Another winner from the Top 100 – Every year, Green Destinations organizes the Top 100 Destination Sustainability Stories competition, which invites submissions from around the world – a vetted collection of stories spotlighting local and regional destinations that are making progress toward sustainable management of tourism and its impacts. This entry, from the winners announced last year, showcases how a Brazilian community needed to rediscover itself in the face of growing popularity – and did. Synopsis by Supriya A. N.
A tour group visits a local church to learn about the customs and traditions that contribute to Bombinhas’ cultural identity. [Photo courtesy of Green Destinations]
Top 100 submission by Keli Regina Benvegnú, Discovering Bombinhas.
Bolstering the Identity of Bombinhas with Formal Training through Active Community Participation
Brazil’s coastal city of Bombinhas is a rising tourism destination, attracting close to 1.5 million visitors during its peak season of November to April.
The continuous influx of seasonal employees, entrepreneurs, and new residents has led to a blurred understanding of the city’s history, culture, natural attractions, customs, and traditions. The absence of an authentic source of information and the lack of knowledge-sharing has resulted in locals and tourism sector employees being unaware of the city’s history, which affects its identity.
To address this issue, Setur (Municipal Tourism and Economic Development Office) developed a training course about the city for both employees in the tourism sector and locals. Delivered by Discovering Bombinhas, the 12-hour training course is taught by graduates specializing in tourism, creatively known as Tourismologists. Divided into two sections, the course consists of a theoretical class followed by a tour of the city.
Importantly, the collective participation of locals and public-private partnerships is the highlight of this initiative. This can be seen throughout the two-day course:
Tourismologists develop a booklet containing historical facts and general information with assistance from public servants in the areas of Environment and Culture
A community resident, who is recognized as Master of Culture in local gastronomy and family agriculture, shares their knowledge and life history with students
Tourismologists lead students on a free city tour, made possible by partnerships with local tourist agencies
Museum visits teach students about the culture and history of their destination. [Photo courtesy of Green Destinations]
Visits to museums, historical squares, fishing reserves, art workshops, and boat trips are included at no extra cost, thanks to warm-hearted locals willing to share their stories for the benefit of the city
This course sets an example of how a community can come together to address a common problem of safeguarding and nurturing its identity through collective participation without any reliance on valuable public funds. Find the complete Good Practice Story (PDF) from Bombinhas city, Brazil.
Expanding the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism inspired Jana Apih and Sara Mavrič of GoodPlaceto create a new step toward putting the Slovenia Green concept into practice. Here they describe how uniting stakeholders committed to a greener future can transform sustainability principles into memorable and tasty experiences for visiting bicyclers and hikers, who thereby support responsible local businesses.
Bicyclists on the SGGR near Ptuj, eastern Slovenia All photos courtesy GoodPlace.
A Delicious Way to Promote Sustainability, Educate the Visitor, and Benefit Communities
You’re bicycling along theSlovenia Green Gourmet Route (SGGR). In this green pocket-size country the landscape changes fast. Around each corner you’ll find a new local story, an untouched forest, romantic vineyards, or a vibrant town. In just one day you can wake up with a spectacular view of high mountains, fill your lungs with fresh cold air, smell the mountain flowers; then bike along the wild Soča river, observing shepherds looking after their stock and stopping by a local farm to taste fresh cheese; and finally ride through vineyards at sunset. Dinner is a special treat at a high-end restaurant offering an innovative, surprising menu of local items. The day will stay with you – a taste of Slovenia.
An asparagus starter at Majerija in the Vipava Valley.
The SGGR is an innovative product based on principles of responsibility. The route emphasizes the sustainable and gastronomic features of the country and brings benefits to local providers and communities. Slovenia being declared a European Region of Gastronomy for 2021 encouraged us at GoodPlace to create a green-certified cycling/hiking itinerary that takes advantage of the rich gastronomic offerings of diverse Slovenian regions while rewarding the sustainability efforts of Slovene tourism stakeholders.
The SGGR is one of three completely “green” routes: Alps to Adriatic, Capitals Route, and the Gourmet Route. We believe these three to be the first and only such designated tours in the world, as they exclusively connect destinations that have been awarded the Slovenia Green certificate. We created the concept of the Slovenia Green Routes for members of the Consortium Slovenia Green (CSG), an informal body connecting destinations and businesses united by being certified under the Slovenia Green brand.
