How to create great holiday experiences by engaging with sustainability (recipe includes fish)

matthew stevens fish demo

It takes a good storyteller to keep an audience engaged

I have just witnessed a masterclass in how to engage a group of holidaymakers in issues confronting a tourism business trying to operate sustainably. However, no one there came for a lecture in responsibility, or even felt that was what they were getting. What they came for, and spent over one hour in rapt attention at, was a masterclass in how to fillet fish.

I am on the island of Tresco, situated 28 miles of the south west coast of England. This weekend has seen the annual Tresco and Bryher food festival, a highlight of which has been local fisherman Matthew Stevens talk on the art of preparing fish.

matthew stevens filleting fish

Like all skilled artisans, he made filleting fish look easy

For the past 25 or more years Matthew’s company has been supplying fish to the island and its hotel. Over the course of an hour around Saturday lunchtime, while the attendant crowds supped on a glass of English white wine from our most remote vineyard (on the island of St Martin), or a beer brewed on the islands by Ales of Scilly (I recommend the Scuppered) he worked his way through the preparation of a vast medley of locally available fish.

There was Cod, Hake, Turbot, Brill, Squid, Mackerel, Gurnard. And three types of Sole, namely Dover, Lemon and Megrim, the last of which, he told us, no one in the UK really eats, despite it being a plentiful, delicious and very sustainable option. As each piece was filleted, it was whisked away by the chefs, cooked, and then passed round a few minutes later for us all to enjoy.

staff serving fish

It helps if you have superb chefs on hand to keep the audience nourished

Of course – and this is the key – this process was not done in silence. We may have been watching a man deeply skilled in the use of a filleting knife. We may have been doing this while sampling all these wonderful different fish. But what we were really doing, relaxed in the late summer sunshine and lazy beachfront setting, perhaps aided by a chilled glass of wine, was listening to an expert talk about sustainability and the impact of making responsible choices.

Over the course of the next hour or so Matthew explained why we need fishing quotas and how the South West’s mackerel fishery has recovered as a result (and why we should eat lots of mackerel); what it takes to earn the MSC sustainable fisheries logo; and why Icelandic cod was the most sustainable of all. All of this was wrapped up in a lifetime of anecdotes and stories, ranging from his grandfather’s encounter with a U-boat while fishing in the First World War to preparing fish for various prime ministers at Number 10.

tourists tasting fish in tresco

and make sure there’s more than enough to go round

The message throughout – backed up by the endless plates of delicious fish being passed around – was: please eat local fish that has been sustainably procured. But no one felt they were being lectured. Rather we were a privileged audience listening to a craftsman whose family for generations had been what he termed ‘hunter gatherers’ on the sea. A man whose livelihood had been in part supported for a quarter of a century by tourism. So when he mentioned an issue it was interwoven into the breadth of his experiences and the depth of his tale. This gave it context. And seasoned each mouthful of fish that we ate.

A day later I noticed that megrim sole was on the menu at the island’s pub. A fish I knew nothing of 24 hrs before and might well have ignored was now wrapped in Matthew’s stories. It had become an elegant expression of the remarkable ability of tourism to connect people, experiences, issues and place. And it tasted great.

This recipe can be repeated anywhere tourism is working responsibly. I have experienced it planting artificial coral reefs while snorkelling in the Maldives. Or exploring efforts to preserve dying art forms in Kerala. Vastly different experiences, but prepared to the same, simple recipe.

First, take an experience that tourists come to your destination for. We come to eat and drink. To look at beautiful views. To observe wildlife. To dive. To listen to music. Give us a generous dollop of one of more of these. Then add someone deeply connected to an issue surrounding the experience. One that tourism is addressing. And don’t forget to make sure they can tell an engaging story.

Then simply combine the experience and the storyteller together, and serve.

I will be speaking in a session on “How can you use Responsible Tourism to drive sales” at 1pm on Tuesday November 4th at WTM London. The panel also features Victoria Bacon, Head of Communications at ABTA, Justin Francis, CEO of ResponsibleTravel.com, and Rachel O’Reilly, Head of Communications at Kuoni Travel UK.

  • Fantastic stuff, Jeremy… will be sure to emulate this in Nepal – In our COOK like a LOCAL course, which has no price and is tremendously successful, clients get an opportunity on an almost daily basis to engage in a lunch conversation on why we do what we do – and what sustainability and responsibility means in travel in Nepal.

    We do it a bit unconsciously, while marketing our niche and our style of travel, but will be sure to do special sessions too from time to time… its a great idea!

  • I can’t think of a better way to get engaged on the issues of sustainable fishing.

  • Jeremy – I will be sending this article to the Jamaican manager of the Marine Protected Area in Bluefields Bay, Jamaica, supported by the C-FISH initiative (www.c-fish.org). It will be extremely useful I’m sure