The shift: when tourism becomes hosting

Reizen naar Morgen. Michelle Holliday

Griet Bouwen

She made a remarkable ‘sojourn’ in Bruges, where VISITFLANDERS hosted a summit about the future of Tourism, named ‘Travel to Tomorrow, growing forward together.’ In her keynote talk, Michelle Holliday, author of the book ‘The Age of Thrivability’, gently invited the tourism sector to become aware of its influence to help create a world where all life can thrive. That tourism can contribute by creating conditions for flourishing communities of hosts, while aligning with life in and between people, in organisations, in nature and the biosphere. Michelle was extraordinarily present and fully engaged in the beautiful church and abbey where over 250 people learned, discovered and became energized to contribute to a future where life, community and tourism can thrive. I had the opportunity to chat with her the day after her keynote speech.

In her talk on stage, Michelle Holliday presented her thoughts of what could be the DNA of thrivable tourism. You can see the video here. Tourism is not a machine, she said, not something like a conveyer belt that processes tourists from arrival to leaving. Tourism is rooted in the living system of community and place. Tourism’s essential activity is hosting guests who can experience aliveness, health, joy, justice, learning and awareness.

After her keynote, Michelle had a lot of conversations with participants in the summit. It brought her to a deeper understanding of what is needed now in the sector of tourism. “I’m hearing a need to change the language, to change the terminology we use to describe the activities we call tourism”, she says. “The word “tourism” is so antiseptic and abstract, it doesn’t refer to human connection and activities. It’s a sector and an industry that has its own demands of us. We are in service of it, instead of what’s alive.”

Let’s try something different

What if we would name tourism by its essence? How different would we experience our contribution to tourism if we put our emphasis on ‘hosting’? Then the tourism sector could transform into a multiplicity of hosting communities.

Tourists become guests. Instead of serving them, we would welcome them with an openness to also learn from them and to be transformed in the encounter. Michelle: “I heard many people saying that there are too many tourists and those who come are not always respectful. So, what if we invite them to be hosted in our communities? Would that encourage them to show up differently?”

Marketing could become ‘inviting’. If we ‘invite’, it can be on our terms. We then invite the visitors who come with an attitude that is also a gift to us.

Something very, very different…

“I am hearing we could safely stop promoting and marketing”, Michelle challenges. “If we are afraid of overtourism, and we are afraid of receiving tourists with an attitude we don’t really want in our communities, why don’t we pause awhile, regroup and decide together: who are we and what do we want? What is the invitation we want to extend, trusting that this invitation would then appeal to those we would like to host, who feel invited. As a host, it is reasonable that we invite on our terms.”

Of the marketing premises that seem to be the dominant logic in the Destination Marketing Offices, Michelle also asks: “Are we sure we need to be in competition with each other? Isn’t every place unique? I hear the sector is rapidly growing, so is there any ground for scarcity? And yet, we still want to hang on to the idea that there is not enough and that we have to defeat other people and destinations.”

I sense a major shift in Michelle’s challenging questions. Yes, our sector is one of inviting and hosting people in our shared ‘house’, Flanders. With – in our hearts – our concern for this house and for the needs of the world. The needs of the world are significant and urgent, with climate change, inequality and hyper individualism, to name some of the major challenges. The tourism sector is here and now, in this time and part of the whole facing the possibility to say yes to the call to contribute.

It’s all about life!

The tourism industry can come to see itself beyond the economics and industry, as a practice ground for hosting for any context, but especially when people are leaving their own homes and coming to ours, says Michelle. This sector can especially become an example for society, where we can practice the skills to welcome differences as a gift, as a basis to be open for what and who is different from us.

This transformation starts locally, Michelle thinks. “Like the mayor of Genk said (in his talk at the summit) : local people want to feel invited to contribute. Local governments can bring them together, support their initiatives without wanting to control it.”

So, this is the pattern of living systems thinking and acting that Michelle Holliday offers.

  1. There are parts. Invite individuals and their initiatives on a local level: they are the parts that make the whole thrive.
  2. There is relationship. Co-create a space of relationship between them, with enough structure and room for flow and dynamism.
  3. There is wholeness. Become clear, together, about the shared story and calling in the community, with regards to hosting visitors.
  4. There is a self-integrating property that is called ‘Life’. Invite life as the driving force in all that you create together, supporting self-organizing local initiatives rather than trying to control every detail. Art, beauty, creativity and movement are powerful ways to invite life to thrive in what we create together.

Hosting the hosts: a new role for our (governmental) tourism organisations?

The challenge is to create a shift from controlling or advising partners to hosting them so they can find their own stories and their diverse contributions. Then, every community – and every enterprise and local host – can make its unique invitation to visitors on their own terms.

The first thing that is needed, Michelle says, is that organisations like VISITFLANDERS and local Destination Marketing Offices create the fertile conditions for their own thriving. Setting up practices within organisations to create greater understanding about who contributes, in what relationships, with patterns that support the hosting practice. Stewarded with a language of life: using words that help us move away from the machine-logics to an understanding of thriving in a living system.

VISITFLANDERS could decide to cultivate this new culture of thrivability. With first making space and place for re-imagining their role, based on what came out of the summit. “It is good to ask yourself, as an organisation, these profound questions: Why us? Why here? Why now?”, Michelle says.

Then, the organisation can support the growing movement that became visible during the summit. There are three basic questions, Michelle offers to think about: First, how do you – VISITFLANDERS – steward yourself, as an organization? Second: How do you steward your direct partners (like the cities) and help them host their local hosts? Third: How do you steward this movement without controlling it, and how do we keep on inviting others in? With ‘stewarding’, Michelle refers to practices that are different from managing. Stewarding for her means caring with reverence and responsibility.

Let’s get practical here

Okay, great thoughts and an attractive challenge for VISITFLANDERS and other Destination Marketing Offices. Is there any ‘how to’ advice that Michelle Holliday has in mind for us? Sure. Here we go:

  1. Invite. There are definitely people in and around your organisations that stand with two feet in practices and at the same time have a big heart and sensitivity for the whole. Invite them to co-create the vision and next steps.
  2. Ask. What do we take away from the summit as our calling? What do we feel the urge to do now? What role are we called to play and for whom? What shift are we sensing in that role? In other words: who are we now and who do we want to become? What does this journey look like? What are the new skills we need to learn? What do we have to create in our relationships to find the courage to step into this new adventure? How will we see that we are making progress?
  3. Trust. You don’t have to know what comes out of vision and actions exactly. Follow the energy of what is emerging, cultivate and support what seems to want to happen, and trust that good things will happen in that space.
  4. Experiment. Dare to act now in the face of the urgent challenges that are on our plate. Learn while doing. Don’t try to avoid mistakes at any price. Instead: learn and move on.

“Tourism is about to reinvent itself”, Michelle says. “Just tweaking at the edges will not be enough. In the centre of our questions and actions must stand the role of tourism in the world now and in a hoped for future. The more intentional we become about our alignment with life, the more our guests and hosts – and we ourselves – will experience aliveness, joy, learning, awareness and self-expression.”

So, this is the one conversation we want to have with the world. A conversation that is grounded in generosity. And that – generosity – can’t be that difficult. That is exactly what VISITFLANDERS has shown to all the participants in this summit: a welcoming, generous invitation to join the journey to tomorrow.

Michelle Holliday is consultant, facilitator, researcher and author. Her work centers around ‘thrivability’, a set of perspectives and practices based on a view of organizations and communities as dynamic, self-organizing living systems. Michelle is author of the book The Age of Thrivability. She lives and works in Montreal, Canada.

Griet Bouwen

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