I have a reputation for having what would be called a pretty “alternative” perspective on the tourism industry. In the main, it is an extractive industry and we should treat it with the same degree of wariness we would any of the other extractive industries; and while all that may sound a bit radical, it is an opinion that’s been around for a while. At the launch of the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in 1994, Sir Colin Marshall, former chair of British Airways, defined the tourism and travel industry as “…essentially the renting out for short-term lets of other people’s environments…” funnily enough, a definition that doesn’t often see the light of day; And yet, despite all the emphasis on eco and/or sustainable tourism development over the intervening 24 or so years, little has changed.
But given the scale of the growth the industry is seeing, 1 billion tourists in 2012 and 1.3 billion in 2017 according to the UNWTO, something does have to change. The recent McKinsey report for the World Travel & Tourism Council is called “Coping with Success”. That word ‘coping’ is reactionary, rarely ever used in a positive way and most often when dealing with situations that are out of control. You have to think maybe we should have started with something called ‘Planning for Success’, then we wouldn’t have to ‘cope’ with it. Maybe that’s what needs to change.
I was recently asked to be the keynote speaker at a series of three symposiums, put on by the Central Counties Tourism organisation (RTO6) in Ontario, to give some insight into how we in Loop Head Tourism, a community-based destination management organisation I had helped to co-found in 2009, had planned and developed a different type of destination, how we had organized ourselves, the successes we had had and what advice would we offer to other communities who wanted to take charge of their own tourism development destiny. It is to the credit of the team at Central Counties that their wishes were to engage and empower the communities within their care, instead of dictating from the top down as to what should or should not happen in those communities, a refreshing approach to say the least and one that bears repeating.
It was to be a forty-five-minute presentation followed by a Q&A session afterwards. Now, anyone who knows me knows that talking is a particularly strong suit of mine, so I thought ‘no problem, however, I didn’t realize how many words go into a 45-minute speech. I do now…6,700 to be precise. I also hadn’t thought about how much introspection would go into preparing for it. It was a profoundly interesting time for me to sit back and assess critically what we had done, its impact and to look at what learning’s there were that could be passed onto other communities who wished to be more in control of their own tourism development.
In the 1950s a guy called Taiichi Ohno devised the famous Toyota Production System. In one of his best-known quotes, he said we should “ask ‘why’ 5 times about every matter” to get to the root cause of a problem.
He used the example of a welding robot breaking down to demonstrate the usefulness of his method;
- “Why did the robot stop? “The circuit has overloaded, causing a fuse to blow.
- “Why is the circuit overloaded? “There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
- “Why was there insufficient lubrication on the bearings?” The oil pump on the robot is not circulating sufficient oil.
- “Why is the pump not circulating sufficient oil?” The pump intake is clogged with metal shavings.
- “Why is the intake clogged with metal shavings?” Because there is no filter on the pump.
I believe the converse is also true, that if we undertake a similar process before we begin any tourism development, we can plan out an industry that will avoid problems occurring in the future.
There is no doubt that tourism can deliver economic benefits to host communities; however, there is considerable doubt that the current system of tourism development is actually doing this.
In short, we need to change what we are doing. We have to look at what has been successful elsewhere, and then use that learning to capacity build and empower other communities so they are able to create their own destination. My experience with Loop Head, and others has led me to believe that local stakeholders need to be brought through a system of workshops that will deliver this.
I call it “Persistent Enquiry”. It builds up the layers of information for a community so they get a solid understanding of how tourism can deliver the maximum benefit for them.
Thus, Persistent Enquiry can design out the potential flaws.
The first question many communities ask is…How can we get more tourists? indeed many local and regional development agencies ask the same question and the operators on Loop Head, myself included, were no different…but it is the wrong question to start with.
We need to start with a different one…. Why do we need tourists?
We then need to work our way through another 4
- Where & When
- Why do you want tourism?
This is the most important question; the answer provides a guide for every other question. It essentially creates the ‘vision’ statement for the destination.
The reasons on Loop Head, farming is becoming more intensive, fewer jobs, our fishing industry is dead, we are too are away from transport hubs for industrial investment, and our connectivity is too poor for the IT sector. Our population is declining and as a result investment in infrastructure both physical and societal is a low priority for the government, and getting lower, low population = low votes! Tourism seems to be the only viable option. So we want tourism, but, the answers to the question have also defined a role for it, it has a job to do, to replace fishing and farming in providing economic benefit, basically jobs, to the area…. and we also realized it had the capacity to drive inward investment, both private in the shape of entrepreneurs, and the public, in the shape of public infrastructure which could support the industry development needs.