The Slovenian Tourist Board assigned GoodPlace to help develop this national certification programme, the Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism. Almost 60 tourism destinations (which account for almost 80% of all tourism arrivals in Slovenia) and 164 tourism businesses have joined the Green Scheme as of May 2022, committing to a green future and sustainable tourism development. (See accompanying story.)
The Green Scheme provides the base for three Slovenian initiatives aimed at encouraging responsible tourism development: (1) Green Scheme certification, (2) Training and tools, (3) Green Products. Having helped develop the Scheme, GoodPlace now acts as an accredited partner responsible for evaluations and development. The whole spectrum of the Green Scheme allows us to continually evaluate the sustainability of destinations and tourism businesses through the certification program.
In the case of SGGR we sought to promote local supply chains, local businesses, and local stories that convey the authenticity of green Slovenian tourism. Our aim was to find an authentic local experience in each destination – honey producers, farmers, markets, special events, even a chocolate producer in a monastery. Then we would seek to connect local tourism businesses and include local providers from non-tourism sectors to build the story of each destination. We’ve identified several examples of good practice in the field of gastronomy in Slovene destinations, especially in the aspect of short local supply chains.
One ambassador for putting local supplies on a Michelin plate is Ana Roš at two-star Hiša Franko in Kobarid. She identified a wide range of local farmers, dairy suppliers, bee keepers, and other producers, as well as locals picking forest products. She keeps surprising customers with innovative cuisine transforming local tradition and local ingredients into high-end culinary experiences.
We recognized a great potential for further development in this area.
This led us to the next step – introducing solutions for destinations and tourism businesses to improve their sustainability. While upgrading the Green Scheme, we introduced a special label, Slovenia Green Cuisine, with additional criteria and a new (gastronomic) module for destinations. It emphasizes promotion of local supply chains and relations with local producers, guiding them in their further development. Last and most important, as a result of these sustainability efforts members of Consortium Slovenia Green have created story-telling responsible tourism experiences – cycling through hops fields, a day at a karst farm, wine tasting in Ljubljana, and more (see www.slovenia-green.si)
Bicyclers tour through vineyards in Tomaj.
We prepared the SGGR in collaboration with ten Slovenia Green destinations and numerous local tourism businesses. The route ties together gastronomic destinations with rich culinary offers, wines, and Michelin-starred restaurants. The trail follows country byways and forest roads, goes through vineyards and fields, and is suitable for cyclists of all levels. Bicycles take travellers to places that cannot be explored by other means of transport and to tourism providers in less accessible locations, hence creating business opportunities for small entrepreneurs in these locations. (See video – 28 minutes.)
Biking combines well with travelling by train, a sustainable form of transport that brings the east and west of the country closer. All Slovenian trains now provide special places for the bikes. Easy train-and-bike travel enables the SGGR itinerary to capture the diversity of Slovenian gastronomic destinations and include a wide range of tourism businesses.
At Hiša Franko, Valter Kramar ages cheeses for up to 4 years.
Tourism providers promoted in the itinerary are small family-run accommodations and restaurants that have sustainability certificates and authentic boutique experiences removed from most famous tourist spots – tree house accommodation, glamping in forests or storied hotels in cities. The route can be customized for visitors by a professional travel agency Visit GoodPlace. Alternatively, travellers can organize their own tours by downloading a free e-book and navigation pack, which includes GPX tacks, Google map with points of interest, restaurants, accommodations, and tips for green travel.
In summary, the SGGR enhances local businesses and enables destinations to promote and monetize their local stories and gastronomical specialties. It benefits the environment with sustainable transportation while reaching providers located in less accessible locations. It educates travellers on sustainable travel and the uniqueness of Slovenian destinations and their gastronomy. Creating tourism products that illustrate the sustainability efforts “pulls” the visitors into the scene. When sustainability is only communicated as a primary focus, an abstraction without a concrete product to demonstrate it, guests cannot recognize its true value. This way, they see how the concept of green routes rests on the efforts of destinations and tourism businesses and exemplifies their commitment to sustainable tourism development in practice.
The Štanjel hill town features on the SGGR.
We believe the inclusion of the local communities and tourists into the co-creation of tourism products is crucial. The support and satisfaction of the local community is the core of successful sustainable tourism development. Communities will support tourism if they benefit from it. Giving the locals new business opportunities is an important step towards responsible tourism development, creating added value for both residents and tourists.
