John Thackara from Doors of Perception joined Tamsin O’Neill from green magazine and Sidonie Carpenter from Green Canopy Design to discuss how we might design a model of eco-tourism during the APDL’s second Think Outside event.

Sidonie questioned the meaning of sustainability and responsible travel, saying that people talk about it like it’s an option when it’s not–sustainability is inevitable.

Drawing on her own travels, Sidonie considered that eco-tourism is not about the travel itself but more about the sustainability of people and places. She pointed to small towns in Chang Mai, Thailand that are sustained by tourism but questioned how much the locals actually got when trips where booked and paid for before arriving.

“The only constant is change” stated Sidonie, who concluded that what is sustainable today may not be tomorrow, meaning there is no perfect enduring model for eco-tourism. She believes it’s up to how we live our daily lives and not just about the four weeks of the year we spend on holiday.

Tamsin began her presentation with fond memories of travelling to Bali in the 1970’s and being overwhelmed by the culture, reflecting that the country has shifted dramatically from cultural tourism to mass tourism.

Making a call for people to leave their hotel rooms, Tamsin spoke about going back to the history of camping and exploring. Traditional camping and more modern forms of five-star ‘glamping’ allow people to connect with nature. She shared images of a new resort opening in New Zealand with all materials and builders sourced locally and all sustainable products–“It’s all about working locally with people” she stated.

“The notion of sustainable tourism versus sustainability of the people and the place are very different conversations”, said Tamsin.

John began with the dilemma of whether it’s possible to design tourism that doesn’t kill itself, citing the overvisited and degraded canals of Venice. He spoke of places where biodiversity is cherished or has been reintroduced, citing an example in Seattle where tourists can plant areas of a biodiversity strip through the city.

Experiential tourism is a growth market but John questioned how much the local community actually receives, explaining that not many people think about what they pay and what they leave behind.

Tourism is not about the money he says, but the quality of the connection of your visit–“if we connect with the place then our role changes and we consider things differently”. “No-one cares about a destination, everyone cares about someone’s home,” he said.

John implored people to seek knowledge of those who know places better than we ever will, harnessing local and indigenous knowledge. He believes we need to connect people and spaces in new ways citing platforms like Uber as possible peer-to-peer connecting systems. He also thinks we need to find better ways of telling the truth to each other and could combat the plethora of eco-tourism logos and accreditations by developing a peer-reviewed system much like Mozilla badges.

Following John’s presentation a facilitated panel discussion delved deeper into the notion of developing a connection with people and place through travel. John spoke about changing people’s frame of mind from being a tourist to a visitor. This change in framing also applies to tourism as a whole; “if it’s a market you want to grow it, if it’s a relationship you want to look after it.”, explained John.

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