If you ask me why I chose to focus on sustainable cultural tourism and not something else on this blog, I think the short answer would be “for the people”. Sure, I could write for search engines and make a sh*tload of money through advertising and affiliate marketing but the bottom line is this: I suck at copywriting and I’d rather tell stories, preferably the stories of people and destinations that don’t always get the spotlight (hence the offbeat destinations part).
To be clear, this could be a clever way to carve out my little niche in the travel blogging world and take a huge leap ahead of the competition, except it’s not. I’ve come to the conclusion that counting page views and social media followers don’t add any value to my life. Having festival organizers, tourist boards or local business owners counting on me to help them spread the word about their little corner of the world does. That’s exactly what happened this year when I got the chance to cover the fifth edition of the Azores Fringe Festival, get the attention of local authorities for amazing art projects like Galeria Costa on Pico Island, get to know and write about smaller wine producers at Rota das Vinhas do Pó, and getting an invitation to join other bloggers in Maia (a town near Porto) for the 22nd edition of the International Festival of Comic Theater next week.
Sustainable cultural tourism to offbeat destinations sounds like a mouthful (slightly pretentious, I admit) of a tagline for a blog but it sums up my goals for Tripper (although it’s kind of hard to print it neatly on a business card).
I’m a firm believer that when you find your path and work hard, opportunities come to you (luck has nothing to do with it). For the past six months or so, I had been trying to find a community of like-minded people and I began connecting with others in the sustainable tourism niche on LinkedIn, although I wasn’t quite sure yet what I would make of it. Then, at the end of August, I got an email from one of those connections (Albert Salman, the president of Green Destinations, a non-profit organization for sustainable tourism) with details about the Global Green Destinations Event in Estoril. But it wasn’t the invitation to attend the event that caught my attention, it was the possibility to make a change through their Green Destinations Ambassador program. There’s a reason why the sustainable travel blogging community is smaller than the rest. The niche is an honorable one but it doesn’t sell as well as “instagrammable destinations”, “ultimate bucket lists” or “the 5867 hidden gems you must visit right now in [insert trending country/city of the moment] before you turn [insert age]”.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s the state of the travel blogging industry these days (and most of the travel writing business). The community is small but we speak loudly and we count on the power of storytelling to get our message across (even if we skip one SEO-power-keyword or two).
In this blog post, I want to share with you my thoughts and key takeaways from this massive event (yet astoundingly lacking proper coverage from mass media) and the impact of what these destinations’ best practices have on cultural tourism. There were more presentations and, although I won’t refer to all of them here, I’ll list them at the end of the post for your reference.
Let’s talk values (not the $$$$ kind)
I’ve fallen on the “be a local” tourist trap a few times, even when my gut feeling told me to think twice. Thousands of tourists fall into that same trap in Lisbon, especially those who claim to be experienced travelers and who rent an Airbnb apartment to feel the vibe of the city. I wonder what vibe is that? The vibe of an apartment building that’s been bought and remodeled for short-term rental units?
Look, five years ago when the Portuguese were going through a severe financial crisis, maybe you were renting someone’s place that still had an authentic vibe (and helping them out with extra income in the process). These days, the locals have a different take on it and do you know what’s the best way to have that “be a local” experience? Is to actually engage with locals. In Alfama, the street Rua dos Remédios has 230 apartments listed on Airbnb. This street, in the heart of Lisbon’s oldest and most famous quarter, is less than one mile long. How local will your experience be if you rent one of these apartments on your next vacation?
As Albert Salman put it on his opening presentation, “2017 is the year of the revolt of the locals against disruptive tourism”. We’ve seen it in Barcelona, Venice, Dubrovnik, Santorini, and we’re now beginning to see it in Lisbon and Porto. Let me add to this scenery the rowdy tourists who invade and desecrate temples in Indonesia and who have made the beaches in Thailand and Goa (India) their own drunken playground, or the travel bloggers who Instagram themselves floating in infinity pools during sunset in countries struggling for access to clean water and food (basic human rights).
Albert also pointed out concerns that, I believe, are in every sustainable traveler’s mind: when sustainable labels are for sale what can we do about it? And how do we prevent the menace of ‘greenwashing’? By the way, did you know Barcelona was labeled as a sustainable tourism destination…? Is that what really comes to mind when you think of Barcelona?
