What does it take to become a conscious co-creator in a regenerative future?
To become a conscious co-creator in the future of tourism, a dual shift is required to evolve our thinking, even when it may be uncomfortable, and to move from a focus on generating private value to generating public value.
Let's face it, we have always travelled and we always will. Tourism has untold power to transform our worldview, and build empathy, compassion, cross-cultural understanding and environmental awareness. Travel can unleash transformational learning experiences and change our relationship with ourselves, with each other, and our finite planetary ecosystem. Whether it’s discovering your local neighbourhood or across borders, the discovery of other places, people and ways has the power to evolve our thinking. This is why it is so important to remain optimistic in the current context.
But, somewhere during the last 100 years, we lost the balance in this bigger vision that travel feeds the soul, enlightens and connects us. We started to think of tourism in terms of profit, growth, investment, economic development, and personal gain. It has taken us to a place where regions reliant on tourism have become dependent on market forces and circumstances well beyond their control. There have been big winners and losers, and the value generated by tourism has not been equally shared. Tourism has contributed to de-generation rather than re-generation. Economic diversity, local empowerment and adaptability, key features of flourishing regions, have declined in many tourism dependant regions.
To become a conscious co-creator in a regenerate tourism future, we need to recover a wider and more inclusive value proposition for tourism. The most important shift then, is to hatch a plan for how tourism can deliver public value, and to do this, we also need to better recognise the 'busy work' of traditional, business as usual capitalism.
Covid and the 'busy work' of business as usual
During Covid there has been a proliferation of new tourism infrastructure projects, plans, and visitor economy strategies. Some of these focused on rolling our eco-labels, accreditation, and other green initiatives. This is the 'busy work' of capitalism, where in times of crisis (such as during the pandemic) governments have had to step in to support existing value chains and production networks to avoid an economic collapse (Mazzucato 2021, Rubinic 2020). Governments reached out to easily accessible, ready solutions so that they can quickly support the ecosystem. However, this does not mean there is any great shift in mindset. Moreover, these may not be the best solutions to the increasingly complexity and disruption we are experiencing.
This pressure to spend stimulus money, and the rapid pace of the problem-solution-implementation cycle, tends to prop up the existing system and old thinking. The underlying challenge is that policy ranks have been so severely depleted under neoliberal economic management, that policy makers drafting these programs had to do so under pressure, and with limited access to creative new thinking.
It comes as no surprise then that the visitor economy strategies that have emerged (in Australia) over the last year have tended to reflect old ideas, uphold the status quo while taking a very jaundiced approach to innovation. It's largely a result of old contacts and familiar networks rallying around the opportunity to access public support, which left little space at the upper levels of government for fresh ideas, new inspiration and innovation beyond familiar faces and entrenched ideas. That said, innovation and creativity is flourishing at the local level.
Questioning the status quo
Egos and self-interest
Over the last year in The Tourism CoLab, we have been told by diverse stakeholders that egos and self-interest are the biggest barriers to building a collective future in tourism. This might be a defensive argument as to why they have found it difficult to take bold steps, but plainly, it also suggests the system and the power structures that determine the winners and losers is the key barrier to opening up a transformative new future for tourism.
Some have also told us that the RFP (Request for Proposals) and tender process and the DMP (Destination Management Plan) are key barriers to innovation. These tools structure expectations along old thinking. They also keep consultants in a competitive, anti-innovation mindset, focused on simple stand-alone deliverables. Yet simple solutions are not very useful in addressing complex, evolutionary problems like tourism! As a result, it is unlikely that these current tools and dominant consulting approaches can nurture regenerative shifts in tourism when they are framed within old, exploitative, competitive and simple-solution mindsets.
However, there is an upside! Just recognising these above issues is a positive step in the right direction because it gives us permission to think about reimagining a system where these are not blockages. It's important to give ourselves time to think, sit in the mess, and resist the busy work of capitalism. Reach beyond the assumptions and old practices. The question then becomes "How might we reframe these current practices to nurture innovative thinking and re-generate creativity, expertise and purpose in tourism?".
In 2021 we started to see a wave of questioning and creativity emerging in all kinds of places and spaces, and this fills us with optimism that a small but growing number of people are wanting to be co-creators in a regenerative future for tourism. This gives us optimism despite the ongoing uncertainties of the pandemic.
Evolving our thinking
Generating public value
In the above context, the single most important step to becoming a conscious co-creator of the future is to have the courage to evolve our thinking, even when it may be uncomfortable. At both individual and collectively levels, we need to start making the transition towards a regenerative mindset and to make the necessary changes at personal, collective, organisational, and systemic levels.
A fundamental plank in this transition is to consider different kinds of value that tourism contributes. Tourism can contribute social, environmental, cultural and political value alongside the traditional focus on economic value. Value, and where it accumulates, can be public or private value or both. Without even realising it, the emphasis for the last decades has been on producing private value. The distribution of the value that is produced has been quite uneven, and in the process big winners and losers have emerged. Not surprisingly, in some places, tourism's social licence has been withdrawn. We also understand from our work that some workers also left the sector during the pandemic because they could no longer balance the value they received with the vulnerability and uncertainty they were experiencing.
