We will understand only what we are taught
In 1968 in New Delhi Mr Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist, in his speech to the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said that
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”
I liked this quote so much that I decided to use it in the opening paragraph of my Masters Research. I recently completed my masters dissertation (in South Africa I think it is referred to as a thesis), to qualify for the MSc in Responsible Tourism Management from Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK. I thought that this platform might be the ideal place to share my research and some of the results as it focused on Responsible Tourism, Sustainable Business practices and tourism SME’s.
Sustainable tourism requires attention to the technical aspects of tourism development whereas Responsible Tourism, referring to the accountability of tourism, includes the people issues as well. Technical frameworks don’t make changes, people make changes. And that is why that quote made 42 years ago is still relevant today. For understanding to take place individuals need to be shown the relevancy of sustainability to their own lives and how it relates the world we all live in.
I decided to title my research report: “Establishing the readiness for sustainability learning of small owner-managed tourism businesses by analysing their decision-making processes.” It did not start out with this title but as the research developed and my thinking changed (and my brain grew tired from all the critical reading) so the title changed.
Attitudes towards sustainability
The more I read (tons of academic journal articles) the more I discovered that research interest in the environmental, economic and social (triple bottom line) behaviour of small tourism businesses has been non-existent in the past 15 years. What was available was biased towards developed countries and very little research existed on developing and transition economies. The only exceptions were work done on Kerala’s indigenous houseboat tourism, a study on tourism in a Croatian village and a piece on Chinese travel agents. My search for articles also pointed me towards Dr C. Rogerson’s work (from the University of the Witwatersrand) on South Africa’s policy re-structure concerning Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment that focused entirely on transforming the ownership structure. So for whatever reason, tourism SME’s have not been the focus of sustainability research in the past. And as small tourism businesses make up a significant stake of the tourism economic sector in any country and collectively could have a big impact on responsible tourism in destinations in the long term, I was quite surprised by this. I did, however, get the feeling that this trend was changing and credit can only be given to the rise in popularity of Responsible Tourism all over the world in the last decade. I am talking here about structured academic research and not industry reports.
The focus of my research was on small tourism businesses operating in rural areas of the Western Cape, South Africa. I selected four owner-managed small tourism businesses operating on the West Coast who were willing to be part of an intimate study looking at current business practise and who were willing to implement more sustainability practises based on advice and guidance I provided them. This was not about quantity but about really getting to grips with decision making process of owner managers when it comes to sustainability. I chose to use participatory action research methodology as a framework, a research method previously adopted for consultancy best practise.
My aim was to establish the readiness for sustainability learning of rurally-located, small owner-managed tourism businesses by analysing their decision-making processes. The objective was to identify the underlying decisional factors that play a role in determining the positive and negative attitudes and behaviour towards introducing sustainability practises into their business management processes.
The outcomes surprised me
My work most definitely achieved some success in dispelling some of misconceptions that small business owners have around implementing responsible tourism practices. After all it is not rocket science – I have often found that businesses were already doing some of the right things and just needed confirmation to continue doing what they are doing. The misconceptions by owner-managers about customer expectations were particularly interesting. Customers are better informed now than they were and they have a genuine interest in the good things that business owners and managers are doing. By telling them about it gives customers permission to participate in other ways provided by the business.
Marketing your triple-bottom line commitment
Participating SME’s were guided on ways to market their business as responsible or green in a manner that lets customers not feel as though they are being ‘preached’ to while on holiday.
This process should almost always begin with a written Responsible Tourism policy outlining the commitment being made. The next step if provide guidance and assistance to SME’s on how to effectively communicate this policy to customers in a way that engaged and encouraged cooperation. One way of establishing cooperation and minimising the undesired effect of ‘preaching’ is through an educational approach. We understand and consider doing ourselves only that which we can see is relevant to our own lives.
If tourism owner-managers have made a commitment, taken the necessary steps, have a written Responsible Tourism policy and customers can clearly see your commitment then the logical next step would be to market those practises in way that is fun and engaging. It should start a conversation and facilitate the telling of stories – Responsible Tourism stories.
As Gerhard Buttner pointed out in a previous post, the city is the key to unlocking tourism in the rest of the province and here !Khwa ttu has been mentioned in two previous posts. They are Fair Trade accredited, are on the city periphery and yet local Capetonians don’t pay a visit. But FTTSA is not a marketing organisation and they are not alone, research has shown that the ‘Green Tourism Business Scheme’ in the UK has over 2000 members committed to triple bottom line accountability but they have been criticised in the past for not marketing their members more effectively. Cape Town Tourism is a fantastic destination marketing organisation but cannot promote responsible businesses above other members, only responsible best practise and promote responsible tourism activities and experiences. As Helen Turnbull of Serendipity Africa mentions in a previous post, our tourism trade associations who rely on membership fees “are reluctant to differentiate between those who operate ethically and those who do not, because everyone pays the same fees.”
The same goes for the West Coast where I am working to create Responsible Tourism awareness. Many Capetonians still think that the West Coast is just as far as the Garden route when you can be walking along the Langebaan Lagoon in under 1hr and 15 min. It is here that I suggest that ‘The City of Cape Town’ and the provincial ‘Department of Economic Development and Tourism’ should collaborate to a greater extent to dispel misconceptions that domestic tourists have about travel, distances, infrastructure, safety and facilities within the province.
The reality is that whilst domestic travellers are apathetic about new cultural experiences such !Khwa ttu and whilst discussions take place in boardrooms about whose responsibility it is to be marketing whom, rural areas are suffering from a lack of tourists. Local tourism businesses are gradually selling up and closing doors. These are businesses who employ cleaners, garden workers and receptionists; who buy goods and services supporting the local economy and who bring in the tourist spend. This creates a waterfall effect as this tourist income is usually spent in the local economy and reaches local hands far quicker than in larger hotel industries.
If we are to truly advance Responsible Tourism in Cape Town and in regions throughout the Western Cape then we need to recognise and celebrate those SME’s who have implemented triple bottom line practises across their businesses and not wait for the point at which they have the funds, the time and the willingness to get accredited.
Development Chair for Saldanha Bay Tourism and proprietor of Luzmore Tourism Development