How to get responsible tourism communications right

I got involved in a discussion on Twitter last week about what the best words for responsible tourism communications, and whether there we need a new one. All the usual suspects used when were bandied about – ethical, green, eco etc – and all the usual arguments we’re put up against each one, which can basically be reduced to two problems:

Problem 1 – They are co-opted. Take eco- for example. There’s no criteria that you have to achieve to call yourself an ecolodge. So anyone can do so. Got an inaccessible hut on a hill? Call it an ecolodge.

Problem 2 – They don’t connect to the tourist. You work hard for 48 weeks a year, and you have four weeks off. Is responsibility the first word that comes to mind when dreaming of what to do and where to go? Or ethics? More likely, it’s joy, adventure, relaxation, experience. And this means that whichever word operators are using to describe their responsible tourism experience, most consumers aren’t typing it into browser, and so the companies aren’t seeing the full market advantage of their aspirations.

So, how to connect when people don’t click on responsibility statements, and wouldn’t know whether your ‘village visit’ is an add on fig leaf of fake ethical respectability, or a sign that you are truly engaged in your local community?

responsible tourism communication:
why stories matter

The answer, I would argue, is that there is no single word. Words are too short. We may live in an era of 140 character tweets and two sentence Facebook updates, but such extreme brevity, for all its spurious ‘soul of wit’ associations, is not how you tell a rich, deep, engaging narrative. When we try to reduce what we do to labels, we do just that.

It’s not words we have to focus on. It’s stories. And you can forget the cliché about the devil having all the best ones. When it comes to travel, it’s those working in Responsible Tourism. These are the people who want to show you behind the scenes, introduce you to their staff, share their passions and pride. But they can’t do it in a word. It takes the time and patience needed for proper communication. It needs us to switch out of brusque ‘give me the headline’ work mode, take a deep breath, relax and listen. Rather like when we’re on holiday.

Because for the tourist there’s much more to gain from this than just hearing someone else’s stories. There’s the chance to make our own – to forge the lifelong memories that so much of going on holiday is all about.If I go on safari with an ethical operator, I am going into the wilderness with someone who has devoted their life to preserving this area, to understanding the needs of the species and communities. Yes, they are the most responsible / green / ethical people to go with. But if I am the sort of person who loves animals so much that I am willing to spend several hundred pounds a night to see them, then might they – these people who truly understand the animals’ movements and calls – not also simply be the best?

This applies to most holiday businesses. Responsible tourism means the staff are well looked after and motivated out of pride and passion rather than fear for their job. It means the food is grown by farmers committed to the finest regional foods. It means the tours are run by passionate locals whose chief desire is to share the place they call home with you. It means the holidays will be the best.

Which brings me back to my Twitter chat looking to find the best word. 11 years ago, the Cape Town Declaration declared that the aim of Responsible Tourism was to create ‘better places for people to live in, and better places to visit’. It’s still the finest sentiment we have, and I did finally manage to cram something similar into 140 characters in our tweet chat, when I suggested that Responsible Tourism communication is about “#Good people providing the #best holidays to make the world a #better place”.

Our words are staring us in the face. They are Good. Better. Best. Our challenge is not to reinvent the wheel, or even to try to come up with a new name for it. We simply have to use every tool at our disposal – and every story we can tell – to help consumers see responsibility not as an ethical standard, but as the best sign of a good holiday. Because everyone’s looking for that.

Do you agree? Got a better word? Join us on twitter and tell us what you think at @WTM_WRTD

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Jeremy Smith is a writer, speaker and sustainable tourism consultant. He is co-founder of Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, an initiative that supports tourism organisations in declaring a climate emergency and working together to reduce their carbon emissions in line with the Science Based Targets. He is the author of Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018), and co-founder of, the travel industry sustainable tourism website news site. He consults widely on sustainable tourism strategy and communication, with recent clients including Bruges Ommeland, GSTC, English National Parks, Tripadvisor, the Travel Foundation, and the European Travel Commission. He is a member of Travalyst’s Independent Advisory Board and was a member of Rotterdam’s International Advisory Board in 2019, helping develop a new vision for the city’s tourism.

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