On the occasion of the release of the 2019 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report at the Wold Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, a different version of this article was published on September 1, 2019 in the World Economic Forum Agenda under a different title: Why tourism policy needs to use more imagination
Annually, the World Economic Forum publishes the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report. It measures the extent to which tourist destinations are able to compete based on quantifiable dimensions such as business environment, labour market, safety and security, resources, infrastructure, price competitiveness and others. Presumable, if a country does well on all dimensions it will benefit more from the tourism economy. All of that makes complete sense and assists destinations in focusing their efforts in order to improve their performance. Yet, I would argue that we should also look at travel and tourism imaginativeness. Many destinations, particularly in Europe, still today depend on a tourism system that is outdated and some of them, historically seen as most competitive and successful, are now suffering from overtourism and citizen retaliation. Therefore, we need to come up with new imaginaries.
Part of the problem is that destination management organisations are supposed to measure their achievements against goals and those goals have to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound). For too long destinations have been staring themselves blind at the growth in arrivals, beds, receipts and bednights. Part of the question now is: how do destinations deal with soft targets? What if they aim for goals that are not so specific and easy to measure, such as happiness, civic pride or reputation? Too often such objectives are swept aside as too vague, too soppy and too difficult. For many, this is common sense. However, to use a Frank Underwood (House of Cards) quote, ‘There is only one problem with common sense, it is so… common’.
The consequence is that we end up with standardised policies, proven solutions, copy-paste behaviour and a rat race for the latest, tallest and “smartest” iconic attraction that will generate fifteen minutes of fame. Existing models are quickly copied in a rush to plug into the outdated – largely European – tourism system. It seems to serve common sense, yet it is so boring; the last thing one would expect from a sector serving travel and tourism. In addition, copy-paste behaviour also risks copying the mistakes of the past. Tourism therefore needs and deserves a reinvigoration of the role of and importance assigned to imagination; to imagine what destinations with a strong sense of identity and uniqueness can accomplish internationally.
To use another Underwood quote, ‘Imagination is its own form of courage’. Imaginative destinations have the courage to be bold, the creativity to come up with new ideas, the power to innovate and be different, without disavowing local character, but by showcasing and reinforcing it. This requires leadership, in government, but equally in the private sector and civil society – and hence collaboration. It requires leadership that understands that local interests are best served by aligning them with each other and with global developments, through stakeholder collaboration. That is the way in which actions lead to improved reputation, admiration and local pride in the long term, besides performance improvement or competitiveness in the short term.
An interesting case is this regard is Bhutan. A country folded away for centuries in the Himalayan wrinkles between India and China challenged existing ideas of what it meant to join the global order entering the twenty-first century, literally and figuratively. On ascending the throne in 1972, the fourth ruler of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, set out to redefine third-millennium prosperity and the terms on which he would open up his country’s economy. As the world continued to propagate gross national product and economic growth as the yardsticks for development and prosperity, the new king advanced the idea of gross national happiness. It would prove to be an imaginative idea whose time had come.
One inventive policy is that while most countries subsidise tourism in order to attract visitors from abroad, Bhutan actually imposes a rule that tourists must book their trip through a licenced Bhutanese tour operator (i.e. not the existing international system) and that a US$200 per day (low season) and US$250 per day (high season) minimum package applies. Included in this price is a US$65 per day Sustainable Development Fee that goes towards free education, free health care and poverty alleviation. In other words, tourists are taxed significantly as a result of the government’s strict ‘high-value, low-impact tourism’ policy that protects the country’s culture, traditions and natural environment while benefiting local development.
Estonia has been invaded and occupied so many times over the course of its history that on independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Estonians must have thought there was no point in hanging on to physical borders; in twenty years they built the most advanced e-state in the world. Part of what drove this push for a “digital republic” was the fact that Skype was invented and built in Estonia. Now, common government services such as education, health care, elections, the legal system, taxation and others are digitally connected on one single platform; and, if everything is in “the cloud” one can run a borderless state.
This has caught the world’s attention, starting with, in 2001, Estonia being one of the first countries to declare internet access a human right. However, what has really captivated foreign audiences is the launch of a programme called e-residency. According to the official e-estonia.com website, ‘E-Residency is a new borderless digital nation for global citizens, powered by the Republic of Estonia’. Like citizens and residents of Estonia, e-residents receive a government-issued digital ID and full access to Estonia’s public e-services. As of 28 August 2019, 55.000 people from 136 countries had applied. It specifically targets entrepreneurs, freelancers and digital nomads. It is clearly an imaginative initiative that serves global travel and tourism; not just Estonia as a destination, but Estonia as a creative player in the system.
Although Bhutan and Estonia have problems of their own and the systems that they built are far from ideal, at least they are trying to build and improve their own in order not to copy the mistakes that others made. European tourism was built on a tour operator, travel agent and vertical integration model in which destinations have little control. Destinations nowadays have other and new independent ways to build and control tourism success. Local travel and tourism stakeholders and policy makers should use their imagination and be creative about how they build their tourism economies and destinations – the European included! So, competitiveness; yes, but destinations also require positioning based on unique and authentic cultural identity to stand out; or find their ‘blue ocean’ as imaginative communities.
- Robert Govers
Photo credit: Prateek Katyal/Unsplash, thanks to the World Economic Forum