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Innovators are designing the future

This is an article from the magazine ‘Travel to Tomorrow‘.

Our voyage of discovery in a world full of change is a quest to find the ingredients for a flourishing destination. Fifty people gathered for a two-day writing adventure. They reflected on the discoveries from studies, workshops, conversations and think-tanks. They identified four key elements for transformational tourism. Not as linear, consecutive steps but interwoven with one another. Transformation is not a linear process, as we learnt from the transition experts. The skill is to see what is shifting and support the things that are flourishing. We share our discoveries and reflections here. With all their imperfections and incompleteness.

The four key elements focus on raising awareness of the need to change, knowing that things can be different, that everything is connected and that everyone can have an impact. On this basis, you can take responsibility for ensuring the desired elements flourish and making a start wherever you can. We can only do this together. We have to collaborate. Because the best way to predict the future is to create it together. We find that connecting adds something special to an impactful tourist experience: people connect with people and people connect with the place.

Becoming aware

Becoming aware that things can be different and the willingness to change are key to the change process. How do we find confidence in the uncertain steps that we will take? What do we want to keep unchanged; what can change completely? What is going well already and what shall we retain for the future?

More aware travellers and tourism businesses

Tourism and other businesses are increasingly encountering consumers who are aware. More people are seeking a life that is meaningful for them and that also sustains a flourishing biosphere. The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) speaks of a growing group of cultural ‘creatives’ who have made a significant shift over the past few years in terms of world-view, values and culture. They attach greater value to the environment, human relationships, collaboration, peace, social justice, spirituality, personal growth and authenticity. These travellers demand more sustainable and ethical offers, making responsible choices whereby diversifying the supply. On the other hand, we also see socially and environmentally aware hosts.

Koen van den Bosch from the Association of Flemish Travel Agencies (VVR) admits that tour operators are becoming more aware of the need for sustainable holidays and that the offers are evolving. “Here, it is important to develop an affordable, sustainable offer. Research shows that the customer wants to travel more sustainably but on the condition that it doesn’t cost more.”

The fact that the tourist is seeking holidays that are more meaningful for him and the world, is crystal clear from trend reports too. Travelling is increasingly regarded as a method for personal growth and self-realisation. In one study, conducted by SKIFT among 1,350 travellers, 54% gave a value of 7 to 10 in relation to the importance of transformational travelling, while 52% indicated that this was becoming increasingly important to them. Transformation, expanding their world-view and learning are the top 3 motivations for the adventurous traveller, according to research from 2017.

What if we could use that power to change, that transformational power of travel, to make the world a better place and to create more sustainable tourism?

The 1,600 travel stories from our listening exercise made it clear that travelling can have a very positive impact on travellers and their environment. Yvette Reisinger from Temple University Philadelphia sees many opportunities. Travelling is a perfect activity for challenging us. Events, experiences and encounters on holiday require the traveller to take a different approach, think in a different way. Traveller and host/place have an impact on one another. The traveller takes his experiences home as memories. The host sees through the eyes of the guests and sees his destination from another perspective. They infect one another with new ideas.

“There is no greater force for change than a community that has discovered what it wants to care for” — Margaret Wheatley, author of Walk out Walk on

Travel encompasses promising potential for bringing about positive change, according to tourism experts. More people are aware that change is required. The tourist’s travel motivation is shifting towards greater depth and significance. The world is ready for this change.

Everything is connected to everything

“If you ask me about the opportunities with regard to the tourism of the future, I think that tourism is part of a larger transformation across the world. It is coming back to the connections with one another, coming back to the connection with the earth. Then tourism will become participative citizenship.” — Chené Swart, author of Re-authoring the world

Taking responsibility

Tourism contributes towards a flourishing community when the balance between the added value and detrimental impact of tourism on the place, residents, entrepreneurs and visitors is monitored. In this context, Professor van den Borg talks about the carrying capacity of the community and the place.

Taking care of what’s around you

Connected with other parties and aware of the impact on the environment, everyone is positively committed to the community and takes responsibility for their (physical) place. But does everything need to change at once? ‘Il faut cultiver son jardin’ wrote Voltaire. Let’s do what we can do to bring about change and improvements in the world and start close to home; let’s start with our own gardens. What can we do ourselves? Where is it happening already?

