Collaboration is the only way forward for sustainable destination development

Recently on the island of Bali, the risks inherent in developing tourism disconnected from the destination community have become clear. Local residents are angered by plans to build an artificial island in Benoa Harbour, whose 800 hectares of land will then host villas, apartments, luxury hotels, a theme park and a Formula One racing circuit. Waves of discontent are growing, seen most recently on Oct 18 when several thousand people attended a 12 hour concert held in protest at the plans.

Yet most Balinese are not anti tourism per se. But they are concerned that the very attractions that lure so many tourists (which for them are not so much attractions as ways of life and places they call home) risk being destroyed by the industry that relies upon them.

Sustainable Collaboration

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There are few destinations in the world where survival is more of an immediate and total risk than certain islands in the South Pacific. So imminent is the threat of rising sea levels through climate change in these tropical outposts, that ‘climate refugees’ are already leaving their homes for less low lying countries. Again, these communities are not anti-tourism. Far from it. For most of these islands tourism is the heart of their economy.

Recently they have been begun forging plans to ensure their long term survival as sustainable destinations, and doing through not though a process of exclusion, but of collaboration. In September the South Pacific Destination Alliance was formed in Samoa, in a partnership between Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, Sustainable Travel International. Samoa is the alliance’s founding destination partner, with other islands to join over the coming months. At the same time Samoa announced that it has become the South Pacific region’s first partner in the Sustainable Destination Leadership Network, a worldwide collaboration of destination management organisations and tourism administrations.

The key question is, what form will such collaborations take? Will they be partnerships in name alone, little more than rubber stamping efforts for top down initiatives? Or will they ensure that the voices and wishes of the host communities are not just heard, but placed central to any plans?

One way for them to succeed would be to look to the open source models being adopted by many companies around the world when developing new products and services. According to an article on advertising giant WPP’s website, over half of Fortune 500 companies have made co-creation (the vogueish term for bottom up collaboration) through community sourcing of ideas an integral part of their innovation strategy. They have realised that by ensuring buy in from their customers at the product development stage, as well as opening up the innovation stage to as wide an interested group as possible, there is greater chance of success later down the line. It means, reports WPP, that: ‘there are more than 440 communities dealing with, say, the issue around sunless tanning, while the lumberjack online communities forum consists of 6,722 members contributing over 0.5 million posts.’

Where are such forums in tourism? They are rarely seen, despite the networked nature of the industry’s web of relationships making them an ideal fit. Currently this peer-to-peer, collaborative approach is most known in tourism through the likes of accommodation sharing and carsharing networks like Airbnb and Liftshare. But just as no one knows better than a lumberjack what tools would best help them, so no one understands the truths of a destination, its opportunities and limitations, better than those who live there. Far from seeing local wishes as barriers to be crossed or needs to be accommodated, might it not be time to see them as vital and productive repositories of unique understanding and insight?

(This article was originally published on the WTM Responsible Tourism website)