Sunday, September 11, 2016

Chapter 5 Sustainable Tourism by David Weaver Relational Summary

Chapter 5: The facilitating sectors
Another Relational Summary of Weaver’s Sustainable Tourism by T.H. Culhane

One of my more exciting jobs in college, far better than feeding and taking care of  leeches in the electrophysiology lab at Harvard, or feeding my fellow students by flipping burgers at the campus grill, was working for the Harvard travel guide, “Let’s go Tunisia”.  I got hired because I met one of the editors while engaged in an educational tourism summer program at the Borguiba institute in Tunis and he had just gotten back to the city and was exhausted and fed up with out in the boondocks. He found that I was willing to go way off the beaten path and find safe hostels for budget conscious student travelers where one could engage in adventure tourism like travelling through the night on third class trains and crowded buses and donkey carts to the remote sand dunes of the sahara, sleeping in homestays through sandstorms, and attending local wedding parties,  discovering and evaluating  the recently opened to the public underground “Luke Skywalker”  hostels of Matmata, featured at “Tatooine” in Star Wars,  horseback riding through the mountains and scuba diving in the cold waters of the Mediterranean.  What the guide wanted was not just recommendations, but personal affadavits from people who actually DID these things… first person testimonials of adventures  from your friendly explorer tour guide.
This was in 1982, and we were trying to put Tunisia on the map for educational tourists like me. I was doing a summer intensive Arabic course and studying French, and there were just enough of us non-Tunisians descending on the country each year that the country was banking on tourism as a revenue generator, but didn’t yet have the infrastructure to attract people to areas beyond the narrow strip of beach at Bizert where the big hotels were being built for French sun seekers to engage in nude sunbathing while Tunisian guards beat back gawking locals who crowded each day along the barbed wire topped fences surrounding the resort.
University published guide  books like the one I wrote for, “Let’s Go”  were an invitation to alternative tourists that were and are “especially significant, like travel agencies, for their influence on destination image, destination selection, and tourist behavior” says Weaver on p. 75.
 Today, ”green guidebooks are already a well established component  of alternative tourism”, he assures us,  but : sustainability related sensitivities have yet to significantly infiltrate the conventional guidebook market.”  In other words, it may still be the case that most consumers would rather jet ski and  hang out on the beach with the topless bathers during the day and drink heavily while doing the Danse de Canards in the discos at night, served by Muslim waiters who can’t drink or mingle, but can at least engage vicariously in the culturally taboo actions in the foreign dominated pleasure periphery of the coastal tourist environment. Note that from the post-colonialist  perspective one of the selling points of going to many resorts in exotic Arabian or Muslim nations, is that you get to indulge in some of the “guilty pleasures” of the “taboo”; watching topless bathers or belly dancers or drinking booze or gambling were  only forbidden if you were  actually a Tunisian in the resorts I covered for the tour guide; foreigners are allowed to  follow a different code of ethics in the age of tourism-imperialism and tour operators are eager to use whatever “special enclave status” they can sell regarding “hedonistic pleasures”, displaying a remarkable amount of cultural insensitivity, as though the resort were some never never land that was wholly disconnected from the culture in which it were situated.  Resorts like “Hedonism” and “Club Med” are notorious in this regard.
Still,  niche guidebooks and internet sites for sustainability minded tourists are are now apparently beginning to have an impact, particularly by creating what Weaver, on page 75, calls “Disintermediation”.  In 2016 there a lot more resources like the Let’s Go guides we were creating at Harvard back in 1982 to cater to adventurous tourists like me who don’t have much of a stomach for packaged experiences or agencies trying to make a buck off of us rather than letting us spend the money supporting the local economy of the places we visit.
Travel agencies and other outbound tour operators who don’t add value in a world where you can cut out the middle man and make your own arrangements must increasingly find ways to capture and retain a dwindling market share, but unfortunately many are  using a high pitch sales technique that sounds increasingly like a side show snake oil salesman preying on our excesses.  For example, I recently received a random call asking me to take a robotic survey asking how “green” my preferences were when traveling – a pleasant surprise.  I thought, “wow, and they don’t even know that I teach this stuff.  How cool that tourism marketing has so incorporated the sustainability angle that they lead with that.”  After I had answered the questions a human operator came on the phone and told me I had won a 2 night 3 day cruise to the Bahamas for two, and all I had to do was pay the 118 dollar “port taxes” and about 50 dollars in gratuities.  But when I went to accept the offer the hard sell began, with each salesman whose pitch I declined passing me on to a “manager” with a better offer. They wanted me to sign on for “extended stays” in resorts in the outgoing port of Fort Lauderdale, in the Bahamas and, upon return, in Orlando at Universal and Downtown Disney. They were quite aggressive about it, and each time I politely declined they put me on hold for long periods of time, saying they were going to process my initial offer, but then put  me on with another “manager” who would engage in a kind of psychological shaming, ask me  why I thought I was unwilling to take on this “spectacular offer” which was a “steal”. They told me my reservation number had won me an unprecedented deal on an extended stay for 1500 dollars that would normally cost 3000 and it would be unimaginable to give it up given the huge perks.  The biggest selling point they had to offer, and which they described as though it was the most exciting part of the whole trip they proposed,  were “an upgraded  luxury cabin that your girlfriend will appreciate” and  the “exciting night life” and the 50 and 100 dollar gambling vouchers, 100 dollars in free gasoline for a reduced rate rental car offer, with a car that would “conveniently meet me at the boat” and vouchers for alcoholic drinks, which are not included in the usual package.  I kept trying to explain that I wasn’t interested in drinking and gambling and partying and nightclubs or “exclusive beaches”, and when they asked what I was interested in from the attractions they offered I said, “the coral reefs – the snorkeling and scuba diving, the swimming with dolphins, the wildlife, the hiking – you know, the sustainability and green components that you drew me in with in the first place.”  That seemed to flummox them and they repeated the allure of gambling vouchers and other activities that have nothing to do with the natural assets of the Bahamas but could be done anywhere.  From the confident voices of the young men and women they put on to try and wear my refusal down it was clear they were trying to make some personal connection with me, but they couldn’t quite figure out how to relate to somebody who really does want his trips to reflect stewardship of environment and appreciation for culture.  They are too used to connecting with people intent on “sunlust” and other kinds of lust and who want convenience and exclusiveness and luxury, not people who like to mingle with the local culture and walk or ride bikes or public transit. I said to them “I don’t get it. You lured me into this with a robot voice survey of my green travel preferences and but you aren’t offering me anything that is green? What’s up with that?”
Weaver notes, “Travel agencies are currently faced with the challenge of disintermediation, which is defined as ‘the removal of intermediates such as travel agents from the product/consumer connection’. This is primarily a consequence of Internet technologies that allow the consumer to communicate and make bookings directly with tour operators, carriers, car rental agencies and hotels without the intervention of brokers.  Travel agencies are responding to the threat of disintermediation by restructuring the services that they offer… many travel agencies are capitalizing on the tradition of face-to-face contact as an opportunity to work in a highly personalized way with clients on more complex specialized purchases  such as extended long haul vacations…”p 75
And that would be great if they knew how to personalize a sustainable tourism experience.
Weaver suggests that in time they will be able to pay attention “to sustainability related issues and concerns” that “can be included as a ‘value added component” and that we “cultural creatives, with higher levels of… education… are a promising market for this reinvented travel agency and one that is likely to be receptive to the sustainability add-on”. 