Taking responsibility is: engagement in both word and deed …

“When Koen De Weerdt, director of holiday company Vayamundo, talks about his passion, we feel a huge sense of respect for him. Equality and diversity are not just hollow concepts; they are the day-to-day terms that refer to realising the right to a holiday. As a result of the well thought through design, their building is quite literally open to all, even if you have a disability. And, once inside, everyone is warmly welcomed, without distinction. A limited budget? With an all-in pricing format, you’ll never have any unpleasant surprises. And it’s not just tourists who are welcome. Local associations can use it for meetings and local traders can sell their products. In short, Vayamundo knows how to apply a contemporary vision of social tourism, with huge appreciation for the historical roots, at the same time.” — Eva Vynckier, Network Everyone Deserves a Holiday

… and ambitious work on what is future-focussed and sustainable

“Against all expectations, I was surprised by the ‘Village Nature’ concept presented by Euro Disney and Pierre&Vacances-Center Parcs. Not far from Paris they and their partners have built and are running an eco-resort where environmental-friendliness is the priority. It is really interesting how mass tourism can be organised in a sustainable manner and how they have tried to keep the ecological footprint of the holiday park to an absolute minimum.” — Mia Lammens, VISITFLANDERS

“Center Parcs and Sunparks Belgium are also taking their responsibilities and signing up to corporate social responsibility. They have a range for people with low income, also value sustainable forestry, welfare on the work floor and giving opportunities to youngsters from vulnerable families so that they can move on to the regular labour market.” — Carine Geboers, Network Everyone Deserves a Holiday

“The above example makes me think of my visit to Thon Hotel EU in Brussels. That hotel surprised me too, with activities relating to corporate social responsibility. This hotel has chosen to reduce its ecological footprint and work on sustainable food, with its use of local and fairtrade products. It is also an inclusive workplace.” — Kristof Lataire, Kapittel

“In Palau, a small island group in Oceania, you may only visit once you have signed a contract to say that you won’t create any waste and that you are committed to not polluting the island. This is a powerful statement. Tourists are thus committed to take care for the place they are visiting. Simultaneously, a link is made between the visitors and the host. It is terrible that Palau was recently hit by a tsunami. Hopefully, the residents will find the resilience they need and also be offered the required help.” — Elke Dens, VISITFLANDERS

Collaboration

The building blocks for a high-impact tourism experience and a flourishing destination do not all lie within one, delineated sector. Culture, heritage, nature, residents, entrepreneurs; everything is connected. People, organisations, events and places have an impact.

Tourism centres on hospitality and that is something between people. Whether a visitor feels welcome does not depend on just the entrepreneurs or policy makers. It lies in the hands of everyone who encounters a tourist, from the quality of the meeting itself to the power of the place.

“It all starts with asking the right questions”, says Jan Rotmans. “And it’s really useful to have free-thinkers and fresh-eyes on board too. Of course you have to work with the people in the tourism business in order to come up with future visions, but that’s not enough. You must also invite people from outside, people who operate in different fields and sectors. These fresh-eyes and free-thinkers will open a whole range of topics up for discussions. Anything that seems obvious must be discussed. You must look in from outside rather than the other way around. You must see what’s going on in the world. Otherwise, you’ll just come up with standard questions and ordinary solutions and won’t get anywhere.”

Where is it happening already?

Guest happiness

“They are special words. They say something about the happiness of people who feel appreciated and welcome. And something about the joy that hospitality offers to the host. That illustrates the essence of how rewarding it is to work in the tourism sector. What could be better than that?” — Hilde De Laet, Hidrodoe

Collaborating to safeguard nature …

“The Hoge Kempen National Park is a unique nature reserve covering over 5,700 hectares of heath land and forests in the Regional Landscape of Kempen and Maasland, where many partners, each in their own workspace, would like to achieve the very best results. As a result of collaboration and co-ownership, the National Park has become a success for nature, tourism, heritage, spatial development and science. In order to realise this, there is collaboration with a range of partners, including nine local councils, the provincial board, agencies and services provided by the Flemish government (infrastructure works for creation of wildlife corridors and the management of forestry and heath land, tourism, ….), tourism services, nature and environmental associations, hospitality businesses and residents (including voluntary site management and rangers). The area has thus expanded to become a flourishing place that is much more than the sum of its parts. Tourism is the result of investments in the quality of an area.” — Johan Van Den Bosch, Regional Landscape of Kempen and Maasland

… and open up unique sites for the neighbourhood

“The Abbey Neighbours is a great example of citizen participation. In 2007, some of the neighbours in the Machariuswijk in Ghent put their heads together to talk about the St Bavo’s Abbey. It is an intriguing site with a stunning garden in the centre of the city that, at that moment, had been closed to the public for five years. The neighbours succeeded in reopening the site to the public. Sometime later, TRACK took place in the area (art event of SMAK in 2012, at various locations around the city). The gatehouse from the old abattoir next to the Abbey site was repurposed as a temporary meeting place under the name Herberg Macharius. The Abbey Neighbours seized upon the opportunity and, once TRACK had finished, created a permanent activity centre at the location, for and by the locals. It is inspiring to see how collaboration around a place can lead to further initiatives. A few of the Abbey Neighbours became involved in the challenge of renewable energy. They wondered if they could realise this via the strong neighbourhood alliance. A cooperative has now been created to accelerate the transition to renewable energy. The EnerGent energy cooperative was formed four years ago and became a city collaboration that has now realised a whole range of objectives. It’s amazing, what a few astute neighbours can realise together.” — Eva De Groote, author

“If we see the destination from a broader perspective, rather than just in terms of the actors that earn money from it, we will gain additional benefits. This approach encompasses the community which facilitates the activities that take place.” — Marianne Schapmans, Network Everyone Deserves a Holiday

Connecting with places & with each other

Connecting people

Impactful travel experiences go hand in hand with encounters between people; small, treasured moments with other travellers and residents, encounters with guides, taxi drivers and other people from the tourism services industry. Geniality, a warm welcome, involvement and a willingness to help all contribute towards a high-impact travel experience. The appeal of a place, therefore, is largely based on the hosts (residents and service providers) and the encounters between visitors and residents. It is therefore all about the experience of the person-to-person relationship. Proud hosts are delighted to share their place with visitors. Pride in your ‘place’ is an important ingredient in a flourishing community.

