Photo: Oaxaca Tourism Fair, Amigos del Sol (Some rights reserved)

It takes time to read any game and what helps most is understanding who the players are and how they interact with one another.

It’s all about understanding the expectations and responsibilities. This is straight-forward in sports and most games, but somehow in the politics of tourism and conservation, it’s precisely the expectations and responsibilities that are poorly communicated and misread too often.

How might we make a radical leap toward improving the relationships that improve responsible travel and ecotourism? It’s a matter of connecting the dots and seeing in depth the opportunities for healthy interaction, communication, and collaboration.

This photo was taken at the 2007 Rural Tourism Fair, an event held at the Amigos del Sol language school, immediately after the social protests of 2006. Produced on a minimal budget (less than $200), the event brought together tour guides, artisans, consultants, government reps, and visitors, aka tourists. When I think about how events can truly be engaging and how can they matter and improve the well-being of multiple players, aka stakeholders, I reflect on this gathering of friends.

Counting the players
Too often the traditional focus on defining ecotourism narrowly targets what is ecotourism instead of looking at who participates in the process. Years ago a consultant told me that ecotourism would be better if it didn’t include travelers. Yes, I told her, that’s called conservation.

Another time a businesswoman who wanted to develop ecotourism — what she called saving one of three mangroves from bulldozing and the creation of a golf course.

There can be no ecotourism if a project doesn’t include travelers AND locals … if it doesn’t foster conservation AND promote tourism. Mind you, these are difficult tasks, particularly in developing economies. Even more challenging is when one stacks up the various responsibilities asked of ecotourism and responsible travel.

We need to build constituencies from the ground up and we need to welcome new players as if they will ignite the game when the come on.

Connecting the dots
Who are the principal actors — stakeholders — in ecotourism and responsible travel? Conscious tourism? Indigenous tourism? Sports tourism? This is an important question. After all, determining who is or is not considered a stakeholder determines how the game is played.

This model helps us ask one another how we perceive our individual and collective responsibilities and how we might collaborate toward making tourism more eco- and people-friendly.

This model also reminds us that we have different perspectives. We can review any specific practice and ask its role and how it’s interpreted by various stakeholders. One example would be dual pricing. What policy-makers can tout as a discount for locals can be considered price gouging by visitors if the policy is not clearly explained.

Building constituencies
In early 2003 I delivered a presentation on strengthening constituencies working toward sustainable tourism at the World Bank. “We know about stakeholders,” was the response from one bank official. “True, but what do we know about you?” I replied. Most bank officials do not participate in public gatherings that they do not initiate and the information posted online is certainly not written for locals.

Frequently ‘stakeholder’ meetings are conducted not for listening, but to give the appearance of listening.

At the local level information is typically unavailable or restricted information. Also missing are effective ways for residents and travelers to provide feedback.

Breaking down the barriers
Breaking down the barriers between travelers and locals requires finding a place where both groups wish to interact, and one such locale is a traditional market. As part of our vision, focuses on environmental and cultural attributes of travel and markets provide a clear link to both. We explore markets of all kinds.

Encouraging a mutually beneficial tourism
What do we expect from sustainable tourism? The answer depends on who is asked. For a tourist, the ideal vacation is one without stress. What has been promised in advertising is delivered. For a local, the ideal tourist is one who is respectful, contributes to the local economy and can assist — either via financial means or labor — conservation and community development.

As travelers, if we get what we expect — or more than what we expect — we are content and likely to repeat the activity and recommend it to others. If we participate in the development of mutually beneficial tourism, then we create the satisfying win-win-win situation.

– Permanent residents
– Nearby visitors; newcomers

– International
– National
– Local

– International
– National
– Local

– Writers
– Publishers
– Public Relation Agencies

Travel Industry
– Tour Companies
– Agents
– Individual Guides

– Airlines
– Bus
– Taxi
– Bikes
– Public Transport
– Rental / Sharing

Social Sector
– Academics
– Environmentalists
– Security
– Health

Non-Human (Council of all Beings)
– Animals
– Plants
– Place

Practical Exercise
How does this ‘win-win-win’ become a reality? I would suggest following a practical exercise. What if we examined each stakeholder group and asked what people might expect of them as well what they expected of others? Try it out.

Beyond cat herding
As a fairly new and often paradoxical niche connecting environmental conservation and the travel industry, ecotourism attracts independent-minded leaders including environmentalists who value public visitation of natural areas and tourism officials who respect the importance of conservation. It is not instructive to think of travelers, particularly eco travelers as a homogenous group.

Organizing these leaders is akin to cat herding. Pioneers tend to ‘follow their bliss’ and generally do not like people telling them what to do.

There is also a certain amount of ego. Said one university professor in all earnestness: “The government’s ecotourism program is failing because it is not following my paradigm.” Any wonder why ecotourism is sometimes dismissed as egotourism?

It can be frustrating to hear people who all want to lead and have no intention of following. While collaboration is a must, how does any initiative unify such know-it-all mavericks? How can any association for ecotourism/sustainable travel work when they are comprised of so many strong-headed individualists? Practioners tend to play Devil’s Advocate more easily than Guardian Angel.

If you would like to understand ecotourism in its fullness, you have got to be both the cat and herder simultaneously. Create new alliances that support the diversity and strengths of its members. Meanwhile, be patient and engage in multi-sector dialogue that emphasizes communication rather than artificial consensus.

Elsewhere on the Web
Stakeholders’ vs. the People – Antonis Petropoulos/ECOCLUB
Mā tātou katoa e atawhai i te tāonga ao turoa = Everyone has a role to play in conservation
Stakeholders – IPBES

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