But that’s just the problem. It seems like a mere add on, rather than the point of the travel,  like the swimming with dolphins activity the tour salesmen casually threw in when trying to sell me on an extended stay.  He seemed to have  no clue about the problematic of keeping cetaceans captive so tourists can pet them, no concept whether or not the diving he offered is done with buoy ties rather than reef-destructive anchors… couldn’t answer anything about green products or practices used on the boat or at the destination.  I told him I wanted to go on the cruise so I could investigate those very things. Perhaps if he had been prepared for a dialog about indicators and certificates I would have been persuaded by the upsale.  But at least this particular tour agency, one of the biggest, isn’t there yet….
Weaver corroborates this, saying on page 76, “The literature, in general, is highly critical of tour operators. The sector is described as an oligarchy dominated by a small number of large transnational corporations that use their clout to negotiate the lowest possible prices from inbound operators and other suppliers. Revenues for destination-based businesses as a result are reduced, forcing cost cuts that may translate into inadequate wages for local employees, neglect of the environment and other sustainability-related problems. Even if they are inclined to identify or rectify these problems, outbound tour operators cannot easily act on these inclinations because of the spatial and functional disconnect between their own operations and the destination locales to where their clients are sent.”
That is one of the huge differences between what we did at the “Let’s Go” Guide at Harvard and what other agencies do.  Let’s go sent us out to experience alternative tourist destinations and attractions and to write about them and rate them and advise people and.. yes, guide them.  One would hope in this day and age, tour operators would at least be well trained in the theory and practice of the business as it confronts the dilemmas of development and population pressure and be conversant with clients. But when I asked the salespeople about how the cruise ship could help rejuvenate the location and avoid creating the “destination life cycle crises” of stagnation and decline  that Butler describes with his S curve model, nobody knew what I was talking about.  It isn’t that they didn’t know about the S-curve model, but that they had no idea that the cruise ship they were sending me on had any impact at all and couldn’t tell me why my dollars with them would help the company observe any principles much less the Bellagio principles.
The irony is that they might have been able to sell me if they had used the word “luxury” in a different sense. Weaver says “the inclination to act responsibly is constrained by exceedingly low profit margins, which encourages a high volume of customer turnover and relegates sustainability to a ‘luxury’ that they cannot afford to pursue in the short term.  Outbound operators will therefore be far more sensitive to customer complaints about value for money and service quality (e.g. bad food or uncomfortable accomodations) than to any complaints about labour exploitation or environmental  degradation, although the psychocentric nature of the stereotypical mass package tourist makes it questionable whether such issues would even be flagged at a noticeable level in the first place.” P. 76
What is sad is that when the manager came on in disbelief to hard sell me more and asked me what I wanted in a tour, he said, “we obviously want your business to stay with us and not go to any of our competitors, so here’s what I’m going to do for you…” but then he started talking again about upgrading me to a “luxury suite”.  If he could have gotten his marketing mind around the idea that sustainability unfortunately IS a luxury, as Weaver tells us, then he might have said, “I can give you an exclusive stay in the most sustainable cabin or destination lodge – all LED lights, completely solar powered, a place with composting toilets where you can do sea turtle protection activities” – don’t laugh, I stayed in exactly such places on islands and coastal areas in Borneo in the 1990s. And the textbook uses as its case study on page 89 the on the ground practices of Grecotel resort hotels in Greece where “they participate actively in the IHEI, work closely with the Greek Sea Turtle Protection Society to protect nesting beach habitat and collaborate with local municipalities in a variety of community and environmental projects. They have standardized Green practices including the harnessing of solar power to heat water and the use of low-energy light bulbs, double blazed windows, light sensors that turn off lights when nobody is around, the diversion of greywater for garden irrigation and the use of biological wastewater treatment plants, with landscaping that uses native and endemic plants and architecture that celebrates traditional styles. Now that is luxury in my book. So if sustainability is relegated to being a luxury, then mass tourism operators should make that a positive thing, a selling point.  That would then increase incentive for other operators to make such offers until it became eventually standard practice.
Unfortunately, as Weaver admits, “the bulk packages marketed by large outbound tour operators tend to be undifferentiated generic products (e.g. one week at a beach resort) that appeal to the lowest market common denominator, foster homogeneity and send tourists to already overcrowded ‘honeypot’ destinations… ultimately, because they possess few fixed assets outside of the origin regions where they are based, it is very easy for footloose outbound operators to abandon a destination that becomes too socially, politically  or environmentally unstable. Hence they are less likely to be greatly concerned about the implications of life cycle dynamics for particular destinations or be swayed by the in situ consumption argument. “ P. 77
Well, if they want my money in this age of disintermediation, they had better be concerned…
I know what a Cruise ship line committed to sustainability looks like.  I was hired to be a presenter for 3 weeks on the National Geographic Explorer, a cruise ship owned and run by the Lindblad family of vessels which have the highest standards of sustainability on the seas.  In fact, I was brought on board the vessel as it traveled down the coast of Brazil through Uruguay to Argentina precisely to give lectures on sustainability and lead groups of tourists to the “Vale Encantado” Favela on the hill overlooking the beaches of Rio  where my NGO, Solar CITIES, built food waste and toilet waste biodigesters to provide clean fuel and keep sewage and waste from flowing into the coastal marine environment. The added value for high paying customers on that trip was that the vessel was using sustainable practices AND the staff was extremely knowledgeable about every aspect of sustainability in all its dimensions: financial, social and environmental. But then, Lindblad Expeditions with National Geographic is hardly your run of the mill tour operator.

