As in so many sectors of society, the pandemic has pushed the tourism industry to a point of reckoning. The enforced pause of the past year has allowed the industry to take full stock of its impact on communities and on our natural life support systems. As a result, what had been the plea of only a few has become a widespread mantra: tourism must come to deliver not only gross revenue but “net benefit,” taking into account the wide range of social, economic and environmental costs. From now on, the wellbeing of the destination community is to be tourism’s key deliverable. (Otherwise, why do it… right? Why invite people over if you’ll be worse-off as a result?) In fact, there’s a growing call for the industry to become “regenerative,” a word that is synonymous with healing.
Not yet widely understood, however, is what these new intentions entail.
What I’m seeing in many cases is:
- The assumption that the management of tourism will remain wholly the same, with perhaps a few added bells and whistles (particularly environmental ones).
- A lack of clarity about what actually leads to community wellbeing, and so strategies are still a little fuzzy, if not absent.
- National and regional tourism authorities are still being held to economic targets as the single strongest driver of their actions — a function of the belief that money is the single strongest driver of wellbeing.
But if tourism is to get different and better outcomes, then there has to be openness to trying different and better strategies and tactics. And it turns out that community wellbeing calls for decidedly different thinking and new approaches.
In fact, if we’re honest — if we really take in what science is telling us — the situation humanity faces is so dire that we need every industry, every sector to lay down their tools, turn to the world and say: these are our skills and resources; how can we help? The answers may be surprising. But times like these call for unconventional, and even heroic, contributions.
Contributing to Community Wellbeing
So, what would be different if tourism’s priority were community wellbeing in its own right, with full understanding of what that requires? What would change if we fully acknowledged the severity and urgency of humanity’s plight, and if tourism stepped up to serve, whatever it took?
Here’s what I see from my recent work in the sector in different parts of the world, including work alongside industry pioneer Anna Pollock: if tourism is truly to be of net benefit — if it is to contribute to healing of people and place — then the sector will need to reconnect with its roots in the vocation of hosting. If tourism authorities, in particular, are to respond appropriately and sufficiently to the challenges humanity faces, then they will need to develop the skill set not of “marketing and managing the tourist destination” but of “connecting and cultivating the hosting community.” They will need to “host the hosts.”
The starting point in that transition is to understand what leads to community wellbeing.
In the recent surge of interest in this question, wellbeing is generally framed as economic prosperity plusadded attention to environmental and social factors, in the now-classic triumvirate of “people, planet and profit.” Sometimes a fourth factor — culture — is also added to the mix. In fact, any number of factors may be added. For example, one popular source defines wellbeing “as having 10 broad dimensions which have been shown to matter most to people in the UK as identified through a national debate. The dimensions are: the natural environment, personal well-being, our relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance, the economy, education and skills, and governance.”
But whether your factors number three, four, ten or more, this list-making approach creates a fragmented understanding of wellbeing, leading to separate checklists of actions derived by looking at each factor in isolation. You end up playing “whack-a-mole” in a disjointed approach, whereas the broader reality is that those factors — whichever ones you choose — are interwoven and interdependent.
Such a list-based approach also runs the high risk of leaving money as the primary driver by default, with other factors as secondary add-ons. Much as we might tell ourselves that we’re seeking balance between all the factors, profit and growth are still too often understood as non-negotiable, while others are implicitly seen as nice-to-haves. This is the order of priorities that has gotten us where we are, with the very viability of life on the planet in the balance, and communities and businesses lacking in necessary resilience.
Finally — and most importantly — the list-based approach focuses on the results rather than on the system that will create those results. As 13th century Persian poet Rumi advised: “Maybe we are searching among the branches for what appears in the roots.”
To get to the roots of community wellbeing — to understand how a community actually works and how we can help it work better — we first need to recognize that a community is a living system. And that means it operates according to what I think of as “life’s universal design principles.” Whether it’s a community of humans, or of the species that make up a forest, or of the trillions of cells that constitute you, there is a small set of underlying patterns or conditions that lead to collective wellbeing. Those design principles will be expressed differently in each place and each project. But broadly, we can find helpful guidance in understanding the following fertile conditions that must be cultivated if we are to support any community’s intrinsic ability to thrive — its “thrivability” — over time:
- There are Divergent Parts: In tourism, this shows up as individuals and enterprises able to express and contribute their unique gifts and to be nourished in the process.
- There are Dynamic Relationships: There is a supportive, connective infrastructure of relationship that enables the flow of information, resources and life.
- There is a Convergent, Emergent Whole: There is a unifying purpose, story or identity that draws people together and enables the emergence of new capabilities, so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and new things become possible.
- There is Self-Organizing Life: Because it is complex and alive, the whole process is self-organizing, self-generating and self-regenerating, powered and guided in human communities by inspiration, celebration, beauty, play, movement and nature — vital, overlooked pathways to wisdom and to more complete ways of knowing.
