20 years ago I got involved in something that people thought was a bit odd. Most didn't understand what I was talking about or why they should join in.
It was called 'Considerate Hoteliers of Westminster', a group of hoteliers in London who wanted to reduce their environmental impact. I was supposed to promote the group's activities and recruit new members. At the time the main message seemed to be that they could save money if they saved water. This was the early days of those little cards encouraging guests to re-use their towels and putting 'hippos' in toilet cisterns. The hoteliers cared about the environment but they were mainly motivated by their bottom line.
I've no idea where the name of the group came from. 'Considerate' just made them all sound polite and well-mannered, which was largely true. Most of the members managed 4* and 5* hotels, older men dressed in impeccable Saville Row suits, incapable of walking past a cushion without plumping it. I'm not sure that we achieved a great deal but the meetings always included excellent cake. It was an uphill battle to involve others - there never seemed an easy way to explain what we were trying to do.
In the years since then the terminology has changed and responsible tourism has become more mainstream, The bottom line may still be the main motivation for some, but in the meantime the environment has come to the fore. Progress has been painfully slow. Many are only just starting to think about the connection between tourism and climate change.
There are many reasons why progress has been slow but there are two we can actually do something about right now
First of all - the waggy finger, the I-know-more-than-you terminology, and competitive environmentalism. I first heard the term 'waggy finger' from Tim Smit, creator of the Eden Project. He pointed out that many environmentalists were seen as hectoring, lecturing on what people 'should' do. Tim Smit preferred to bring the issues alive and give people a good time as they learnt about them at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Most of us switch off when someone says, 'you should...' whatever the topic.
What do you call 'good tourism' - the kind that respects the environment? The terminology has been problematic, and keeps changing. If you're not very sure how to talk about something without getting it wrong, what do you do? Exactly - you avoid it. So we've not talked about 'sustainable tourism', 'environmentally-friendly tourism', 'eco tourism', or 'responsible tourism' as much as we should (oops). I recently asked some industry colleagues how they now refer to it and there was no agreement on one specific term. In fact, additional terms like 'regenerative tourism' were even suggested. With this in mind, I'm going to stick to basics and refer to it as 'good tourism'.
But is it as 'good' as it could be? No. It could always be better. And that's part of the problem. I've noticed an increasing tendency towards competitive environmentalism. 'What, you only recycle those few materials? Oh, I do so much more'. 'You shouldn't buy fast fashion anymore. It's much better to simply not buy anything and re-wear your clothes more often. Or even better do as I do, and make your own on a hand-powered sewing machine using old newspapers and discarded sheep's wool.'
In the light of these kind of conversations, it can be tempting to just want to walk away. Knitting with yoghurt will only get you so far.
The second reason for slow progress is that many people want to do something but are not really sure what to do. They've been lectured, they've had fingers pointed at them, they feel they're using the wrong language, and they've been told they're not doing enough. But what can they actually do?
Five simple things every tourism business can do right now
I'm no expert but would like to suggest five very simple things every tourism business can do right now. They'll help save the planet and please many 'good' visitors.
1. Be aware of what makes your area different. That sounds obvious but not everyone can talk knowledgeably about their local distinctiveness and sense of place. We travel and go on holiday to relax, and to experience something different, so local distinctiveness is really important. It's the small details that mark one place out from another. If we can encourage visitors to see those differences, they'll really appreciate our individual areas and be ready to spend more time, uncovering them.
Tell people about the quirky stories and details of local buildings, show them where the best walks are, point out the flowers or trees that others wonder at, explain local customs and traditions. Direct visitors to places where they can enjoy locally made food and drink, and see work by local artists and craftspeople. This might not sound like a big contribution to saving the planet, but you're helping others to appreciate your area, and cutting down on their travel.
2. What are your 'doorstep delights'? What are the special treasures and places of interest not far from where you are? Look at the bedroom browsers in accommodation and brochure display racks in many information centres, and attractions and you'll be able to pick up information and leaflets for places that are miles and miles away. Some may be worth the journey but there's equal validity in the places on your doorstep that are less discovered. Add this information to your website - make it easier for visitors to find.
3. What local suppliers and environmentally friendly products do you use in your business? Can you list them? Drawing up a definitive list helps you think of other things you could do, and reassures visitors that you're trying to do all you can. Displaying this kind of information is already more popular, so it's going to become more expected.
4. Can you provide better information about car-free travel in your area? What other information will help visitors to cut down their carbon-footprint, without nagging them to do so? What activities would help visitors see and enjoy your area without getting in a car?
5. Some visitors like to be part of payback or carbon-offsetting schemes, or make a contribution towards local projects. What local options can you suggest?
Each of these suggestions will only have a small individual impact, yet taken together they all accumulate to lessen the impact of tourism on the environment - and make sure visitors enjoy their time spent in your area.
What other measures do you suggest, to encourage 'good tourism' and reduce the negative impacts of tourism?
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Please note: all articles are copyrighted Susan Briggs