[Above: A Sierra Gorda panorama. Photo: Jonathan Tourtellot]
Featuring Sierra Gorda, Querétaro, Mexico
We chose the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve as the international pilot for this series because of one organization’s well-established success in their approach to conservation: Grupo Ecológico Sierra Gorda. In the videos, our two millennial hosts enjoy exploring the region as they discover how Grupo Ecológico has achieved its success.
Video hosts Ian and Christian at Cuatro Palos, Sierra Gorda. Photo: Hassen Salum
By working closely both with the local rural population, many of whom live at subsistence level, and with a succession of state and local governments, Grupo Ecológico has helped protect a wide variety of natural habitats while gradually making northeastern Querétaro into a scenic paradise for international travelers seeking an authentic Mexican experience.
You can now see and link to the Sierra Gorda videos on our YouTube channel, World’s Inspiring Places. There are three versions:
Subscribe to the channel to see additional videos about Sierra Gorda and shooting World’s Inspiring Places pilot.
The World’s Inspiring Places is a short-form online travel series created by Erika Gilsdorf, owner and producer of South Shore Productions, and Jonathan Tourtellot, director of the Destination Stewardship Center, both based in the United States. The series aims to showcase stewardship success stories around the world where people are working to help conserve or preserve the cultural and natural heritage of a destination, or creating a unique travel experience the supports and builds on that heritage.
Destinations do not pay for the videos; we look instead for external support free from local conflict of interest. In the case of Sierra Gorda, we are grateful for generous support from Freightliner.
The mission of World’s Inspiring Places is to encourage travelers to visit, enjoy, and appreciate authentic destinations that protect their nature, culture, and sense of place; to help individuals, businesses, and governments care for these places and the people who live there; and to inform and inspire leaders to secure a solid economic future through wise destination stewardship.
For two reasons, we encourage you to enjoy the Sierra Gorda videos and link to them through your own social media, blogs, or websites. First, Grupo Ecológico’s work is truly a model for the rest of the world, worthy of dissemination. Second, we seek new topics for World’s Inspiring Places and, of course, ongoing sponsorship support for a series that will, we hope, showcase the world’s best examples of great stewardship and rewarding travel.
Our thanks to Grupo Ecológico for their help with our six-day shoot this past August, and with my own visit in October. Our appreciation also to Freightliner for their financial support and to Antonio del Rosal of Experiencias Genuinas for his assistance in serving as our Mexican liaison.
If you have a proposal for the next World’s Inspiring Places, please see our page on how to apply, or contact us to begin a conversation.
Contact us, too, if you would like to download your own copy of a video, including a high-resolution version for audience presentations and the like.
[Above: One stop on a food tour—a meat vendor at Madrid’s Mercado de Antón Martín.
All photos by Eugene Kim.]
Building Better Culinary Tourism by Supporting Local Businesses
The clues to a good, local food establishment were there, even before tasting their food: the silver-haired customers lining up with an assortment of families, single professionals, and students, and the exchange in Spanish coming from behind the counter as Jesús begins wrapping up some meats.
“Hi Maria! How are you doing? And how’s your dad?”
“Well, he’s better, but….”
Eventually, the food (excellentjamón ibérico and jamón serrano— Spanish celebrities in the cured meat world) proved the lines and repeat customers were warranted.
I had visited the meat shop in Mercado de Antón Martín, a market of fresh and prepared foods beloved by madrileños, with a food walking tour in early March. That tour, taken with Devour Madrid Food Tours, along with some exchanges with its co-founders, brought up the importance of supporting mom and pop shops. (Note—To keep the trade secrets of Devour Madrid’s food tours, I have, as much as possible, tried to keep the food and drink businesses visited during the tour anonymous.)
Key to having successful food tours? Be a responsible tourism operator.
Olive vendor at Mercado de Antón Martín.
Growth in food tours means greater need to do it well
Lauren Aloise, one of the co-founders of Devour Madrid, remembers that when she first started, there wasn’t a lot of competition. “In 2012, there were two companies I knew of offering evening tapas tours in Madrid— but no one, as far as I can remember, offered daytime food tours,” says Aloise. However, Madrid now has over a dozen food tours listed just on TripAdvisor alone. Devour Madrid, which offers both daytime and evening tours, currently stands at the top of food-specific tours on that TripAdvisor list.
