Collaboration can help us confront tourism’s greatest challenges ahead

By Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation

The global travel and tourism sector is already bouncing down the path to pandemic recovery, but in spite of all the chatter about ‘building back better’, it’s fairly unsurprising that old habits are proving once again to die hard. Better will require intentional and system-wide change. Indeed, a new model for tourism that confronts some of its most persistent challenges and delivers value for the entire destination: its businesses, local residents and the resources they depend on.

The idea that collaboration between a broad range of stakeholders can help to improve the shared value of a destination is nothing new, but unless we create a pathway for this transition at a broad scale, we risk losing a unique opportunity. Destinations are, by definition and design, multifaceted, fragmented entities, with many sectors and stakeholders involved in the visitor economy; from SMEs to multinational companies, from local governments to national park authorities, and across many different sectors. In other words, destinations are everyone’s business

What are the barriers to collaboration?

A recent report that we co-authored with the European Tourism Futures Institute and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), ‘Towards Destination Stewardship’, highlights the fact that everyone in tourism relies on the same public assets, natural resources, supply chains and talent pools for staff. The report recommends that, for destinations to succeed, a stewardship mechanism with public-private collaboration at its heart is required. This model of governance must have the ability to monitor and manage demands on “common pool” resources to ensure they are shared equitably, while protecting their quality and availability for future generations. They must also agree on common principles for decision-making and identifying trade-offs, in order to maximise tourism’s benefits according to a common understanding of value and addressing its very real and immediate challenges, with a collective mindset. An incredible example of this is emerging in the Lake Tahoe-Truckee region, where a wide-ranging collective of stakeholders have come together to develop a new vision and plan for stewarding their destination.

However, collaboration isn’t easy. Our report highlights that there are four key barriers that prevent collaborative working:

  • a clash of cultures and agendas between the public and private sectors;
  • the fragmentation of the tourism sector with everyone working in their own silos;
  • an unclear mandate with no leader for destination stewardship; and
  • a lack of knowledge and data. 

If we stick with business as usual, these barriers won’t go away. Organisations need to evolve, to ensure their structures and governance support a more collaborative approach (and our report offers a practical framework for critical thinking around these topics). This may involve assembling virtual teams, creating protocols for sharing data, creating new dashboards for management decisions based on shared priorities, and ensuring that funding sources and allocation reflects management need.  DMOs can act as a catalyst for this process, bringing the businesses, residents, public sector organisations and NGOs together, much like the Tourism Recovery Task Forces that were set up in many countries, such as Canada, France, Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland, in response to COVID. 

Emerging models for collaboration

The signs are there that new collaborative models are now challenging that return to business as usual for DMOs and companies alike.  Vancouver Island is one DMO that has recognised the need to adapt to meet future challenges, recently announcing that it has moved away from its traditional tourism marketing business model to operate as a non-profit social enterprise, re-named 4VI.  The new name represents the organisation’s four key pillars of community, business, culture and environment, reflecting its ethos of creating shared value for all aspects and all stakeholders within the destination.  Above all, 4VI has set local communities at the centre of their purpose, focusing on using tourism development to improve quality of life.  Engaging its residents in this move and in its plans is a key part of 4VI’s work, including looking at their strategy through an indigenous lens.  

There are also several tour operators that are adopting an increasingly collaborative approach. For example, Intrepid Travel has created an open access quick start guide to decarbonising a travel business, providing an easy-to-follow action plan on reduction and offsetting, as well as practical examples and tips for other tourism businesses to follow.  Similarly, the Travel Corporation is now working with VisitScotland and the Travel Foundation to develop a process for collaborative public-private sector action to achieve emission reduction across the value chain, or ‘scope 3’ emissions, thus tackling one of the most complex and difficult aspects of climate change and creating a call to action for collaboration with its competitors. 

Meanwhile in Tenerife, Spain and the Algarve, Portugal, easyJet holidays is working with the Travel Foundation to engage a broader range of stakeholders in destination stewardship, involving not just tourism businesses, but also organisations with influence and responsibilities across water, public spaces, infrastructure and more.  The aim is to develop a common set of priorities for tourism management and create a resilience roadmap for destinations that unlocks new opportunities based on pre-competitive collaboration. 

The global initiatives looking to make a difference

An ever-increasing number of global movements and initiatives all point towards momentum building for new and collaborative tourism models, enabling disparate organisations to align behind a common goal. For example, Travalyst facilitates pre-competitive collaboration between some of the world’s largest brands including, Skyscanner, Group, TripAdvisor, Visa, Google and Expedia Group. The initiative has created models for flight emissions reporting and sustainable accommodation so that customers are shown consistent informationThe aim is to develop the model further working towards industry-wide alignment on presenting sustainability information to consumers and streamlining reporting processes for suppliers.

It was also a hugely significant moment when we helped launch the UN-led Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism at COP26 last year, aligning a sector that had previously been slow to take action on climate change. The Travel Foundation is now working with the UNWTO to build the momentum of the Glasgow Declaration and nearly 700 organisations – businesses, destinations, and supporting organisations alike - have already made a commitment. Signatories are working towards a common framework and collective target for climate action, aligning on their ambitions and defining opportunities to catalyse further sectoral action. After all, one of the Declaration’s five defined pathways, and perhaps its most important, is Collaboration. At last week’s Sustainable and Social Tourism Summit, the Ministries of Tourism and Environment in Guanajuato, Mexico became the first signatory represented by two aligned government agencies, with the intention for private sector to also play a significant role in collective planning and adaptation for the state’s tourism efforts in a fast-changing paradigm.

Similarly, the Future of Tourism Coalition, of which the Travel Foundation is one of six founding members, was formed as an appeal for change and began its efforts in 2020 by laying the groundwork for a community-centred vision the tourism sector can aspire towards. Set up as a community, the Coalition unites its signatories behind 13 Guiding Principles and is holding its first Summit in Athens on 29 September. The event, which will take place alongside Green Destinations 2022, will focus on destinations’ central role in meeting the goals of the Glasgow Declaration. Other examples include, Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, a grassroots initiative which was instrumental in the creation of the Glasgow Declaration, B Tourism, a global network of B Corp travel and tourism companies (certified for their focus on both public benefit and profit) and, most recently, the Sustainable Travel Coalition, launched by the US Travel Association to advance strategies for sustainable tourism.  

At the core of all this is the common, vested interest that all stakeholders share in the long-term viability of the destinations and its most critical assets.  This common ground is the essential starting point for meaningful collaboration. From that seed, a coalition of willing participants can grow and begin to redefine what success looks like in tourism, leading to increased benefit for stakeholders, greater resilience, and ultimately a reset of the tourism model to address the many risks and challenges ahead. 

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