How to give tourists a sense of ownership (without selling your destination’s soul)

tresco timeshare responsible tourism

For my summer holidays these last two weeks, I’ve been on the Cornish island of Tresco, and in the southern French region of the Dordogne. Both are beautiful, both filled with Brits, and both have me thinking about issues of ownership.

Ownership is a complex topic for tourism. Travel is about going to new places, leaving briefly the responsibilities associated with those we own (or rent). This brings freedom from cares, but also can engender a lack of respect. It’s not mine. It doesn’t matter so much.

However, being an acquisitive species, we like to feel ownership of things we love. Sometimes this happens symbolically – buying souvenirs or taking photographs. But sometimes, as with holiday homes, it’s more tangible. Here in the Dordogne, Brits have been buying properties for decades. The house I’m in has been owned by my friends for over 45 years.

However, there is something incongruous about passing so many English cars, hearing so many English voices in the market, or seeing how the French supermarket now has an English produce aisle. It is a classic tourism paradox – we love somewhere so much that we buy into it; but the more ownership passes into foreign hands, the more diluted that original cherished essence becomes. Eventually regions become like those whitewashed strips of southern Spain where villas and apartments lie empty half the year, restaurants serve English breakfasts, and the Premiership plays in every bar.

Ownership, Island style

Before coming here, I was in Tresco, an island off the coast of Cornwall, where ownership is complex, to say the least. Being part of Cornwall it is in fact owned by Prince Charles as part of the Duchy of Cornwall. But it has been leased out by the Duchy for several hundred years to various landowners, and for the last few decades this has been the Dorrien-Smiths. The island is in essence their estate, and everyone living on it their tenants – in this regard ownership on Tresco is feudal.

It is also ‘fractional’. Most of the cottages on the island are now lived in by tourists, and most of them are further leased out by the Dorrien-Smiths as timeshares – ‘fractional ownership’ as it is now often known. A dirty word in tourism for a long time due to extremely unscrupulous selling practices, timeshare has had a responsible tourism-inspired renaissance as a way of ensuring maximum occupancy throughout the year, thus avoiding spikes and troughs in demand. This helps local businesses, who are now ensured consistent trade year round. And on Tresco almost every week in every house is sold, for the next 30 years, the length of each property’s timeshare.

tresco honesty box responsible tourism ownership

It’s not surprising people want to buy in. Tresco, by fortune of climate and geography, is idyllic. White sand beaches. Sub tropical plants. Limpid calm seas. Its Abbey Gardens are famous across the world. Car-free. No doors locked. Honesty boxes everywhere outside people’s farmsteads, where you can just take whatever fresh produce, flowers or jams you want and leave the requested payment in an open box.

It’s in no small part down to the island’s attitude towards ownership. When someone buys a timeshare at Tresco they are doing so because they want to come back to this experience again and again. They want to help Tresco remain the way it wants to be for the rest of their lives. They ‘buy in’ in every sense of the word. Rather than diluting its essence through ownership, they are reinforcing it.

Less photographs. Better footprints

The question for me is how this mutually supportive sense of ownership, with the shared commitment, connections and responsibilities it confers, can be spread across the industry? Especially as not everywhere is suitable for timeshare, and not everyone can afford to ‘buy in’.

A sense of ownership doesn’t only come through how much money you invest. Tresco.co.uk has a webcam showing me the view from the beach right now, wherever I am in the world. And when I am working on my computer I often open the South Africa National parks webcams, and am transported to various watering holes in the African bush from my desktop in the UK. The sights and sounds of these portals connect me to places I feel deeply at home, even when several thousand miles away. Other travel companies such as the Pimenta and The Blue Yonder keep in touch through social media, email newsletters etc. With each one I remain emotionally invested in their story as a result – and so am more likely to book again, or remember to recommend them to a friend, or quote them in an article.

And just as the real-time ever-present of the internet works better than a static photograph or souvenir to keep me connected once I have come home, so increasingly responsible tourism enterprises are offering travellers a chance to stay connected not by taking something home, but rather by leaving something behind. Volunteer tourism may be increasingly problematic when tourists replace local skills or exacerbate problems such as child trafficking. But the wish to volunteer expresses a desire for deeper connection with the places we visit – and should be nurtured.

I have planted a few mangroves saplings at Andaman Discoveries. An olive tree at Kurisa Moya. This was emblematic volunteering. It helped them a little bit. But mostly it made me feel good, and feel part of their stories. It may be the smallest fraction, but it gave me a sense of ownership of these places, concern for their future, and a wish to return. Where a photograph reminds me of how a place once was, the trees I have planted in lodge gardens around the world connect me to their growth for generations to come.
This website aims to build an online community that shares and spreads the ethos of World Responsible Tourism Day. I’d love to know what your ideas are for stimulating connections and ownership with your former (and future) guests and travellers.