James Blick, another co-founder of Devour Madrid, attributes the success of Devour Madrid to a few key factors: adhering to ethical business practices that value transparency (no cash transactions) and fair wages (paying its employees and the establishments it works with well), hiring storytellers with a passion for Spanish food and culture as guides, and crafting food tours that visit small, local food and drink businesses.
“A food tour is about more than food, it’s about telling stories and about sharing the history and culture of a place,” says Blick.
“It’s about promoting responsible tourism…supporting the local economy by supporting family run businesses that make Spain so unique,” says Aloise.
It bears repeating. Their entire business model is based on supporting small, local, family-run businesses, which has been a key element to their success.
A Spanish porra (thicker cousin to the churro) and chocolate (for dunking).
For example, instead of working with the most popular (most reviewed) churros con chocolate shops in Madrid (which happen to be a local chain), Devour Madrid works with independent businesses. Not that Devour Madrid has anything against chains, but the strong relationship it has with the friendly shop owner, along with the shop’s non-touristic, neighborhood feel (where you’re more likely to rub shoulders with locals than with other tourists) is the essence of Madrid that it wants to share with its clients.
Mom and pop shops: Sense of place guardians
Small businesses help create and reflect the character of a place – giving communities at the macro level (cities, regions, and nations) and the micro level (blocks and neighborhoods) their character and identity. For example, in the posh neighborhood of Salamanca, you’re more likely to find expansive, upscale cafes rather than the smaller, hipster coffee shops in the artsy neighborhoods of Lavapies, La Latina, and Malasaña.
A strong sense of place is crucial to attracting travelers and building up a loyal following for a place, a following who will not only share their positive experiences on- and offline, but also become repeat visitors. This, then, becomes mutually reinforcing, as the attraction and retention of travelers to a destination keeps that destination and sense of place living and thriving through tourism.
“‘Living like a local’ has become an essential part of getting under the skin of a destination for many travelers. They are looking for more authentic holiday experiences,” according to the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA). Because small, local establishments are often the ones frequented by locals, they provide “instantaneous, hospitable immersion into a foreign place.” That is not to say that chains can’t provide good, local fare and aren’t popular with locals, but it’s the smaller places where you can actually be a part of the local culture. It’s where the owner might have photos of their family members or local celebrities on display, where artwork from local, emerging artists might adorn the walls and be available for purchase, or local food and drink might be incorporated into the menu. A smaller establishment often allows for more opportunities for interactions with local patrons and with the owners themselves. And smaller establishments may also be more prone to creating their own homebrew or special recipes, such as vermut de grifo (vermouth on tap) or cocido (a traditional madrileno stew), offering food and drink that can be found nowhere else.
Vermouth on tap, a quintessential Madrid drink.
History and context
Storytelling and food have always gone hand in hand. Whether it’s sharing stories over food or the food itself telling the story. By visiting small, local businesses, you are often supporting a family or partnership – each with their own, unique story of how their restaurant, or bar, or market or other food business came to be, and how it’s been shaped by and shaped its neighborhood. Whether the business is 2 months old or 200 years old, each has a relationship with its neighbors and neighborhoods and provides a space for developing bonds among neighbors. For example, during my food tour, I learned about an 80+ year old wine and cheese shop that had almost closed when its proprietor was imprisoned for helping Socialists during the Spanish Civil War. But his family carried on without him, even during the very lean times of the war. We weren’t able to meet the third generation shopkeeper that day, but it’s good to know that he’s around and able to chat with visitors – to provide them with both a face and a story for his shop. Sure, you can read about the history of Madrid or its various neighborhoods and then visit points of interest. But why not also interact with a place and its history by talking with the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and beyond generation of a family that has stayed connected to and supported an area by running a small business there? Or find out the untold stories of new small business owners who know a neighborhood first hand? That kind of engagement enhances the history and culture of a place. By often giving people more direct experiences with the unique people and places that are a part of a culture’s history, mom and pop shops can push the experience beyond just ticking the “I’ve been there” box.
This 80-plus-year-old family-operated tapas and wine bar includes a shop.