Given the trend of sustainable tourism lately, it’s easy to see why destinations are so eager to be recognized as green and those that have the money to buy the certification won’t think twice before jumping on the opportunity. That’s why certifications awarded by organizations like Green Destinations are important (and legit).
The Green Destination’s core values are straightforward, achievable, and, well, right down my alley:
Genuine and authentic: supporting the celebration of local culture and tradition;
Responsible: defending people against exploitation and human rights violation, and enhancing accessibility for people with disabilities;
Economically sustainable: involving the local business community and enhancing local community employment during and beyond the holiday season;
Environmentally sustainable: ensuring public health, safety, and sound environmental management;
Nature & scenery: protecting scenic views, habitats and wildlife, and respecting animals that are used in tourism.
“Culture attracts quality tourism” (or the importance of being unique)
I have a friend whose life motto is your vibe attracts your tribe, and the same can be said about tourism. Except most of the tourist destinations are so focused on attracting more people (following the false idea that more people equals more money that equals more success) that they will go to great lengths to change their character (which is what attracted visitors in the first place).
I’ve been seeing it in Lisbon and I cringe at articles that call the city one of the best cruise destinations in Europe. Some of the people are ecstatic about it and, in the naked eye, it does look like those crowds of tourists equal huge amounts of money coming in. It doesn’t. Most of them (if not all of them) engage in pre-paid packages of activities that they sign up for on board (for triple the price). If you read Elizabeth Becker’s “Overbooked”, there’s a whole section about the cruising industry and how they make money through overcharging passengers and hiring staff for substandard pay.
What may look blasé to us is someone else’s reason to visit a destination. I admit I felt like that about the Azores when I lived there but now I’m the first to promote my home islands with every fiber of my being.
Some destinations have begun to focus on their cultural diversity as a powerful asset to stand out from the travel promotion noise. Sure, pristine beaches and snowy peaks make up for a much more appealing travel brochure than a cultural event or a tradition, but it’s focusing on the crowd you want to attract that makes the difference. Here are the achievements in cultural tourism shared by some of the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations at the conference:
- Red Centre Australia, home of some of the oldest aboriginal cultures, is strengthening cultural identity in a westernized country by learning the true culture from the sources;
- The National Park of Atlantic Islands in Galicia is highlighting cultural and patrimonial value;
- The island of Gozo in Malta is taking a leap forward by promoting an island destination through culture and communicating Gozo as a destination for different targets (supported by data revealing that visitors travel to the island for culture and to experience local life). They do so by keeping a busy cultural calendar because they believe (and I agree) “culture attracts quality tourism”;
- Galicia is revitalizing and promoting the Camino as a cultural route based on the history of the route as a religious pilgrimage;
- Skyros, a tiny island in Greece, is trying to find the balance between the negative impact of mass tourism on local resources and the need for tourism as an income. They’ve been focusing on local culture as a tourism asset, highlighting the traditional Carnival and traditional furniture building as part of their unique cultural identity;
- Torres Vedras (a city 30 miles north of Lisbon) is focusing on becoming a cultural travel destination through its local historical and religious heritage, and festivities and events (the Carnaval being the most popular event of the year). We had the chance to visit the city on the last day of the event (precisely one day before the election for City Council) and I was impressed with the focus on local culture. It’s not just brochure-pretty pictures and copywriting; the Mayor and his team (he’s been reelected by the way) worked on rehabilitating key historical buildings and empowering local artisans and producers by creating a strong brand. Visitors can buy local certified products at the recently-opened shop in the city center;
- In Bison Land (Romania) the DMO cooperates with small local businesses and markets the unique landscape as a mix of the natural, the spiritual, and the cultural;
- Nanliao (a small island in Taiwan) fights the competition from neighboring Asian destinations as one of the smallest Green Destination (so far) and through local intangible cultural heritage;
- Lake Tota (Colombia) links cultural landmarks to the environment, showing there’s more than one dimension to a destination.
Leveraging local cultural events or creating new ones
For the majority of cultural tourists, the destination is not the main reason they travel. The Azores is a great example of this. In 2016, I published a guest blog post on The Huffington Post with the very long title “Why The Azores Are The Best European Island Destination For All Types Of Travelers”. The reaction from readers who didn’t know the Portuguese archipelago was expected: they didn’t know there was more to do in the Azores besides relaxing in Nature. The natural landscape is a major calling card, I admit, but it’s not the only one. And despite the fact that I loved the Azores’ presentation at the conference (it is home after all), I have a hard time seeing the full extent of that “soft blend between nature and culture” they talked about when it comes to promoting the destination. The locals have a different perspective on how things are done too and I’m sure I’ll be able to share my thoughts with Visit Azores later (our paths didn’t cross during the conference while I was busy taking notes).