These design principles are useful guides for every scale — whether it’s a small group of community volunteers, an individual enterprise (yes, an enterprise is a living system, too), or the whole of a massive metropolis. Recognizing this helps us integrate our work at both individual and collective levels, attending to the community as a whole system rather than as simply an aggregate of individual wellbeing.
A Call to Hosting
Most significant of the four design principles is the last one, with its invitation into a fundamental shift in worldview. Currently, our dominant guiding story tells us that everything operates like a machine; that we are engineers and mechanics managing the machine; that everything can be predicted and controlled; that competition is our truest nature; and that money makes the world go round. This has certainly been the dominant story in the tourism industry as a whole.
But life tells a very different story, especially when it comes to communities.
Like all living systems, a community’s wellbeing can’t be managed or controlled. A living system can’t be made well or healed — it can only heal itself. But it can be supported and stewarded. It can be hosted.
To host a community in tending to its own necessary fertile conditions, what is required is to help people:
- notice what needs healing and what calls out with potential for new life,
- connect meaningfully with each other and organize themselves to address those opportunities,
- invite and support sufficient diversity of perspectives and contributions,
- and be nourished and become more capable in the process.
In this way, life’s universal design principles guide the work not of project management but of project stewardship — not of destination management but of cultivating community capacity.
Environmental, social and cultural issues will be at the heart of what is healed along the way. And economic viability will be the natural outcome as relational infrastructure is tended and as the vibrancy of these patterns attracts energy and resources.
Implications for Tourism
What does that look like and what does it involve in the context of tourism?
Let me answer that in a slightly roundabout way, through an arresting but potentially encouraging 2020 statistic: 64% of top UK executives — roughly two-thirds — reported that they increased their company’s sustainability efforts after having a conversation at home with their child.
This finding points to the importance of conversation — but not just any conversation. It points to the need for conversations in which we can show up whole-hearted, whole-bodied, as whole citizens, so that the reality of our collective peril can find its way in, confronting us, compelling us to find the courage to act.
The challenge is that there are few places in society where we have permission to show up in this way. Certainly not in our organizations or in the public sphere, which may explain why the sustainability movement continues to fall so desperately short of what is needed. In fact, I would say there are only two common places that invite this level of wholehearted presence. One is at home. And the other is on holiday.
This isn’t to suggest that we have conversations about sustainability while we’re on vacation. But it is on holiday that we are able to reconnect with forgotten aspects of our humanity. That we can be welcomed in our wholeness and our less-than-wholeness. That we seek re-creation and renewal.
And this is where tourism finds its most powerful and overlooked role. If the most significant pathway to sustainable action is to be invited to show up wholeheartedly, and if we can only show up this way at home or when hosted with care, then this must be tourism’s most important calling.
To be clear, this is not solely the work of individual hosts. And it’s not solely the activity of hosting strangers. These things are important, but they’re not enough to get us to community wellbeing. Most of all, what we need is to be hosted in our own communities — to heal and be healed through more meaningful connections with people and place. After all, every tourist destination is first a community — a shared home and a place of welcome and hosting, if only to family and friends.
If we are to find the will to respond to the scale of the catastrophe we’re up against, this seems to be at the heart of what is needed: whole people coming together in care for their shared place and for each other.
In returning to the roots of the profession, each community might ask: what does it mean to us to be not a “tourist destination” but a “hosting community”? What story are we living out here in this place? Given the state of the world, what is the necessary healing that can only be hosted here? Who do we need to become, together, if we are to host it well? And what healing and regeneration of our own do we need to tend to along the way?
I heard a lovely, simple story of this dynamic at play in Northern Ireland recently. It was told by a woman named Mary who runs The Portaferry Hotel. She had had to furlough her employees from the beginning of the pandemic, she explained. Recently, when she reached out to one employee, she learned that the woman was struggling with mental health issues. That prompted her to reach out to her other employees, and she wondered if others in the village were struggling, too. The media had made it sound as if all the local businesses were going under, she said, and she knew people were worried. But from what Mary could see, it wasn’t as bad as it was being portrayed. For one, the hotel was going to be just fine. She wanted to do something to comfort and reassure people, so she gathered a small group to organize a Covid-safe community charity walk, an event to bring people together in hope and connection. And from the energy and interactions at the event, it helped.
That is not tourism. But it is hosting. It is tending to the wellbeing of community. Eventually, there will be economic impact, as strengthened connections lead to collaboration, new ideas and new host offerings, or simply to greater resilience in a crisis. And ultimately, visitors will be more likely to return as they enjoy being hosted by a cohesive, caring community. The benefits are difficult to trace or quantify, but they are undeniable and even foundational.