Cultural introductions and bridge building
Small, local food and drink establishments are often the gateway to new foods and new destinations. Because these businesses are rooted to a place and have developed relationships with and support other small businesses, they often carry products that can’t typically be found in some of the larger establishments. You might get introduced to a rare artisanal cheese that’s produced in very small batches by a new cheesemaker or a wine from a yet-to-be famous wine-producing region.
Cheeses from various regions in Spain (My favorite: a cow’s milk cheese from Galicia, accompanied by a sliver of quince paste, on the lower right).
And as you get your insider information and learn about new products—and perhaps, new destinations—you might be inspired (or hooked!) to keep buying those products or to visit the source of those products. For example, one soft cow’s milk cheese that I loved during a cheese and wine tasting on the food tour, showed up again in another establishment—only this time, in bulk form that I could take home with me! The tour also reaffirmed that the regions of Extremadura, Asturias, and Galicia need to be a part of my Spain trip list, as it featured excellent foods from these less traveled regions.
Of course, great trips mean great memories. And when paired with great food, great trips can turn into favorite trips, installing them into the memory banks’ hall of fame, where they have longer staying power and easier recall. By providing good food, stories that connect people to places, and a more authentic cultural experience, small, local establishments help build better destination memories for travelers. These memories, in turn, build up enthusiasm for a place, translating into better reviews and recommendations for that place and making repeat visits more likely. Living (for the moment) in Madrid, I know that I will be going back to at least a few places featured on the food tour and take visiting friends to those places. Because food memories are especially palpable, they have the power to change both hearts and minds. An especially good dish, such as the one featured in its namesake movie Ratatouille, can (spoiler alert) have the power to transform even the most demanding and fearsome critics into friends.
Longevity through diversity
Maybe the greatest strength of small businesses is how they contribute to the life of a community by providing the lion’s share of commercial diversity. It’s this diversity that helps give a neighborhood, a town, a city, a region, its quirkiness and character and what influential (and prescient) urban activist, theorist, and author Jane Jacobs identified as being not only “an indicator of a vibrant, social place, but also economic vitality.” Although Madrid has lost many small businesses to the global recession in 2008 and to a rent-control scrapping law that took effect in 2015, many still remain, giving Madrid’s neighborhoods their distinct identities and feel. Feel like stepping back to old-school Madrid with stores as specialized as ones dedicated to selling honey or embroidery supplies? Check out the neighborhood of Prosperidad. Need to find a neighborhood with a mixture of old and new restaurants, bars, and shops, but that has more of a residential vibe instead of a touristy one? Head to Chamberi. And while Madrid may not have the level of racial or ethnic diversity that can be found in other, larger cities or in countries more heterogenous than Spain, it does—through it’s diverse small businesses—encourage a diversity of ages and socioeconomic background among its patrons.
Whether I’m waiting in line behind Señora Maria for some jamón serrano from Jesús or behind a group of school kids for some horchata at a local horchatería (a business specializing in horchatas), my patronage at these small businesses is not just feeding my cravings for Spanish food, but also, the soul of the city itself—helping to preserve Madrid’s identity and past, while at the same time, supporting its future.
[Above: Dining choices in Ponce, Puerto Rico. All photos: Kathryn Warnes.]
On a recent visit to Puerto Rico we enjoyed exploring variations of mofongo, a classic island dish made of plantains or yucca root mashed, molded, fried to a crisp, and sometimes stuffed with meat. This dish is a prime example of the many influences that can shape a cuisine.
But the iconic dish was always served with a sad salad of shredded iceberg and the palest tomatoes to grace a plate. In a climate that offers mild 70-90°F weather year round, where were the bright vegetables? We see the same pattern in other islands and countries as well: A great local dish accompanied by poor produce, or none at all.
Mofongo stuffed with pork at Café Café, Ponce, Puerto Rico
Food is a part of how we experience places. What grows in a place and the characteristics the food takes from the land, the sea, and the people influences traditions and customs. Food can be a conduit for changing trends and new interpretations of classics. In Puerto Rico the history of Spanish colonialism is evident in the cuisine, the architecture, and customs, as are the influences brought in by the African slave trade and the plethora of fast food joints and big box stores from American influence of today.
Lush verdant land covers Puerto Rico, at one time predominately used for agriculture, the island’s former main export. Now Puerto Rico exports its population in search of jobs while importing 80% of its food—90% of which could be grown on the island according to experts . If Puerto Rico were able to replace 90% of its agricultural imports with locally grown produce, it would represent about $3.15 billion that would stay in the island’s economy, plus about 85,000 new jobs in the agricultural sector. It would also lower the cost of food by reducing middleman and transportation expenses.
