With 2017 being the United Nation’s International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development, the rise of socially responsible tourism enterprises is appropriately inspiring entrepreneurs, engaging consumers and empowering communities the world over. Here, some of those at the forefront of the social enterprise movement share their ideas about tourism as a positive force, and how business can ride the winds of change.
Tourism’s capacity to facilitate cross-cultural understanding and provide meaningful work that benefits locals, communities and the environment, is a shining example of how globalism can work. That’s the good news, according to Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles of UniSA’s School of Management, who has been investigating human rights, sustainability and social justice issues in tourism, hospitality and events for almost two decades.
“AT ITS BEST, TOURISM CAN CONNECT PEOPLE, FOSTER GREATER UNDERSTANDING, INDUCE EMPATHY AND INVOLVE PEOPLE IN CREATING POSITIVE SOCIAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE.”
But it’s not all fair-trade mojitos and organic pulled-pork sliders: the challenges are vast. With cheap airfares, the rise of businesses like Airbnb, and the proliferation of over-development, tourism has never been bigger or more accessible—so much so we're being warned that tourism is ruining the planet.
“Right now, we have some European destinations experiencing over-tourism, and the associated conflicts coming from that,” Higgins-Desbiolles says.
“And you can clearly see the tensions when they get it wrong; we need to be mindful about how we manage tourism and really think about its meaning and value.”
She points to success stories like Copenhagen, which uses the slogan ‘live like a local’. “Through this, the city is saying is that they welcome tourists, they want them to embrace the community, and blend in. And it’s this kind of invited synergy that delivers the tourism ideal.”
Seeing tourism in purely economic terms, where visitor numbers and spending are the measures of success, only captures part of the picture, and is a trap that many Australian tourism bodies falling into.
“Tourism should be more than just metrics; it’s about building positive futures and sharing the best of people and place,” Higgins-Desbiolles says. “And instead of thinking solely about profitability, we should also be considering measures of holistic sustainability.”
While certainly less easy to measure, holistic sustainability is far from a newfangled idea; we only need look back to Thomas Cook, widely considered to be the founder of modern mass tourism, for inspiration.
“Cook had clear social aims,” Higgins-Desbiolles says. “He was a temperance leader who was concerned about alcohol abuse. At that time people were working all week in tough factory jobs and on the weekends they’d head to the pubs. He believed in the wholesome value of holidays and organised seaside journeys to give the working class different leisure opportunities.”
Cook was also instrumental in democratising travel, using technology like trains and steam ships to bring travel and its educational benefits to the people; something that Higgins-Desbiolles warns we shouldn’t lose sight of.
“I think it’s important that we shouldn’t move away from the fact that everyone should have holidays—they should be accessible to people with low incomes, with disabilities, and single parent families—but if everyone did fulfil that right, we’d have problems with ecological and social impacts. So we need to be thoughtful about the way we do things to ensure access and fairness for all.”
Examples of best practice have been growing. The Conservation Council of South Australia offers ‘Nature for You’ free tours, designed to help low-income families, refugees and unemployed people enjoy the benefits of nature. The Ngarrindjeri Aboriginal community has hosted educational groups at Camp Coorong since 1985, sharing knowledge of country, culture and history. And Melbourne’s Moroccan Soup Bar is building communities and bringing people together through events such as ‘Speed date a Muslim’ (not for romance, but for shedding misinformation and fear).
A growing emphasis on more meaningful and authentic experiences doesn’t mean that mass tourist destinations should be eschewed entirely; Higgins-Desbiolles points out that places like the Gold Coast are better equipped—infrastructure-wise—to cater for tourists than the high-end luxury eco escapes in wilderness areas.
“South Australia’s heading down the luxury route; the argument being that more affluent tourists are fewer in number and therefore have fewer impacts because of the lower volume.
“That’s one strategy for sustainability, but by focusing only on luxury, you’re setting up society for greater fracturing, greater individualisation, competition, selfishness, and hedonism, and that permeates the whole ethos of people and place.