Our response has been to explore the value produced by tourism in a more transparent way so that we can better understand the different kinds of public and private value being created and where this value is accumulated. Bringing transparency and information into discussions is valuable in building (or bringing back) credibility.
Unravelling what we take for granted
Like all major paradigmatic shifts, the shift currently underway starts with the unravelling of our assumptions and our beliefs about how the world works. It requires the courage to admit old solutions don't work, and that we need to work in emerging ways. Honest, genuine collaboration, where egos are put aside, is essential. Moreover, evolution is never a simple linear transition. It is often two steps forward, one step back. There will be resistance to change, continued disruption, and new insights will emerge. But what we have found is that building trust, credibility and transparency are key. Being embedded and engaged are important practices.
During 2021, we are starting to see local governments, individuals and communities, (i.e. those directly experiencing tourism-related challenges), question the existing system, pushing back, demanding and activating change. In the process, stakeholders are breaking old mindsets and practices, challenging the status quo, and making new pathways. That is how change happens. In the long run, leaning into the change is a better strategy than resisting.
Our takeaways from 2021
So what does it take to become a conscious co-creator of the future? Our tips below focus on how we are trying to rebuild and restore community confidence in tourism. Our version of community is inclusive, and it requires new ways of working and new skills. Breaking old assumptions and creating new pathways, leaning into co-creation in genuine and generative ways is what we do. The lessons we have taken from 2021 include:
Explore what kinds of value that tourism produces. Identify ways that tourism can contribute public value and restore its social and environmental licence to be a part of a very different future.
Include nature as a voice in our conversations. Disrupt, reframe and innovate in the conversations that take place about the future of tourism. Include nature, different communities and be multi-facing in your engagement.
Restore trust with the community. Many communities are tired of having tourism done to them instead of with and for them. Listen, lean in, and acknowledge concerns and issues and don't assume you (if you are an outside ‘expert’) have the answers.
Restore communication. Host conversations that matter and by doing so regenerate the trust that has been lost.
Regenerate community. Change is a collective endeavour and a shared vision towards a regenerative future. Individuals as passionate as they may be, will be less effective at achieving systems change when compared to collaborative networks working in collective but differentiated ways.
Regenerate creativity. Encourage alternative thinking, deviant solutions, flipped thinking and other forms of co-creation. Play with the possibilities of stepping outside traditional expectations.
Regenerate a sense of stewardship and love of place. Build capacity by making every conversation, consultation and stakeholder engagement an opportunity to learn, build shared insights, and inspire. Regenerate interest and ownership over the local.
Regenerate self-worth. Build meaningful engagement by giving people roles that recognise their talents. Regenerate their love of place, their connection, and sense of belonging to a bigger purpose.
Regenerate skills in participatory democracy. Lean into conflict, sit in the mess, and practice deep listening and conversational intelligence.
For academic readers, our insights are drawn from practice, but informed by previous academic works including:
Dredge, D. Hales, R. and Jamal, T. 2013. Community case study research: researcher operacy, embeddedness and making research matter. Tourism Analysis 18(1): 29-43.
Phi, G. & Dredge, D. (2019) Critical issues in tourism co-creation, Tourism Recreation Research, 44:3, 281-283, DOI: 10.1080/02508281.2019.1640492
Cave, J. & Dredge, D. (2018) Reworking Tourism: Diverse Economies in a Changing World, Tourism Planning & Development,15:5,473-477,DOI: 10.1080/21568316.2018.1510659
About the Author: Dianne Dredge, PhD is Founder and Director of an Australian-based social enterprise, The Tourism CoLab, a global tourism education and capacity building initiative seeking to re-invent tourism as a social and environmental sector that connects and transforms destinations for good. Along with the delivery of online courses, innovative thinking, leadership, organisational change, research and mentoring, the CoLab is currently delivering a place-based, community-led and environment-centred regenerative tourism living lab. Originally trained as an environmental and urban planner, her career has focused on tourism, community engagement, delivering policy advice to all levels of government and the OECD and the European Commission. She spent 18 years as a professor in higher education, has many several destination management plans, stakeholder audits, organisational change management strategies, state-wide policies, delivered over 35 international keynote addresses, and has written 8 books and close to 200 papers. But, at the end of the day, her passion lies in taking change making journeys with local communities and building capacity in local places.
About The Tourism CoLab At the Tourism CoLab, we believe in a future that is regenerative, purpose-led and inclusive. We believe in thought leadership, provocation and doing things differently by disrupting traditional ways of thinking, working and learning in tourism. To navigate the change ahead, we need to ask tough questions, unleash courage and creativity, and re-invent our ways of working. This means new knowledge, new skill sets, and new approaches. In 2022 we will be expanding our course offerings, workshops and introduce a journey into change.
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