Connecting with the power of the place

The large-scale listening exercise showed that a powerful travel experience often corresponds with an intense experience of the place itself. It’s all about experiencing the specific identity of an area; the lifestyle and values, the socio-political situation, the natural world, art and heritage. Each place showcases its own unique character, has its own DNA and preserves its natural and cultural heritage. Consequently, the place is distinct from others and thus becomes more appealing. Residents are proud of their place and visitors are surprised. They are inspired and challenged, and feel committed and connected. They remember the place. Places have a soul, they are home to people. The strands of a place’s DNA encompass the stories, history, important moments, functions, heritage value, traditions, culture, the community life. The DNA is what makes a place so unique. The identity of people, communities and organisations determines how the DNA of the place is approached, experienced, and how it is handled. It is important to identify the location’s DNA and to communicate about it honestly. That’s what ‘expectation management’ is all about. However, that’s not to say that you should adapt the place to expectations, wishes or the sensitivities of the audience. But it does mean that a place may evolve or even mutate. A place is a dynamic entity that is constantly developing.

Place keeper(s)

Aside from a legal owner, most places also have many other ‘owners’. They feel connected to the place, live within it, manage and cherish it. These ‘place keepers’ could be residents, entrepreneurs, associations, organisations and governments.
Aside from a legal owner, most places also have many other ‘owners’. They feel connected to the place, live within it, manage and cherish it. These ‘place keepers’ could be residents, entrepreneurs, associations, organisations and governments.

Connecting people with places and with one another via art, for example …

“A beautiful example of a cultural project whereby tourists are connected to residents is the Triennial in Bruges.” All over the city, you can find modern artworks that can ‘touch’ you and encourage discussion. “During the Triennial, you see a blend of visitors and residents around the city. The place in the Reien where you can swim, for example, attracts the local youth but also the tourists who come to see the art.” The artists were invited to collaborate with residents on their project. “This project also helps to illustrate a different, contemporary Bruges. It connects the old Bruges with contemporary art. It fits into the city’s DNA and showcases the fact that the city is not just an open-air museum but also a living place.” — Vincent Nijs, VISITFLANDERS

Or these beer makers …

“I’d love to tell you about Jazz Bilzen Beer. In 2017, a group of friends took the initiative to create a new beer, to honour the Jazz Bilzen festival and cherish the corresponding memories. Jazz Bilzen, the legend, was launched in April 2018. A community has grown around the beer, involving people who love the beer itself, and the memories of the festival, explain its significance to visitors, and toast the stories from the past. Every year, for seventeen years, a special beer will be brewed. That beer will always hark back to one of the festivals. This can then link into some sort of tourist event. The development of a Jazz Bilzen experience, i.e. stories, music, the place, exhibitions, brewing beer and tasting. And what’s even more amazing: there is no clear plan and no leader. There have been no subsidies or enormous investments. Jazz Bilzen Beer is the result of a desire, connection and voluntary efforts, along with the goodwill of a few entrepreneurs who have offered investment and support.” — Griet Bouwen, Nieuwmakers

How can you strengthen the place? Where is it happening already?

  • Experiment with other forms of travel and new opportunities for (tourist) experiences and involve the location’s DNA. Visitors will learn about the place in a different way as a result. Examples: bare footpaths, wild camping, canoeing in the city …
  • Support people who keep traditions alive, who bring the DNA to life. Examples: The Last Post at the Menin Gate, prawn fishermen in Koksijde, …
  • Involve new people, add new elements, and broaden existing elements to make the place more dynamic or to redesign it. Examples: Bulskampveld, t’ij in Kruibeke-Bazel, The taste of Jazz Bilzen Beer …
  • Make financial investments in the place. Examples: Flanders Meeting & Convention Center Antwerp, The English Convent, cultural Hostel Bed Muzet …
  • Create new forms of investment: public/private whereby the public element also includes various organisations or citizens, such as cooperatives and crowd-funding in the local community. Examples: the picnic months at farms (Westtoer), cinema Roma …
  • Make places virtually accessible. Examples: the heritage app Faro, Historium …
  • Develop experiences in a multisectoral and sensory manner. Examples: art project Palingbeek, Art in the Landscape, Triennial Bruges …
  • Use the available expertise to strengthen the DNA. Examples: mills and bakery in Bokrijk where traditional craftsmanship lives on in a contemporary economy…

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