In the same conversation and the same village, I heard an older man named Stephen talk about being involved in revitalizing the local abandoned Abbey. There were a few people who got together because they thought the Abbey was special and worthy of care and attention. They decided to “give it a go,” founding a Friends of the Abbey group and creating a partnership with the local community development organization. Four years later, the group of 20 passionate volunteers welcome 10,000 people each year to an Abbey that has been brought back to life.
While this could be considered a story of tourism, it is first a story of hosting community connection and care. As a result, more became possible — the very definition of generativity and regeneration.
Applying Life’s Universal Design Principles
These are stories in which life’s universal design principles were beautifully cultivated, though without conscious awareness of them. We know how to work in this way. After all, this is how all life works. And from what I’ve seen, those who are drawn to the business of hospitality are particularly inclined to work in this way.
But very often, we need to actively deprogram ourselves from the dominant mechanistic worldview in order to justify the time and care that this work requires. It can help to have explicit guidance if we are to avoid falling back into harmful habits of thought and action.
And this is where I point to community wellbeing — or thrivability — as the “informed intention and practice of cultivating the fertile conditions for life to thrive.”
- It helps to be informed of life’s design principles so we can work with them in full awareness.
- It’s important to make it our explicit intention to support community wellbeing and thrivability. Currently, we set our sights on far lesser goals, and as a result, we’re falling catastrophically short of life’s ability to thrive.
- This is not the work of a daily “to do” list or of an action plan, though these will certainly come in handy along the way. Community wellbeing and “net benefit” are not a simple, static calculation. They are a continual noticing, connecting, tending, prototyping, improving and learning. In other words, they are a practice — an ongoing individual and collective practice. Community wellbeing is a continual deepening in wisdom and compassion, and in the ability to sense what’s needed and to respond with effective action.
In that spirit, if we look again to life’s universal design principles for guidance, we see that there is something of a natural order for engaging with them. The starting point is to (1) identify your calling, (2) find others who hear the same call, (3) shape the supporting patterns and structures of your relationships with care, and (4) invite inspiration in as your constant guide.
In other words, these are the kinds of questions every project needs to ask, in whatever vocabulary makes sense for those involved:
- Convergent, Emergent Whole: What are we feeling called to express and create together, in service of life? How can we be essential to this moment, uniquely capable of contributing some vital aspect of a more thrivable world? What is the wisdom that is needed now? And along the way, how can the work we do build more collective capacity and compassion, so that the work itself becomes a vibrant practice ground for a more thrivable world?
- Divergent Parts: Who else hears that call and how can we invite them in, in all their diversity? What more could it mean for each of us, individually, to be able to bring the best of ourselves? To feel deeply at home in this work, in this place and in our own bodies? And what could support that?
- Dynamic Relationships: What more could it mean for our infrastructure and interactions to support not only information sharing, decision-making and effective action, but trust, playfulness, learning, adaptation and joy? For our patterns of belonging with colleagues, customers and community to be infused with a sense of dedication, earnestness, flow, perhaps even sacredness? And what could support that (including money and profit, and more)?
- Self-Organizing Life: Throughout, what would bring the most life to this process and this project? How can we be inspired, nourished, renewed and even surprised by nature, beauty, art, music, movement and celebration? How can we allow life to flow through us so that we can truly savor this experience of being alive?
My language is flowery and perhaps even poetic. Yours doesn’t have to be. But I guarantee (and consumer values research confirms) that if your community is asking questions like these, whatever the vocabulary, it will be wildly attractive to the kinds of visitors you want to welcome. And your invitation will be more targeted and more compelling than any slick advertising campaign could ever hope to be. With everything that’s at stake, each place will need to find its own, authentic way to say: “These are the questions we’re exploring as we try to figure out what it means to care for each other and for this shared home of ours. If these are also your questions, come for a visit, be nourished, and add your voice to the conversation.”
Admittedly, these are big questions, representing bold ventures into new territory for many who work in hosting. But there is no need to do it alone. In every corner of the world, there are ready allies in the community development movement. Look at this fantastic list of resources available from the government of New Zealand, for example. And I’m part of a global community of practice called the Art of Hosting, which has nothing to do with tourism and everything to do with hosting conversations about things that matter and that lead to lasting change.
As you go, there will be those who are impatient to get to the action, who want to jump straight to the detailed plan. But that is not life’s way. A garden must be tended. A child must be raised. A living project or community must be cultivated if it is to contribute to individual and collective wellbeing over time.
Conversely, there will also be those who want to wait for someone in authority to make the first move, or to give permission. But again, that’s not how life works. In a community, a leader is anyone who notices something and steps forward to take responsibility. Anyone can convene a conversation; it might as well be you.
This is the practice of community wellbeing. As Margaret Wheatley says, “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares about.”