A few months ago, I was hired as a ghostwriter to write a piece about wine tourism in Vancouver Island. To be honest, wine tourism wouldn’t come to mind when I thought of Canada. But as Green Destinations Ambassador Magdalena Muir put it on her presentation about Sustainable Destination Management in Canada and the Galapagos Islands, “wine tourism [i.e. visiting wineries] is [now] more profitable than selling wine”. Why? Because people are curious about the origins of some traditions.
Some destinations are harnessing the potential of sustainable cultural tourism either by leveraging existing local cultural events or creating new ones. Landgraaf (in Limburg) has PINKPOP (the oldest open-air festival in the world), Torres Vedras has Carnaval, Romania’s Bison Land has The Magic Cauldron (a food festival started in 2014), Terres de L’Esbre has its International Eco & Tourism Film Festival (the only of its kind so far in the Iberian Peninsula).
Fostering the power of local communities
In the end of August, Lonely Planet published the article “10 of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods to visit right now”. I gladly contributed to this list with my view of “the triangle” in Lisbon. I always write with a conscience of the impact a piece like this might have in the local population. The reactions to this article were mixed but the most negative comments came from locals, stating that texts like these were an open gate to a flood of tourists and gentrification.
I wrote my first draft in March after visiting the neighborhood and getting to know some of the local business owners (a full article on that should come out soon). I was impressed by their sense of community and they welcomed my intention to write about them. I returned to “the triangle” last week to catch up with them and share my concerns about locals not wanting the spotlight on their area and they were surprised to hear it – “We hardly see Lisboners coming here to shop or visit! There aren’t crowds of tourists here, either. Are you sure they know what they’re talking about?”
Most of the people who commented negatively saw only the name of the publication and made assumptions (although my bio is clear at the end of that paragraph, I’m a Lisbon-based travel blogger). Only one of them reached out to me to express concern and I took the time to explain I didn’t write about the place lightly; I did so because local business owners appreciated the chance for exposure on an international publication. Once her concerns were addressed, she immediately shared the article on her Facebook profile, proudly.
Local communities are powerful but if misinformed about tourism in their areas things can get sour. Whether you’re a tourism board, a DMO or a freelance travel writer, including them in your communication strategy and marketing plans is fundamental, especially if most of the local population works in the tourism industry.
Slovenia understands the importance of involving the local communities and has developed a unique model of sustainable tourism, focusing on green content marketing throughout the country, upgrading the support to local public initiatives, and basing the national character on green stories in several categories (including gastronomy and cultural heritage). A great example of this is the city of Podčetrtek, in the Eastern part of the country. By focusing on family-owned businesses and giving voice to local companies (who have a say in the tourism plans), this town of a little over 3.300 inhabitants has found the balance between tourists and local living.
‘’Sustainability at a small local tourism destination are people working together for the same cause. Everybody has to be happy and we all have to try to be different and better. Then we will succeed.’’ – Boštjan Misja (Podčetrtek, Slovenia)
The importance of storytelling
Storytelling quickly became a dirty word thanks to its overuse by marketers and influencers. Every brand, service, and product wants to be advertised through storytelling. It’s a great age for content marketing, but there’s more to storytelling than a unique sale proposition. If you focus on stories to be told and put a face to the people telling them, you have an ever-open gate to sustainable cultural tourism.
Oscar Rojas, the founder of Reserva Natural Pueblito Antiguo, could have talked about the project at Lake Tota for five minutes, shown some photos, and end up with a handful of fun facts. Instead, he told a story that involved his grandmother Alejandrina, his struggle as a country boy growing up in urban Bogotá, his deep connection to his hometown, his mistakes, and his commitment to sustainable tourism in his little piece of Colombia. He didn’t want either of us to see this man-made town as a representation of the old days as he remembered, he wanted to show us the importance of paying tribute to old traditions and heritage. That story is one of the things that will make anyone want to visit the place.
The same can be said of the connection of Kim Langmaid to Vail, Colorado. She is the Founder, Vice President, and Director of Sustainability and Stewardship Programs at Walking Mountains Science Center. Her family connection to this mountain town and her memories of its growth over time put her dedication to sustainable tourism in the region in a relatable perspective.
