One of the greatest challenges for tourism is the development of a cultural intelligence on innovation. In other words, the “ability to ward off cultural differences that hinder knowledge exploration and transfer . . . and to adapt to various cultures so that interactions between parts of the organisation can run as it should”. To achieve this goal, it’s necessary to consider in detail, two aspects of the tourism ecosystem:
- Bottom-up (from the territory) approach,
- Tourism ecosystems as dynamic and holistic, a process of co-creation with stakeholders
The general objective of tourism innovation is to provide new sustainable tourism products and services in the market, and increase customer satisfaction. In line with the aspects above, strategies for innovation are focused on the development of tourism’s human capital.
To achieve this, the true commitment of all the stakeholders, (from local communities up to companies and governments) involved in the tourism planning and development phases at the destinations, must be encouraged. The tourism industry will benefit from building alliances between the economic, social and sustainable aspects of their projects and the needs of the destination.
This sociocultural reality of the “host population” (often intangible and traditionally taken out of the equation) should be the most precious asset (and attraction) for responsible travellers, the “guest population”. In this case, the reality of the host populations constitutes the identity of the “tourist offer”, or value proposition, for visitors who are increasingly responsible and committed to the reality they are going to “co-experience”.
If this is to take place, a substantial change will need to be carried out in the traditional models of “improvisation and developmentalism” of tourist destinations, switching to real holistic planning and development by moving from simplified destinations to “amplified destinations” based on the realities of the territory, where local communities are considered “seed stakeholders”, of its tourism development.
It’s what we call: The end of the old beginnings: drawing authentic paradises.
Switching from theory to action, I’m happy to introduce you to two indigenous communities Ngöbé and Naso, natives of a Caribbean paradise region in Bocas del Toro (Panama).
The Naso are guardians of the forest in the western Caribbean of Panama.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the Ngöbe-Buglé was “legally” considered a region of the Republic of Panama, with an autonomous government represented by the Cacique General Ngöbe-Buglé and the General Congress Ngöbe-Buglé. As a region, Ngöbe-Buglé counts 213,860 inhabitants and an area of 6,968 km². Its capital is Llano Tugrí (or Buabïti), and the lands are the collective property of the indigenous people of the territory of Bocas del Toro: Chiriquí and Veraguas.
In February 2021, the development of a huge hotel-resort (118 rooms, 50 villas), in Bocas del Toro, with the support of the BID (Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo) was announced, declaring that the equivalent of 37.2 million US dollars would be contributed for the development of the West Restor SA project from the Viceroy hotel chain.
What would this development look like if a change in paradigm was embraced?
How can this development be based on the ideas previously shared (bottom-up approach, innovative planning & development process, host communities being seed stakeholders of their own tourism planning & development process)?
In my experience, the first steps would be 1º) CONTEXTUALIZATION and 2º) PROJECT PROPOSAL for the overall framework* designed and aligned with this new change of paradigm.
1) Contextualization: Building a model of tourist development, from local realities, for the sustainable development of the destination.
“State of the art” sustainable tourism planning and development in emerging destinations:
Sustainable tourism planning and development (P&D) is one of the greatest challenges faced by the different actors involved (public and private sector, social sector organizations, communities, etc.) in the holistic planning process of tourist ecosystems. This P&D function is in some ways more necessary and evident in emerging tourist destinations and in developing countries, such as the indigenous communities of Ngöbé & Naso, both a geographic and tourist destination.
For P&D in emerging destinations, recent studies show that the traditional hotel tourism development model has proven to be “not very sensitive” to the socioeconomic realities of the territory where it occurs, negatively impacting, on many occasions, the living conditions of local communities. This evidence supports a latent need to develop sustainable models of innovative tourism P&D that focus on the specific realities and needs of each territory. Communities should form an active part of the processes of co-creation, and participate as “seed partners” in the desired tourism and sustainable development model. This principle guides the proposal developed in this project.
How does the private hotel sector participate in this reality in the destinations?
Faced with this scenario, some hotel chains, through their corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments, have already evolved to more innovative models, going beyond certification systems and including sustainable development commitments with communities in their business strategies. From this (still theoretical) point of view, they have turned CSR into TSI (Total Social Impact). And some of them are already making their TSI strategies a reality.
As an example of “best practices”, the RIU Hoteles hotel chain** began to develop, more than 6 years ago, a participatory diagnosis, which considers the host communities as stakeholders in the process, in order to identify the specific needs of communities near the destinations where they carry out their hotel activity. This diagnosis per destination allows them to identify collaborative and strategic “ad-hoc” projects in each of these destinations, and to form alliances with “local seed partners” for the implementation and monitoring of these projects.