So  what did I expect from this random phone call telling me I had won a cruise to the Bahamas for answering a little robotic survey about green preferences? Weaver is quite clear when he says “conventional travel agencies, guidebooks, outbound tour operators and cruise ships … seem to have the lowest levels of engagement, with the latter two sectors having acquired some notoriety for their alleged unsustainable practices” Weaver reminds us.
Weaver talks about how “the hospitality sector has a relatively high involvement with sustainability” and how airlines have always been intensively regulated and occupy a position closer to the hotels in this respect.” He cites the sector-wide initiatives such as the CIWMPP, the TOI and the IHE, which give room for optimism, and singles out TUI, British Airways and the Marriot as “innovative corporate leaders” who, with their high level of vertical as well as horizontal integration, can be extremely influential. American Airlines has assigned about “1000 environmental coordinator positions to employees who have been given the responsibility of ensuring compliance with environmental regulations at its various stations” .  They have an EMIS or Environmental Management Information System to manage and monitor their practices “first of waste reduction, then recycling or re-use, followed by treatment and finally disposal.” Their metrics are promising (enough recycling between 1992 and 2001 to save 51,000 trees, 19,300,000 liters of water, 6.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity and 10600 cubic meters of landfill space.” There are promising metrics from British Airways as well with their reduction of domestic CO2 emissions to 16 percent below the 2000 baseline and replacement aircraft achieving the ICAO highest noise standards.  They even achieved a 61 percent reduction in fuel spills over the previous year to they aren’t contaminating our environments quite as much as they used to, if that is any consolation.  And they collected money from passengers through the Change for Good Programme which since 1994 has collected more than 15 Million British pounds and used it to fund development programs in Nigeria and Zambia. Not mentioned is whether these were sustainable development programs…