“And what more accessible, sustainable enterprises are doing is saying ‘we’re not isolated individuals; it matters that we’re connected.’”
That may be all very kumbaya, but why should business care?
“It matters that what you do involves and improves the community because discerning clients and the community are your stakeholders,” Higgins-Desbiolles says.
“If you’re not considering the needs of the community in the way you do business, then it’s likely you’ll lose your social licence.
“The days of ‘greed is good’ and mindless pursuit of profits are coming to an end; responsibility, engagement and shared benefits are the paths to a sustainable future.”
SUSTAINABILITY THROUGH FOOD
Each year, Australians throw out $8-$10 billion worth of food, with four million tonnes ending up in landfill.
Disturbingly, Australia produces enough food to feed the population, yet millions are hungry while a third of our food goes to waste.
If there's any silver lining, it's the unprecedented consumer enthusiasm for sustainable cafes and culturally authentic food experiences. The rise of the informed foodie, who wants to taste the world, not trample it, has had a positive social and economic effect on many businesses and communities.
“People are now much more comfortable asking questions about the origin and quality of food—both in restaurants and on review sites, so there’s a big incentive for business to deliver answers,” Higgins-Desbiolles says.
“Food is the mechanism of our wellbeing and nourishment, but it’s also a way to communicate across cultures and a tool for intercultural diplomacy. We can reach people through food in a way unlike any other. Food subtly opens dialogues through tastes, food cultures and values.”
Higgins-Desbiolles, together with Dr Gayathri Wijesinghe, recently showcased 20 different sustainable cafes from South Australia and Melbourne in a research project aimed at identifying successful strategies for the future of food.
One such example is Sarah’s Sister’s Sustainable Café, a vegetarian restaurant run by Stuart Gifford and Marion Prosser. Committed to community engagement, reduced waste and emissions, this café is proof that values-driven enterprises can not only survive, but thrive, responding to community needs along the way.
As long-term sustainable food advocates, their café makes use of excess produce grown in school and community-based kitchen gardens, an initiative they established to deliver cooking and healthy eating programs.
But there’s no gilding the lily: the current economic climate is the toughest Gifford has encountered.
“We’re catering to the middle-lower end of the market and many of our customers are having to cut back on discretionary spending,” he says. “But we’ve responded to that and developed more affordable lunch options.”
Despite challenges, Gifford remains positive. “The ups and downs in business are a given. In the big picture, we count our blessings that we've been able to operate a business based on our beliefs and passion, for nearly 40 years,” he says. “It’s a business model where everyone wins.”
‘BUSH TUCKER’ FOR RECONCILIATION AND EMPOWERMENT
Aboriginal tourism ventures fulfil a vital role in advancing reconciliation and understanding, delivering ethical employment and facilitating connection to country.
Authentic Aboriginal experiences are regularly promoted to an international audience by Tourism Australia, yet it’s the fickle domestic tourism market that could provide Indigenous-run enterprises with the boost they need.
According to Ngarrindjeri elder and cultural performer Major ‘Moogy’ Sumner AM, there is a growing appetite for Aboriginal understanding and reconciliation. He says getting to this point has been a long journey.
“I was born and grew up on Raukkan, then known as the Point McLeay mission near Lake Alexandrina, and it was frowned upon to speak your language,” he says.
“People tried to get away from the missions, tried to get jobs and live in the city, and culture wasn’t a thing that you carried with you because people were punished for practicing their culture.”
Thankfully, attitudes have changed, and now Moogy and many others are involved in an array of inspiring projects helping to increase understanding and revive culture—from traditional performances and boomerang throwing workshops to innovative apps, cultural festivals and native food production.
Indigenous people of the lower Murray are now propagating wildflowers and growing native foods including muntries (‘native cranberries’) and samphire (an increasingly-popular salad green).
“Today people everywhere want to know about Aboriginal culture,” Moogy says. “I think they’re looking for their roots in a way.
“Culture can be used in different ways; to heal ourselves, and to heal other peoples.”