Building a tourism planning model, from local realities, for the sustainable development of the destination.
In the case of the Ngöbé & Naso indigenous communities, data collected by the Panamanian Tourism Authority (APT) on the realities of the destination show a clear need to co-design and implement an innovative R&D model with the best practices identified for TSI in the hotel sector. Based on the Master Plan for sustainable tourism development, APT study from 2007-2020, the Ngöbe-Buglé region is the most populated indigenous region in the country and, likewise, the least developed, presenting high levels of the poverty index.
According to the diagnosis of tourism development in the report, both the Ngöbe-Buglé region and the Naso community are included in the ordinance of “Tourist Destination Regions”. However, the socio-demographic data of the communities doesn’t seem very optimistic. The national data for Panama, regarding the Human Development Index linked to inequality, shows that there is an inequality gap higher than desirable in these communities, in most of the dimensions of the indicator, highlighting an 8.6% lower index in the case of income inequality. These results justify interventions to improve these indices.
After a first “mapping” of the socio-demographic reality of the destination, we determined two realities in which it will be desirable to intervene, to take into account the development of the project.
1) The communities of Ngöbé & Naso constitute the ethnic majority of the destination (94% of the total population). However, there are other indigenous populations in the region, which will have to be considered as potential project stakeholders.
2) The data on education shows that only 33.12% of the population attends school and reflects significant gender inequality (eg: the population over 10 years old who can read is 6.06% lower in the case of women, the population of men being only 1.6% greater than that of women.
This diagnosis will give us “clues” on how to develop tourism projects for a positive social impact. In previous projects, hotel chains have been able to guarantee gender equity in the hiring process, offer life-long learning opportunities for locals, design hotel rooms/spaces with kindergarten spaces, and more.
2) Project Proposal: Design and implementation of community, sustainable and inclusive tourism experiences with the Ngöbé & Naso communities
Both the planning activities and the co-designed development activities will be oriented towards the sustainable development of the communities. They will contribute to the positive impact of the Hotel resort in its proximity communities, contributing to the improvement of the living conditions of those communities.
To achieve this goal, the project will be based on a series of established guidelines:.
First, the project will be based on a participatory identification of realities and needs, through an external diagnosis of the indigenous communities, and other social agents, “seed-stakeholders”, and an internal diagnosis with those responsible for the Hotel Viceroy Bocas del Toro.
This way, a “bottom-up” methodology focused on the community may be proposed for the planning and sustainable development of tourism in the Bocas del Toro destination, both in the design and implementation phase of the business plan. The project, based on the sustainable development (economic, social and environmental) of the destination, will allow for a joint identification of a range of products/services and tourism experiences (identified as “Responsible Tourism Experiences” (RTE)) focused on the community. These experiences represent an opportunity for economic inclusion and empowerment of the indigenous communities of Ngöbé and Naso, aligned with the following values, which will make up their DVP (Destination Value Proposition):
- The co-creation of locally responsible tourism initiatives will contribute to the improvement of living conditions (entrepreneurial fabric, increased income, etc.) in the Viceroy hotel’s proximity communities.
- The range of tourism offers (both products and services: “Responsible Tourism Experiences”), will be based on the identification of the best synergies between the Viceroy hotel complex and neighbouring communities.
- The identity of tourism services will be managed and offered by the communities, the final clients of the hotel complex, and the tourists of the destination.
Say goodbye to the old paradigm
The “old times” of tourism planning and development models should be switched off, by redefining tourism’s success. In the words of tourism expert Doug Lansky, “a city can have tourists, but the tourists shouldn’t have the city”. The new paradigm should be based on the “territory up” approach: by empowering communities to co-lead the process as “seed stakeholders”, and by setting common grounds, which all the “shareholders” will truly benefit from. Sustainability is the way to change and preserve the quality of life and to dream about a cleaner and fairer future. Perhaps the Bocas can be our first sketch in order to draw more authentic paradises?
*Based on the project: “Design and implementation of community tourism experiences, sustainable and inclusive with the Ngöbé & Naso communities (Bocas del Toro, Panama)”, designed by Lola Herrero for the BID TdR´s. This proposal was among the pre-selected project for its implementation.
**Lola Herrero, Associate professor at the ESCP Business School, has been a sustainability advisor for the RIU hotel chain since 2016 and has worked on the design of the strategy and on the development and field testing of its implementation methodologies. RIU presents its innovation and social development methodology| Ibereconomia.com | Smarttravel . RIU sienta las bases de la hotelería del futuro con su nuevo modelo de RSC | Hosteltur RIU: el antes y después de su política de RSC | corresponsables.com
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