It is easy to get cynical however since Weaver concludes  in his summary on p 87 that most of the facilitating sectors of the tourism industry currently adhere to a mere ‘veneer’ model of sustainability. He argues that  “Though Progress is evident , it does not appear as if the engagement with sustainability has penetrated deeply into any of these sectors, despite the widespread institutionalization of sustainable  tourism both internally and externally.  Measures taken even by the corporate leaders are generally those that are not overly expensive to implement (e.g. informational brochures or signage), help to lower costs (e.g. energy use reduction, recycling) foster brand visibility, heighten distinctions with competitors, and invite positive consumer response (e.g. through award sponsorship and participation in community projects).  More disturbingly, the level of engagement beyond the corporate leaders appears tenuous at best. “  He says that “tour operators reveal not just low effort or minimalist adherence to sustainability, but also high levels of unawareness and non-involvement. Barriers to pursuing sustainability include confusion over the meaning of ‘sustainable tourism’, lack of knowledge and support, a need to focus on the financial ‘bottom line’ and the lack of any concerted belief that consumers are actually demanding substantive change. “ p. 88
But this last point is the one that gives me the most hope.  When I got off the phone with the cruise ship tour package salesman, we both came away a little changed. I saw confirmation of Weaver’s cynicism but also some significant wiggle room for hope, because the four salesmen I spoke to each left that hardball call more convinced than ever that consumers are actually demanding substantive change. They came in so confident that they had “just the thing for me” based on a conventional view of human desires and purchasing patterns  and realized that I was serious about my commitment to sustainability and would only respond to substantive change. Since their sales pitch involves chatting the potential client up and trying to get a sense of where their weaknesses are, I hit them with the fact that I study sustainable tourism and at one time wrote for an alternative tourism guidebook.  They had to stretch a bit to find a match between what they thought they could offer me and what would really make me part with my money, and I would like to  think this encounter is something they will talk about tonight at the bar when they compare sales.   And so I imagine that if all of you, if all of us, studying sustainable tourism, start helping tour operators believe that it is time to change the way they approach their industry because we are demanding it, the supply and demand curve will change rather rapidly.  It is as the Pogo cartoon from the last century said, “we’ve met the enemy, and he is us”.  If we don’t speak up about our preferences when we are talking to people in the tourism world then how would they know? What intimidates or discourages us from constantly engaging with the folks who make up the tourism industry and helping create the very real sense that we mean business for their business? Isn’t it partially our fault that they don’t have faith that learning about sustainability and making it real will improve their bottom line?  In a capitalist economy you can vote with your dollars and the consumer is king.  We want sustainable tourism. All we have to do is show them we mean it.

Topics to Keep in Mind from the Chapter:

 Travel agencies
Sustainability initiatives
European experiences
Specialized  merchandise guidebooks
Outbound tour operators
Implications for sustainability
Sustainability related sentiments and practices
Tour operators initiative for sustainable tourism development
Transportation providers
Airport issues
Industry best practices examples: American Airlines and British Airways
Cruise ships
Expenditure monopolization
 A globalized phenomenon
Evidence of poor environmental performance
Sustainability initiatives
Hospitality providers
Major influence on destination and tourism sustainability
Pioneering sustainable tourism
On the ground: Implementing sustainability at Grecotel

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