“Today approximately 74.11 percent of the farms are under cultivation. This means that there is still potential to increase local production by at least 20 percent,” says Gladys González, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Puerto Rico.
The disparity between locals and tourists was most striking on the island of Vieques. Lining the Malecon in Esperanza, was a strip of bars and restaurants patronized by, run by, and served by North Americans with not much else in town other than a bakery and a few corner stores. In other places I have traveled, the small yards of village homes boast kitchen gardens providing not only nutrition but also fresh bright flavors. I only spotted one such yard during our exploration of the island, growing some beautiful eggplants, while the surrounding houses hosted a scraggle of chickens, dogs, and horses. A few of the restaurants boast local ingredients, but New England oysters and standard fried pub fare was the norm.
Serving up the threat of obesity, Esperanza, Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Could the yards of Vieques go to feeding families and tourists rather than birds for cock-fights? How much would it cost to implement an economic alternative providing fresh meat and cut down on the expense of imports both in dollars and fossil fuel consumption of shipping?
Here in D.C. rooftop gardens have shown great success maximizing sun, out of reach of normal garden pests. How wonderful would it be for Puerto Rican hotel and apartment rooftops to be adorned with tomato, herb, and citrus plants; providing fresh ingredients for the kitchens downstairs? Education is needed to share sustainable growing techniques, including training and resources for communities. The tourism industry that already exists can provide financial incentives that would yield tastier results for everyone and improve community diets with fresh fruit and vegetables over imported junk food.
With climate change becoming an issue for everyone, new techniques for efficient irrigation are being developed to maximize water supply and people are starting to consider sustainable farming techniques needed to feed the future. Organized community garden workshops and models such as Compost Cab, which facilitate communal composting, can have huge benefits for the communities. We have seen the power of garden education to bring communities together in a healing way for underserved communities providing nutrition in food desserts, schools, and yes to the restaurants and tourist who visit as well.
Studies have also shown that for every dollar spent on local agricultural products, 70¢ stays in the local economy. Helping Puerto Rico regain food security would reduce the cost and pollution of unnecessary trade, and provide fresher, tastier food for both locals and visitors, who are a large sector of the economy. Plus it would be much more effective at addressing health concerns for families who are simply trying to eat what is affordable and available.
If a good model is developed here, imagine the delicious results of spreading food security throughout Caribbean destinations with similar issues.
[Above: Archanes from atop Mount Youchtas. All images by Olivia Locascio ]
“How about some olive oil bread and fresh squeezed lemonade?” I looked up from the wind-ruffled pages of the book I was reading. Sunlight gleamed from the beads of condensation on the icy carafe that Athena, the owner of the Troullos apartments where we were staying, had carried over on a tray, accompanied by a loaf of fresh bread.
I had been sitting beneath a bit of shade in Athena’s stone courtyard in the village of Archanes in northern Crete, reading about traditional Cretan cooking – learning about the centrality of olive oil, the healing power of wild greens, and the importance of taking time to share a meal with family and friends. This was the second afternoon in a row that Athena, who had left Athens to come to this small village with her husband, had come out to offer us refreshments. Swishing the cool, minty lemonade in my mouth, I pondered the deep generosity of this woman. There was something special about the way she wanted to share her food with us.
I stood, stretched and ambled around the courtyard where a few of the other students enrolled in my study abroad program were also relaxing. Gazing out towards the shadowed base of Mount Ida, Zeus’s birthplace, I searched for the olive trees and grape vines that are so important to this region. I marveled at this place, hardly believing that I was here – and that I would be here, on this magnificent island, for another two weeks.
The Courtyard of Troullos
Archanes, once the summer residence of Minoan kings, is now lined with narrow, sloping streets. Colorful homes are snuggled in close together and no space is left unused. Fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and zucchini flowers fill the wooden bins of tiny markets. A small cheese shop boasts glass-faced refrigerators, crowded with rounds of myzithra and other local cheeses. Every morning and late afternoon, conversation and laughter can be heard from the open doors and windows, as passers-by stop to say hello and catch up on the day’s news.
