of sustainability because there are always externalities on both ends. This means that what we should be looking at instead is the net impact of sustainability once you’ve accounted for all the positive and negative externalities. It’s simple as saying, “There may have been negative things that happened, but when the overall result is positive, then we can consider that a success”.
At the end of the day, sustainability merits a ton of discussion and systemic thinking. I’m even confident to admit that what I talked about here merely scratches the surface of sustainability in tourism. There needs to be more discussion on this area. Lastly, if we’re going to be solving the challenges of our time, we’re going to need to think beyond and into the complex systems that make up these challenges.