Cultural tourism can create opportunities that benefit travelers and the destination, but it requires thoughtful balance and strategy. We found insight from Peter Richards, consultant on Cultural Tourism Development and Market Access for the International Trade Centre.
At what point did you realize you wanted to dedicate your life to tourism development?
I started saving for my first big journey when I was 14 years old. Major turning points were working as an English teacher in a small Thai village, as a tour leader and the regional responsible tourism coordinator for Intrepid Travel, and then as a volunteer/staff for the Responsible Ecological Social Tours project. These experiences confirmed to me that travel could be a bridge between different cultures and peoples, foster respect and friendship, and change peoples’ lives for the better.
What are the most important elements of responsible travel as a whole?
This is a tough question because there is a need for so much work across what, how and who at many different scales and levels. Businesses assess their practices to identify how they can increase benefits and reduce negative impacts across economy, environment, society and culture.
What are some of the challenges in this process?
The top priorities for responsible tourism should be reducing carbon footprint and creating new economic opportunities. However, as all issues are interpreted through cultural lenses and values; this work needs to be done with respect, empathy and an eye for cultural detail.
What solutions are available to help achieve these goals?
Many good quality resources and tools are available to help businesses to improve their sustainability performance across these dimensions. However, businesses and other stakeholders also need to take care not to get lost in a sea of details. They need to prioritize the most important responsible travel issues for their particular business or destination.
I think that “how” to make tourism more responsible must be through groundbreaking partnerships, across sectors. Creating products and experiences that satisfy tourists, and contribute towards sustainable development require a balance of tourism and sustainability tools and perspectives. So, we need more cooperation between tour operators, environmental scientists, community workers, etc., on concrete projects.
Can you explain how living heritage benefits both the traveler and the local community?
Very rich experiences are possible when local people are practicing traditional occupations, festivals, arts and music, and they are also genuinely enthusiastic to share their cultures and ways of life with visitors.
Focusing on daily life activities, rather than a small number of historic buildings or museums can create new opportunities for ordinary community members to participate in and benefit from tourism. Interest by tourists in living heritage can help to affirm the value of traditional heritage, and build bridges between an elder generation wishing to conserve cultural heritage, and a younger generation seeking new economic and educational opportunities.
What challenges do these programs face?
Building tourist experiences upon daily life activities is also a fine balance. Local people may feel very proud of special aspects of their way of life, but may still not feel comfortable sharing these events with visitors. Complex taboos may govern these local events.
Successful living heritage tourism requires a strong consultation process with local community members, to raise their awareness of tourism, to identify which aspects of local life and culture people can share, and to prepare local community members with the skills needed to welcome tourists.
What are some examples of successful living heritage experiences?
Thailand has been developing community-based tourism (CBT) activities since the early 1990s, and training has been provided by the government, tour operators, NGOs and universities. Good examples include Mae Kampong village in Chiang Mai and Ban Talae Nok village in Kuraburi.
Several new CBT programs are being developed in Myanmar. These include a pioneering partnership between Action Aid and Peak DMC in Myaing, outside Bagan. The Inclusive Tourism project in Kayah state was implemented by the International Trade Center, which offers respectful cultural experiences in Pan Pet and Hta Nee La Leh villages.
Where do you think nations need to focus their efforts to deal with growing tourism?
In rural communities it is a big leap from agriculture to tourism. Community members need sufficient training and appropriate, simple management to welcome visitors successfully and sustainably.
In remote destinations, more community products fail due to poor market access than fail due to over-visitation. So, it’s important to get responsible businesses on board from the start. As visitors begin to arrive, carrying capacity and visitor management gradually become more important. Zoning and limiting visitor numbers can be used to identify and protect fragile natural areas.
An important challenge of managing the social impacts of tourism is that assessing “carrying capacity” is not only about the volume of visitors. Different types of visitors, looking for different types of experiences, have different types of impacts. So, for example, community members may really enjoy hosting very large groups of motivated students; but not smaller groups of very demanding, or poorly informed travelers. It is also dynamic. A community’s capacity to host larger numbers of guests will also increase as they become more experienced.
What are your greatest hopes for tourism development in Asia Pacific in the coming years?
I would like to see the tourism industry reaching out proactively to work with environmental scientists and community development specialists. We should pool our skills and experience to create really great experiences for tourists, local communities and our shared planet.
Photo credit: ITC/Pan Pet