Along with the biggest rebound in tourism to date since 2020, which has consumers rushing back to crowded destinations, the travel industry continues to look for ways to prevent a return to normalcy, and it does so by pushing the concepts of sustainability and regeneration.
But instead of embracing nebulous principles that few consumers understand and for which few companies offer solutions or act beyond words, global tourism must rethink its influential role as a business: avoid widespread use of “sustainability”, adopt initiatives locally and locally directed. -engineered solutions, define new metrics for success, undo the problematic entanglement between tourism and conservation, and break the Western mindset that plagues the industry.
Those are Dr. Mordecai Ogada’s recommendations on how tourism should “build back better.” A Kenyan carnivore ecologist and co-author of The Big Conservation Lie, Ogada will be presenting at Skift Global Forum in New York City this month.
“Sustainability is being used even in the scientific literature as a technical term, and we forget that it is just a subjective adjective; It’s like kindness, are you lovable? That subjectivity creates a problem, especially for tourism,” Ogada told Skift.
Ogada’s initial encounter with the extractive powers of the tourism industry came when he was manager of the Kenya Wildlife Trust in 2008, a government non-profit organization formed at the time in partnership with luxury safari camp brands. It’s an interesting story that he shares in his book.
Today, Ogada’s work with Survival International focuses on the impact of conservation activities on the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa, providing a boundless perspective on a turning point for the tourism industry emerging from the pandemic. Over the next decade, the annual growth rate of travel and tourism is projected to reach 5.8%, more than double the estimated growth rate for the global economy. But global inequality and social backsliding are also at an all time high.
Through the example of tourism’s undue influence on African host communities and their livelihoods, from conservation practices to Lion King-esque “art prints” suited to attracting Western travelers, Ogada lays out the key principles that they must guide the way of world tourism as an influential industry.
1. Tourism should avoid “sustainability” unless defined locally
Sustainability has long suffered from elitism, but if the industry is going to move into a more positive impact form of business, it needs to take into account local solutions as to what sustainability means to a specific host community.
“Someone might think that a guy who herds his goat is destroying the environment,” Ogada said, “but the same person who says that thinks that a tourist flying in from New York with a huge carbon footprint comes and sits here and see elephants and drink chilled champagne, it’s sustainable.”
This subjective nature of sustainability is also what drives some of the nonsensical solutions that have emerged, such as carbon offsets, Ogada said, adding that sustainability should therefore be avoided unless expressed in person. if you.
Tourism must work around what the locals determine to be their sustainable way of life, and tourists must be prepared to see the locals in their traditional surroundings because, ultimately, tourism as a business is not a sustainable endeavor. .
“For so long it has been insisted that tourism is a viable alternative to agriculture or other livelihoods, and then the pandemic came,” Ogada said. “What we can learn from that is that tourism is like haute couture, it is a fashion that changes every day and is very vulnerable to a pandemic or a financial collapse. Tourism is a good livelihood, but it must be additional, not alternative”.
2. New success metrics need to be prioritized, now
In 2021, Skift advocated for a new tourism performance metric that goes beyond arrivals and takes into account the true cost of tourism and benefits to host communities. The European Union announced its intention to shape new metrics to measure tourism success by early 2022, marking a turning point for the future of global tourism.
But there is no time frame yet on how soon new measures will emerge beyond heads in beds and airport arrivals, and whether other regions will be able to take a similar approach. Meanwhile, the consequences of the relentless persecution of the foreign visitor continue.
“The most important metric our government uses is the number of arrivals, like people who have come from outside,” Ogada said. “If I take my kids to Mombasa, I don’t show up in any metrics.”
That kind of approach places a premium on outsiders and their needs, Ogada added, some of whom have harmful needs, including sport hunting and child sexual exploitation.
“The moment you assess a foreigner, you expose yourself to a whole cocktail of potential problems.”
Beyond myopic tourist arrivals metrics, the way tourism is practiced is such that success is actually detrimental, Ogada said, citing the world-famous Masai Mara tourist destination as an example, which belies the untold problems with the accommodation density and off-roading. driving. “The great migration of wild beasts: everyone wants to get up close and get the best photos, and people are five meters from the animals, it’s terrible.”