People make (or break) a destination and I believe the future of traveling is linked to local expertise. One of my biggest pet peeves in the travel blogging industry is any of those “expert” articles about Lisbon written by someone who’s stayed for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. As a local, I can see right through them and I can quickly point out on a map that they’ve never left the touristic area.
So where does one go for accurate, locally sourced information about sustainable tourism in a given destination? At the moment your best option is to connect with local bloggers. In the future, two tools talked about in the conferences have the means to revolutionize the sustainable travel industry:
- Viami, a portal highlighting local, sustainable businesses in a given destination that you can browse, make purchases or book services, tours, accommodation, and share your experience.
- Driftwood, a sort of conscious travel search engine where content is curated by local residents.
Don’t compete, cooperate
Until he was six years old, my son thought the only borders between countries were mountains. When looking at the map of Africa for the first time, he was confused with the straight lines dividing countries and asked me if some of the mountains there were square. Although he’s now old enough to understand the difference between natural borders and political borders, he’s still a firm believer that cooperation for the greater good should overcome all differences.
As much as I appreciate his positive thinking, we’re far from coming up with a perfect system but some examples showed we’re one step closer:
- Richard Malesu of Botswana Tourism talked about the importance of collaboration in a country dependent on others because of shared waters. The joint management of KaZa TFCA (Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) has been crucial to facilitate tourism across international borders.
- Anya Niewierra of the South-Limburg tourist board, as I will mention in detail in the next section, has also harnessed the multi-cultural character of her destination by using that as a common point of interest between neighboring countries.
- The Peneda-Gerês National Park (the only National Park in Portugal) occupies an area shared between Portugal and Spain so the cooperation between both countries is also a key element of sustainable tourism.
How the majority of tourism boards read data (and what they should be doing instead)
As a newbie travel blogger, the first advice you get is to pitch as hard and as often as you can to tourist boards so you can add their precious logo to your media kit. It’s said to give your media kit legitimacy. The activities you did with them doesn’t really fit your blog’s topic? Well, that’s secondary, isn’t it?
As the newbie travel blogger I once was, I got my fair share of resounding nos from every tourism board I reached out to. Why? Because most of my readers live in the USA but I don’t (and I wouldn’t be able to do a full coverage documenting my trip from point A to point B), my social media numbers weren’t big enough (oh yes and they’re still pretty modest), and apparently sustainable cultural tourism to offbeat destinations never fits their current marketing strategy. Bummer. If I didn’t know any better (and I did work closely with the Marketing department for 10 years in my old corporate job), I would’ve thought I was one of the most unsuccessful bloggers on the face of the Earth.
Most tourism boards still see their target inbound tourists as a mass of people from a certain country, with a certain age, and with a certain level of income. Statistically, these numbers are easier to crunch and justify. Then they’ll promote their destination like a big blob of activities (usually the top 10-ish kind) that they think their target audience (of a certain country, with a certain age, and with a certain level of income) would travel to see. Sure, in a mass tourism mentality I’m sure the pamphlet-like communication strategy works. I for one prefer targeting preferences and there are tourism boards out there who are doing exactly that.
Anya Niewierra, General Director of South-Limburg Tourist Board, showed the room how to do it the right way during her presentation on the “Ten principles of Sustainable Destination Management” with a very important takeaway that almost got a standing ovation from me: sell your DNA, not what you think the tourists want to see.
The ten principles in a nutshell (directly from my notes):
- Don’t disturb scenic views (plan and define what, how, and where to build);
- In our digital time, guests love authenticity (I can vouch for this since it’s one of the emails I get often from people traveling to Lisbon and the Azores) – make sure historical façades are visible, build new in the style of old;
- “The present is pregnant with the future” – invest in projects that are sustainable and educational;
- Be accessible and make a good first and last impression;
- “We do not see borders, we see interfaces” – cooperation with neighboring countries (by this point, I was already her number one fan);
- Focus on what makes us unique and not copyable – companies who fail to connect with the local DNA don’t get support from local authorities (as far as I can tell, Portugal could learn a lot from this);
- Be [an] attractive [destination] during 12 months – encourage attractions to be active 12 months of the year and create events in the so-called “low” season (also looking at you Azores for this one and thinking how MiratecArts is trying to pull this off on Pico island with some success);
- Regional food, traditions, and culture;
- [Be] honest about the fact that are limits for growth (hello, Lisbon? *winks*);
- Invest in a professional DMO – promoting the region as a whole and through storytelling (rest of the world, are you paying attention by now?)