One of my favorite shops was Bakaliko, a restaurant along the edge of the town square, where the 20 other students from the University of Wisconsin who were taking part in Nikki Rose’s program, “Crete’s Culinary Sanctuaries,” ate almost every meal, chattering to each other and to the owners, talking about what went into rusk salad and stuffed grape leaves, and slowly sipping our glasses of wine until, around 10 p.m., darkness finally fell.
Then, as the clock approached midnight, we would head back home to Troullos, our eyes drooping and our stomachs full. But we were never the last to leave. No matter how late we thought we’d stayed, the restaurant’s outdoor tables were always crowded with locals and tourists, not yet half done with their meals.
One night, we, too, found ourselves lingering over our evening meal and telling stories over small glasses of raki, a popular drink made from twice-distilled grapes. Suddenly, our group leader stood up and said she was so proud of us – so proud that we were finally enjoying a meal like Cretans do. It was the first time on our trip that we, a group of hyper, busy-busy-busy Americans had relaxed at the table, unhurriedly enjoying each other’s company and our beautiful food. None of my readings had prepared me for this.
Fresh baked bread
None of them had instructed me how to see even the simplest meal as a feast, how to partake in it as much for the companionship as for the food. I had to learn simply by doing that meals on Greece’s largest island are about living life together over food traditions that date back thousands of years. Cretans live each day for their family and friendships rather than for themselves. When Athena handed me her homemade bread and lemonade, she handed me friendship as well. You simply can’t eat home-made bread and drink lemonade someone had just taken the time to squeeze for you, hurriedly, or alone.
Above: Artisans at the Cyprus-Egypt exposition. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED
Geotourism theme unites St. Catherine, Egypt and Troodos, Cyprus
The St. Catherine region of Egypt’s Sinai and the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus are attractive Mediterranean destinations with a lot in common: UNESCO World Heritage recognition, substantial tourism potential, wealth of creative, nonpolluting community industries, and distinctive local agriculture. Both offer unique, self-contained, and unspoiled destination experiences ready for responsible and engaging tourists to visit and actively help develop. Both destinations struggle to keep growing their unique natural products in the face of commercial modernization pressures that affect land and society.
Troodos. Photo: Tarek El-Baz
To initiate a new economic collaboration between the two locales, more than 80 geo-travellers from St. Catherine visited Plattres/Troodos, the “Green Heart of Cyprus,” on September 12-15, 2013 to participate in a geotourism-themed dual-nation conference and exhibition entitled “From Bio-diversity to Geo-Diversity.”
This Cypriot-Egyptian event was the product of a new initiative called Connect to Grow (C2G), which uses the innovative concept of geotourism to help poor or vulnerable communities adopt a joint operating platform for marketing the local agro-food and creative industries essential to these rural communities. C2G is intended to assist any such rural communities that have unique business ideas and entrepreneurial vision.
Troodos is a protected area according to the EU Network; its churches are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage. The expo launched an initiative that builds on a history of cultural and economic links between Egypt and Cyprus. Egyptians, including the former King Farouk, have long favoured the Troodos Mountains as a resort destination. Both share a British colonial past as well. Supporting the visit were Egypt’s MAWARED foundation for Sustainable Development in collaboration with Cyprus’s Local Council of Platres and YPM Consulting,
The Egyptian party included three segments— civil society, responsible government officials, and responsible business entrepreneurs from the agro-food and creative industries, along with the St. Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA), including Bedouin farmers and artisans. Welcoming them were the Troodos Network (the leading local NGO) with the strong support by the local council of Plattres/Troodos and the governments of both Cyprus and Egypt.
Activities during the Egyptian visit included seeing and sampling items unique to each of the natural reserves, such as herbs and spices, as well as exploring the forests and natural environment of Troodos and discovering the creative work of both destinations. This was the first time that a community NGO, representing St. Catherine, has had the opportunity to introduce its products abroad directly and not through a mediator.
Cypriot and Egyptian participants learned from each other. Some discoveries were practical: Bedouin artisans learned a way to improve their traditional soaps; Cypriot artisans learned a new weaving technique. The two agricultural communities also gained new perspectives from each other on their respective climatic limitations—St. Catherine as a desert and Troodos as a winter-freeze zone.
Most significantly, each community learned that their own culture and way of life is of interest to others.
Geotourism as catalyst
Geotourism trips like this one can serve as a catalyst for helping targeted women and young entrepreneurs penetrate markets, access finance, and market their products—especially to geotourists who go beyond practicing eco-friendly tourism to sustaining and supporting community stewardship and human livelihood.