The lack of qualitative metrics is what results in environmental damage, and the focus on numbers means that no one cares what tourists did, what damage they caused, or what their experience was like.
3. Tourism must place people at the center of the product
In her book, Ogada tells the story of how she came face to face with the reality of foreign tourism investors’ interest in Kenyan conservation, which was to the detriment of the host communities.
Not much has changed since then when it comes to selling African safari destinations and activities that serve the interests of the foreign visitor and investor, while the locals remain on the fringes of supply.
“There is very violent displacement right now in northern Tanzania; if the Tanzanian government decided to displace people to build a road or a government facility, human rights groups would take up arms,” said Ogada. “But the silence about displacement for conservation and tourism is deafening.”
Ogada links this latter phenomenon to the colonial roots of tourism and its growing influence.
“Colonialism celebrated Africa for its beautiful landscapes, its resources, its animals, but the people were always a problem, they had to be removed from the scene,” Ogada said. “There is no African person who has voluntarily left his home to make room for a national park; tourists should know that there were people living here.”
Taking neo-colonial tourism practices into account is imperative if the industry wants to “rethink” its path. “Rethinking tourism” is also the theme of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) World Tourism Day this year.
“The potential of tourism is enormous and we have a shared responsibility to ensure that it is fully realised,” Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO Secretary-General, said in a World Tourism Day statement, calling on “everyone from tourism workers to tourists themselves, as well as small businesses, large corporations and governments to reflect and rethink what we do and how we do it.”
The call to rethink tourism may have remained constant and strong for the past two years, and a handful of companies may be evolving their tourism offerings, but the colonial mindset that affects the way the industry operates hasn’t changed.
“What we are selling is a kind of Tarzan,” said Ogada, referring to tourism in Africa as an example. “We must put people at the center of the product, that is something that tourism agents and the countries themselves must do.”
4. The harmful marriage of tourism and conservation must end
In Kenya, tourism investors have considerable influence over how ecosystems are conserved. As a result, this marriage between tourism and conservation has become unhealthy over the years.
“Tourism must be deliberately distanced from conservation because it is a business,” Ogada said. “Once tourism has developed its policies, it can collaborate, but it should not be part of setting our standards.”
Conservation science also serves the interests of donors, who are increasingly capitalist, Ogada added. So the travel industry, as a business, needs to be much more skeptical of conservation groups and understand what agenda they are helping to push.
This includes the United Nations’ 30 by 30 agenda to save biodiversity by conserving 30 percent of the planet’s land and sea by 2030, an initiative that is likely to cause untold amounts of violence against indigenous populations living in these areas. who will face eviction.
The two industries of tourism and conservation must mature independently and then come to the table to collaborate, but one cannot continue to shape the other’s policies, Ogada said.
5. Tourism must demolish the “Tarzan mentality”
The pandemic debunked a number of myths about global tourism. One such myth was that tourism saves wildlife, Ogada said, noting that there was no increase in poaching anywhere because government-employed rangers were still working 24/7. the week, and the situation in the parks became very peaceful, while the wildlife thrived.
“A very important message for any tourist coming to Africa is to be welcome, come and see and participate in this, but remove from your mind any idea that you are saving them,” Ogada said. “These things existed before you and will be there after you.”
As travelers become more conscious and sophisticated, vote for inclusive brands with their pocketbooks, seek out hyper-localized experiences, and respond to marketing that represents them, the need to remove the art print of the “Lion King” of Africa, or other destinations suffering a similar fate, is an imperative, Ogada said.
It all goes back to demolishing the western mentality that pervades the industry, including those charged with “rethinking tourism” for the future. Travel leaders in the West speak of “giving the locals a voice”, in the Global South, for example. But the voices are not there, the voices are always there but they have been suppressed, Ogada said, adding that it is the suppression that must be recognized and eliminated.
“Giving Africans a voice is not about building anything in Africa, it’s about tearing down the wall in the West that keeps those voices out.”
It is a wall that, according to Ogada, crosses numerous fields worldwide, from science to business, education or conservation financing. The good news? Global tourism is critical to dismantling that western wall and what Ogada calls the “Tarzan mentality.”
“Tourism is where the mentality lives: you travel to all these other fields, but your home is tourism. If the tourism industry goes backwards, it will be a very powerful boost.”
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