Cracking the responsible tourism code

There is so much talk nowadays about responsible tourism. Several posts in the internet show ways by which people “trash” the places they visit. And trashing is not just about garbage. People also write graffiti, disrespect locals, defy rules and do whatever they want without the slightest thought about the consequences of their acts.

We also need to think that responsible tourism may not just be about tourists and how they behave when they travel. Responsible tourism is also about those who allow these people to act the way they do. It is also about control measures, policies, paradigms, safety nets and proper planning. It is about a choice to control the industry that has the potential to wreak havoc in our communities.

The following are just a few ways by which communities can promote responsible tourism.

1. Start with a plan
As a planner, I consider a dream project as a place that is starting out as a “clean slate”. This means that the destination managers, stakeholders and residents recognize the potential impact of uncontrolled tourism and wish to establish a road map that will align development along the path of sustainability.

Sadly, in the Philippines there are very few local leaders in government who are progressive enough in their approach, and would decide to have a plan first before launching their first promotional event or project. Often, promotions are done before the place is ready.

There were times when I had been approached by local governments that wish to solicit my assistance in coming up with a plan when the local industry is already in the midst of chaos. I call this the Boracay approach because that is how tourism happened in Boracay. “Promote now, plan later!” That island is doomed if the following plans are to be pursued: accept boatloads of tourists from the cruise industry, build the 500 room economy hotel near the airport and build a bridge that will connect the island to the mainland. I cannot understand why authorities and stakeholders are opting to further pump up demand, when what the island needs is to limit volume. Let the island breath people! It is at the brink of death!

2. Educate the locals
Any change that is introduced is almost always met with resistance. Tourism is an industry that is wrapped in many misconceptions. Even tourism officers who have no background in tourism think that it is merely about promotions, marketing and organizing events. Tourism is a complicated industry. Just take a look at the research conducted by experts in the field of tourism and you will realize that it is definitely not a simple industry. An extensive information campaign prior to any promotional effort should be conducted. It should focus on the potential of uncontrolled tourism to change the environment and the culture of a place, and how these may be prevented. Such efforts will reassure the people that steps will be taken to minimize negative impacts, and that local leaders are venturing into tourism development with their eyes wide open.

3. Protect the locals
Rural communities where the most outstanding natural and cultural assets are found are environmentally and culturally fragile. Hence, they should be protected. Policies should be more “protectionist” in nature and not too focused in “spoiling” big investors. Local leaders and destination managers should give particular attention to the protection of women and children who often end up getting victimized by human traffickers and drug syndicates. It should be noted that destinations are not only attractive to tourists, they also become magnets for syndicates and people with questionable intentions. They would often victimize tourists and/or local residents. ​

4. Educate the tourists
Tourists share the responsibility of taking care of the destination equally with the locals. The money paid for a tour or a service does not give the visitors the right to destroy the place. It is payment for the chance to experience all the positive things that the place could offer. Integrating environmental education in the visitor experience allows tourists to appreciate the rules that had been set for the local industry, as well as appreciate the sustainable practices that are being implemented.

5. Tame greed
Greed is a serious trap that many advanced destinations have fallen into. It blinds people to the principle of “shared resource and shared responsibility”. People who have managed to earn huge income from the industry sometimes end up thinking only about themselves and their businesses. Some end up dominating almost all the nodes in the local value chain, depriving those in the downstream end the opportunities to get on board, and also be part of development. They fail to look at the bigger picture and see how their decisions and choices affect the other members of the community, as well as the environment. They forget that they are part of the collective and that they need to project themselves spatially and temporally. Inter-generational thinking is something that we need to be aware of. Articulating what we truly value at this moment in time, and determining what we wish to leave for the next generation are two important things that we need to do. We also need to realize that sometimes impacts of one particular act can be far reaching, and even affect those who are physically located in distant places. As the saying goes,”Everything is connected to everything else”.

6. Redefine Filipino hospitality
Filipinos have this incredible brand that has persisted over the years. We have this “hospitable” label on our foreheads and the whole world knows about this “fact”. Although this may be a strength, it is also a weakness. I have met some backpackers who have “unmindfully” exploited locals because of our hospitable nature. We have to admit that most families in rural areas, especially those in remote locations are too trustful of strangers. This is most applicable when they encounter foreigners. Often, they end up giving priority treatment to a guest (even a total stranger) at the expense of their own needs and comfort. It is not uncommon to hear stories of families serving food that is reserved for the children to a guest, or offering their only bedroom, their softest mattress or best beddings. And they are embarrassed to charge rental.

I have met a rich backpacker who stayed and slept with a coastal community for more than two months. In his FB page he would boast of waking up to paradise and how he is most welcome by the “tribe” of the place. When I asked him if he paid any rental, he remarked, ”No because they are my friends.” This is clearly exploitation. When I asked the people he stayed with if they even mentioned any rental, they said that they could not make themselves to ask. To them it was embarrassing to do so. To me, it is not bad to be hospitable, but there has to be boundaries too. ​

​7. Go for low volume and high value approach to product development
The country has so many outstanding natural places. The sheer number of protected areas in the country is an indicator of how well endowed and fantastic our country is. Sadly, they are being invaded by hordes of irresponsible tourists. Some are even being promoted prematurely such that product/market fit is not attained. We need to remember that the tourism market is not homogenous. Market segments often do not mix. They are like oil and water. A place that is receiving an incredible volume of casual or mainstream visitors, including mass tourists will not be attractive to ecotourists or those who are looking for nature-based experiences, as well as peace and quiet. The latter market segment has higher level of awareness and people who belong to this category are generally more responsible in their behavior. Hence, it is more strategic to create high value products for outstanding destinations in order to control volume and attract only those who are willing to pay a premium for life enhancing experiences. This way, the integrity of the destination is not compromised for the sake of profit.

Being responsible means that all stakeholders in a destination, including visitors, will do their share in making sure that the local industry grows and operates within the limits that nature provides. Responsibly managing the many aspects of the destination, as well as the different dimensions of the industry will ensure that the next generation will be able to enjoy the things that we have learned to appreciate during our lifetime.

This article was originally published in Chen Reyes-Mencias’ blog, QuantumLight
All photos are by Chen Reyes-Mencias