My goal as a Green Destinations Ambassador
In an interview with a local newspaper last summer, I said I had a responsibility of not lying to who reads me and not making false assumptions of who I write about (including their destination, local culture, and way of life), no matter how much more colorful the article would be in the end (and how many clicks that would bring me). Like I said in the beginning, I’m not in the business of selling ad space, I’m in the business of creating content (be it as a reporter, a content marketing creator or a storyteller). It took me almost three years to find this balance, but by the second month of 2017, I had it figured out.
For every destination I visit and for every cultural event I cover, I try to give back to that community by writing the best post I can for the blog and I try to come back with stories that could fit other publications (most of the times it’s, unfortunately, hit and miss).
The Green Destinations Ambassador program is a little over one year old and I am grateful for being accepted into the community, for having the opportunity to attend the event in Estoril, and for having the chance to meet so many people committed to sustainable tourism in their regions.
Unlike writers who prefer to bash on travel bloggers and instigate others to boycott all travel bloggers in the world, I prefer a more positive and constructive approach (although her heart is in the right place, I won’t link to her post here). I prefer to focus on the destinations’ cultural diversity, its historical richness and the communities that help to build and sustain it, aiming to inspire independent travelers to explore responsibly (like it says so on my “about me” blurb on the blog’s homepage).
I want the Green Destinations Ambassador community to grow and I hope it begins to include more travel writers and travel bloggers, actual influencers with access to a platform where they can showcase cultural diversity, local communities, and the people who are making a change in the sustainable tourism industry. It’s okay if you haven’t been writing about sustainable travel since the beginning of your blog. I haven’t written about sustainable cultural tourism from the beginning either. And, yet, here I am completely focused and certain that I’m on the path where I’m supposed to be.
I was saving this for a year-end reflective blog post, but I think it’s time I share my commitment as a Green Destinations Ambassador now (feel free to hold me accountable if I stray from the path):
- To continue to give voice (and visibility) local business owners in the sustainable tourism industry (restaurants, shops, accommodation, transport…);
- To continue to showcase the work of local artists and artisans;
- To continue to showcase local cultural events that are a symbol of regional cultural pride (excluding the ones which are harmful to animals or violate human rights);
- To continue to explore destinations with a storytelling approach, giving voice to the concerns and expectations of local inhabitants towards tourism (although I arrive at a destination with the idea for a story in the back of my mind, it’s always the story that finds me);
- To be a trustworthy and independent source of travel tips and best practices in the sustainable cultural tourism industry, working with the Top 100 Sustainable Destinations to promote their destinations;
- To denounce malpractices in the travel blogging industry through constructive criticism and to educate travel bloggers who are interested in writing about sustainable cultural tourism;
- To spread the word about the Green Destinations Ambassadors program to other members of the travel blogging community.
List of other speakers and conferences
Mr. Peter Prokosch
Supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by Linking Tourism & Conservation (LT&C)
Mrs. Polona Dolzan
European Green Capital 2016
Mr. Josep Capellà
Expert in tourism public management
Sustainable regeneration of seaside resorts. The case of Torroella de Montgrí-L’Estartit, in Costa Brava
Mrs. Marloes van de Goor
Vice President of Green Destinations & President of the International Institute for Animal Ethics
Lion hugging, camel riding, and dolphin selfies: how to deal with animals in responsible tourism?
Mrs. Anna Fereira
Avencas Biophysical Interest Zone in Cascais, Portugal
Mr. João Melo
Re-activating landscape in peri-urban areas, a landscape-scale conservation project that links wildlife and people
Mr. Aldo Rozzi Marin
Green Destination Ambassador and Honorary Consul of Chile in Vincenza
Ecological narratives for sustainable tourism and bio cultural conservation in the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve
Mr. Pierre-André Kruger
Founder of Nomad Lodges
Tourism as a conservation tool
Dr. Peter Brandauer
President of Alpine Pearls Werfenweng, Austria
Soft Mobility – New paths to sustainable living and soft tourism
Mrs. Monique Chen
Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area, Taiwan
NE and Yalin Coast
Green Destinations Ambassador Finland
Comprehensive planning recommended for investments and their funding
Lago de Tota, Colombia
Civil society role at Lake Tota (Colombia), aiming to perpetual protection. From (almost) none governance, to a gained formula that is leading changes