Moogy’s advice to business leaders wanting to support reconciliation and healing, is to develop cultural awareness programs that go beyond once-a-year events.
“While it’s great to celebrate NAIDOC week, we need to be taking it further, thinking about how many people in your workplace know about Aboriginal culture, how many of them speak to Aboriginal people, how many Aboriginal people work there,” he says.
“We need more Aboriginal-friendly places; you go to some workplaces and there’s nothing there to represent the people and the country; think about how you can tell that story, about how you’re going to approach that; how you’re going to approach different people in the community and ask them to do something.”
WHERE ACCOMMODATION MEETS ACTIVISM
The West Bank may not be up there on every tourist’s bucket-list, but perceptions are being challenged by agenda-setting artist Banksy through the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem.
Situated across from the wall that separates Israeli-controlled territory from Palestine, the working hotel is decorated with original Banksy art, such as a mural depicting an Israeli soldier and Palestinian having a pillow fight. The lodgings have been in high demand since the hotel’s opening in March this year (guests are required to put up a sizeable bond to stop the temptation to swipe souvenirs).
While travelling through checkpoints won’t be every holiday-makers’ cup of tea, such inconveniences are all part of the experience aimed at drawing attention to the injustices of occupation.
And tourists are flocking; the hotel’s attracted more than 25,000 visitors, and an additional 2500 overnight guests. It follows in the successful footsteps of Banksy’s ‘bemusement park’ installation Dismaland, which drew 150,000 visitors and injected an estimated £20m into the UK seaside town of Weston-super-Mare in 2015.
Higgins-Desbiolles, who visited the Walled Off hotel this September, says the hotel invites us to consider the value of tourism as a political tool. “A tourist can contemplate in a real way who is mobile and who is not, and how our choices are implicated in such circumstances,” she says.
What I like about Banksy, is he doesn’t say he’s in politics—He’s an artist, and he’s used creativity to draw people in.
But the hotel is not just about educating tourists; it’s embedded in the community, showcasing local art, music and film, bringing the tourists and members of the local community together.
“What happens when you’re living in that environment is your horizons get closed, so the one way you can open up your environment is to let the tourists come in,” says Higgins-Desbiolles. “Tourists are almost a window to the world—and they can be good for the host community to get that cosmopolitan experience. And for the Palestinians, visitors under occupation are a source of hope and connection.”
EVENTS AS A CHANGE AGENT
The term ‘social enterprise’ has become much more than buzzword in the four years since Sara Gun founded GOGO Events, a company that trains and employs homeless and disadvantaged women to create and install décor for major events and conferences.
Witnessing growth in consumer and corporate willingness to support ethical, socially-progressive businesses, Gun says this heralds more of a paradigm shift than a transient trend.
“This is the new way that millennials are living,” says Gun. “It’s part of their values to want to do good, and so they’re seeking out businesses that are mindful about their processes and impact on the environment and society.”
For Gun, starting GOGO was a conscious decision. Looking for meaning in her profession, she wanted to feel good about what she was doing between 9-5 and how she was contributing to the workforce, economy and society.
GOGO Events provides a model that Gun and UniSA researchers Dr Manjit Monga and Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles are helping to spread, with a current research project documenting and sharing the model.
Since establishment, GOGO Events has transformed Gun’s life and those of the women she employs. “On a personal level, I’m motivated and driven; work is not a chore, it’s a life choice,” she says. “I don’t need work-life balance anymore because through the business I have a purpose.”
And for her staff, the opportunities have been every bit as profound. “We help break down pre-conceived ideas about homelessness and disadvantage, and watch our people develop their capacity and ability to be part of a team, and be productive and successful.”
Gun pays employees for all time put-in, including training, at above-award wages, and says it critical to her businesses success by building trust and boosting morale.
"They take this into their lives, and it has a ripple effect on their relationships, families and communities."
It’s giving them more than just hope, it gives them confidence; it’s realising ‘I might even be able to do this; I might be able to go and get a job and not struggle with a lack of self-worth and confidence.”