Transparency and willingness to support local communities requires that also the disadvantages of the place are identified.
For me, regenerative thinking in tourism raises awareness and helps to find new ways to produce tourism in a truly sustainable and caring way from the stakeholders level to the local communities and further on to the visitors.
Local decision-makers play the most important role in planning and implementing well-being-increasing tourism, but enterprises and tourists can influence by expressing their own wishes and concerns. Awareness in tourism requires transparency and fair action from all operators, including tourists.
Tourists should also be able to see behind the scenes and locals should really make their voices heard. Here I am referring to all locals, not just sample local people who produce tourism services or who have been chosen by advertising agencies.
I was ashamed to represent the travel industry
I still remember one concrete moment when I was ashamed, even though it has been more than 25 years. I was a young professional and worked as a guide for a Finnish tour operator in the Dominican Republic. I lived in Puerto Plata with a local family in the same house. Me and my colleague upstairs and the family downstairs. Three generations of the local family lived in the downstairs home.
Power and water outages were common, and during power outages I often went to hang out with my downstairs neighbors. The atmosphere was caring and happy. I was invited to birthday parties and we prepared for the carnival party with the family’s youth. Sometimes we dance merengue in the yard. During water outages, we together pumped water from the backup well of our Canadian-owned apartment to the whole neighborhood.
On my days off, I sometimes took the youngest members of the family with me on excursions. One day I decided to take them to the beach in the hotel area so they could see where I worked. At the gates of the resort we were stopped and the local guards said that I could go, but the local children could not, because locals without a work permit were not allowed to enter the area.
I was angry and ashamed and asked them to call the manager of one of the contract hotels. I told him how unfair this situation was and announced that I would go to the beach regardless of possible penalties. I also told that I would report the matter to my Finnish employer.
So we went to the beach and although we had fun, the ignorance of the tourists about the wall built between locals and tourists felt incredible. Of course, the situation would be even more despicable if they knew and didn’t care, and that was also possible. My mind made me shout out loud to all the beach folk that they should start a revolt and defend the locals.
I haven’t been to the Dominican Republic since that year of work, but I hope that tourism has developed in more ethically responsible way, although as far as I know, overbuilding has been curbed there as well.
When enough is enough: Case Gran Canaria
I also worked for a Finnish tour operator on the island of Gran Canaria in the 1990´s . I got involved in the circles of locals interested in environmental issues and preserving local culture, thanks to a local boyfriend at the time.
I really woke up to the island’s challenges when I returned there after almost twenty years and saw a huge change. Now my motive was to spend time far from the tourist beaches, on the hiking trails in the interior of the island, but I also wanted to return to the places where I had once guided Finnish tourists.
Even though that huge construction in itself slapped me in the face with the harsh truth, the real truth was revealed only after talking with local friends. When I admired the wind turbines, my friends didn’t immediately dare to tell the whole truth behind them. Or when I was excited about great hiking trails, the locals didn’t tell me the concern they were carrying. When an activity interested tourists, it was easy to commercialize it at any price, and the interests of the locals were easily forgotten.
Local decision-makers who want to ensure the growth of economic benefits from tourism permits to increase accommodation capacity. The island also wants to stay involved in the race of responsible tourist destinations and increasing numbers of tourists need more resources, including renewable electricity. For that, more and more land is reserved for the construction of wind turbines and waterways are harnessed for the use of hydro power and not all locals are happy about these plans.
According to many locals, including my friends who work or used to work in tourism, the limit of accommodation capacity has been exceeded a long time ago. Now would be the time to reduce the capacity and get more tourism income for the island with fewer tourists.
The island’s challenges are not limited to these ecological challenges, but a lot also happens behind the scenes, e.g. regarding the care of refugees who land on the island. Awareness can be increased e.g. by watching documentaries. You can also read an article here Erilainen Kanarian matka (Fin)
Let´s not hide in shame, let´s raise awareness
Just as hope without action remains hopefulness and wishful thinking, awareness without action also remains at the level of empty words. The solution is not to stop traveling, but part of the solution is to be genuinely interested in where to travel, to whom to direct the money and to understand the importance of your own decisions from the point of view of local well-being.
The well-being of the local community is linked to the well-being of nature and vice versa. What can a tourists and operators do when traveling to the Canary Islands, in addition to ensuring that as large a part of the amount paid as possible goes to the locals?
We can tell that we are aware of the challenges e.g. with a feedback form. We can tell that we are ready to pay more so that tourism income does not have to be increased by building additional capacity. We can highlight our concerns, observations and ideas in social media publications. We can participate in paid trips during which e.g. local nature is restored or garbage is collected, or we can support the activity financially. Tour operators and travel agencies have very good possibilities to influence when choosing partners.
In the worst case, it eventually happens that tourists wear out the island of Gran Canaria and other similar destinations and then stop visiting them because they are no longer nice places to visit, not to mention they are not nice places to live. And a worn-out place is not particularly an interesting destination for the more aware traveler of the future.
I also want to remind that raising awareness does not have to lead to shame or black and white thinking. Every tourism country has its own challenges alongside the benefits. The best medicine for these challenges is honest and transparent development and operations that understand the whole.
These thoughts also lead to the question of who ultimately has the most power and opportunity to influence. Regenerative thinking leads to redesign tourism together in a conscious way. That´s why I count on regeneration and invite you to join.
My dearest greetings go to my friends on Gran Canaria island and in the Dominican Republic.
Gran Canaria: Armando Perez, Eduardo Martin and Canarias libre de plasticos – community.
The Dominican Republic: My ”Dominican family”, specially Marlene with whom I have reconnected through social media.