The Elixir of Modern Tourism
For me, one of the greatest joys of working in tourism lies in its capacity to celebrate place. There can be few pleasures in one’s professional life that exceed that moment when the residents of a village, town or region come together and explore the place they know so well through the eyes of an outsider: rediscovering the stories that make it great, reinvigorating the networks that make it thrive and seeing the environmental assets that support all aspects of its life through new eyes. When done well, this process of exploring place through the eyes of an outsider can help communities ask the critical questions of who they are, what they want to be known for and why they want to engage with tourism. These questions are fundamentally different from those that have defined tourist area success over the last four decades: how can we get more tourists, and how can we increase tourist spend?
One could perhaps argue that metrics of tourist area success based largely on value and volume are a part of the reason that destinations from Barcelona to Bali are suffering from overcrowding and resident disengagement. For those who seek to unravel more sustainable forms of tourism, the time has come to re-evaluate tourist area success through a different prism – one that places value on resident as well as visitor experiences of place. It is our experience that when seeking to do this, the outcomes can help communities to rediscover the true meaning of hospitality as well as – dare I say it – uncover the elixir of modern tourism itself: authenticity. The following two case studies are examples of our experiences working with tourism to create more sustainable outcomes (in every sense of the word). These are in both instances works in progress in which we are by no means the major players!
Commissioned by the Arts Development Company through its Culture+ creative business development programme, RHP engaged with communities in Sherborne, Dorset to re-evaluate tourism in the town and its environs. Sherborne has a wealth of cultural and heritage assets and is home to a vibrant business scene with young, independent businesses. At the time we were engaged, there was limited coordination between organisations and limited job opportunities for younger people. Most businesses in the town were small and locally owned and many were already engaged in business networks. Tourists were primarily older with a low spend profile and often day rather than staying visitors. There was, however, a thirst to deliver change and work collectively to create more benefits from tourism that would benefit the whole town, with a particular focus on sustaining the vibrant high street and working with the agricultural hinterland to stimulate local supply chains.
A series of workshops engaged businesses, attractions and the community in collective working to build understanding of the current visitor economy, develop their proposition for visitor engagement, and co-create new experiences based on a common understanding of the key values of the town and what it wanted to be known for.
The first workshop refined ‘what’s great’ about Sherborne and co-created ways in which collaborative working could better engage residents and visitors in all the town has to offer. A group of 22 local organisations emerged from these meetings as having the interest and capacity to drive change in the town. Forming a self-organised coalition of willing locals, these organisations spearheaded the process of using the visitor economy as a way to change perceptions about the town, engaging visitors in forming an emotional connection with it. A new website emerged (created spontaneously by participants) telling the story of Sherborne in a way that matches the values of the town and promotes the wide range of businesses.
By working collectively, organisations across Sherborne have created a larger ‘voice’ for the town that creates a new story of place with common themes supported by images and language that are shared between organisations, promoting Sherborne’s core values. The movement created a new Sherborne visitor website (led by the local community) with a community-based funding mechanism to sustain this, created new types of visitors as well as enriching the experience of living in the town for residents. It also created new networks, plus an understanding that collaboration between organisations across the town can enhance value and visitor experiences. One example of this came as businesses united to support the promotion of Dorset Moon, an off-peak free cultural festival produced by the Dorset Festivals Consortium – Inside Out Dorset (produced by Activate), B-side and Bournemouth Arts by the Sea. Commissioned by the Arts Development Company with funding from European Regional Development Fund and Arts Council England, this festival focused on the Abbey, but with active partnerships to engage visitors in exploring the wealth of activities (and spread economic benefit) across the town.
The Red Sea Rift Valley hosts the migration of over 2 million birds in huge flocks, numbering tens of thousands migrating from wintering grounds in Africa to breeding grounds in Europe and Central Asia and vice versa along the second biggest ‘flyway’ in the world. Yet this area is also subject to huge development pressures as increased demand for energy, food supply and tourism leads to significant changes in land use, generating the need for increased waste management. Indiscriminate hunting and illegal killing of birds is also widespread.
Birdlife International delivered a GEF-funded, UNDP-implemented project with support for tourism related activities provided by RHP Ltd. When asked why they wanted to engage with tourism, they concluded that, much as it is one of the threats to migratory soaring birds, it can also be an important part of the solution, creating knowledge about the value of migratory soaring birds among visitors and residents alike. Working with Birdlife International’s Regional Flyway Facility, RHP created and supported the implementation of guidelines to help hotels protect existing nesting sites for migratory soaring birds, encouraging them to create new areas for them to nest. Perhaps more importantly, however, they worked to identify opportunities for ‘birding’ champions within hotels. Nurturing the knowledge of these individuals enables them to engage with other staff and their communities about bird conservation and the value of migrating soaring birds.
By embedding this knowledge, the project is also working to encourage tourism organisations and hotels to target the high value birdwatching markets as a means for adding value to the tourism offer. Alongside this activity, they are seeking to use the programme to support a wider range of tourists in valuing the rich wildlife across the area as a key means to support conservation activities.
© Sherborne Abbey, Joe D, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2004
© Sherborne Abbey, Mike Searle, CC BY-SA 2.0, 2011
© St Aldhelm, Matt Lake, CC BY-SA 3.0, 2012
© Sherborne Old Castle, Jim Champion, CC BY-SA 2.0, 2007
© The Moon at Sherborne Abbey, Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images, 2019