For these two destinations, developing food-related products is primarily an act of passion, of caring to keep local culinary traditions and artisanry alive. So by embracing the simple human quest of experiencing basics of a destination—traditional food, culture, nature, and knowledge—the geotourism approach becomes an engine for adding value, triggering collaboration between the two destinations in the form of:
Growth in market demand for both places;
Citizen participation, especially among women and young people;
Increased “destination pride” (as emphasized by the “godfather of geotourism,” Jonathan Tourtellot)—in essence, the pride that people take in celebrating our diversity and special natural and cultural identity.
This geotourism-led solution can apply to vulnerable communities in various Euro-Mediterranean countries, such as Cyprus, Lebanon (Arz El-Choouf Biosphere), Tunisia, and of course to Natural and Biosphere reserves in Egypt. Along with the governorate of South Sinai (St. Catherine), Egyptian communities in the governorate of New Valley (villages of Bashandi & Mounira) and of Aswan (Nubia and Wadi Allaqi) all face similar challenges.
Such communities have the opportunity to sell their their creative artwork as well as traditional agricultural foods and herbs within their communities when geotourists travel to Egypt. St. Catherine’s has 472 species of rare medicinal plants, of which 19 are endemic. Poorly informed farming and tourism practices now put some species at risk. Raising their perceived value is critical. Responsible tourism that appreciates culture and nature can create market demand for such products, which these communities urgently need.
Growth in knowledge
That has been a reason for communities to upgrade their products to be in compliance with tastes and technical requirements of EU markets. C2G takes these vulnerable communities beyond production standards and compliance (which does not by itself guarantee access to market demand) to include learning about obtaining access to local and regional markets; l attaining sustainable value-chain integration, ownership and governance; and acquire business development skills and the ability to form microenterprises or SMEs.
During their visit, St. Catherine participants, for instance, were able to improve commercial exchange skills by learning about quality-control practices and business expertise from the Cypriot Plattres Council and YPM Business Consulting.
CREATE artisan. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARAD
Keys to success
The success of the C2G model can be attributed to heartfelt desire by the vulnerable community to improve and get better. But dynamic knowledge and practice of commercial activities needs more than better information. Ownership of lessons learned requires generating and institutionalizing Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.
This will materialize when responsible government members engage with responsible business people with a sufficiently long-term perspective. In the case of the Troodos visit, unparalleled representation ranged from Bedouins of St. Catherine, who had never before left Egypt, to high government officials of both Cyprus and Egypt. Representing Cyprus were H.E. Commissioner of Environment and Commissioner of Volunteering and NGOs; representing Egypt were the current and former H.E. Ministers of Environment, demonstrating continuity of effort.
The collaborative approach adds dimensions to the existing intrinsic value of both destinations:
By sharing effort and resources, the two destinations can drive down the costs of exhibiting indigenous knowledge of medicinal and aromatic herbs from both destinations. Over 150 visitors at the Expo had an opportunity to buy traditional artwork from St. Catherine as well as indigenous Cypriot herbs and honey.
Product enhancement: A local young group of designers called “CREATE Team” help generate knowledge that does not disrupt indigenous practices. Trained in Cyprus and working with local community producers and processors (majority of whom are women), the youth team helps develop products and add innovative techniques and designs to already distinctive cultural products.
A joint twinning agreement between the Platres Community Council (PCC) and the St Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA) formalized the steps by creating a network of NGOs in Egypt and Cyprus to materialize and foster what was learned, namely:
Capacity building: How to maintain market-driven products while keeping their authentic local nature.
Business acumen: How to make viable business deals and design systems for quality control.
Cultural awareness: Learning and building shared respect for differences in destination cultures.
Public relations: Teaming up to support advocacy programs for both destinations.
This process is replicable. It can generate and institutionalize Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.
The “Connect to Grow” solution thus adds value to both host and visiting communities. This is how Two Destinations Can Tango.
Editor’s note: The Connect-to-Grow approach was selected for one of the presentations this past February at the UNDP-affiliated First Arab States Regional South-South Development Expo in Doha. Of all presenting teams, only C2G’s included members of the target communities. An excellent innovation, we think.
Above: Manolis Beehives in Crete. Photo by Nikki Rose
Everyone knows that the Mediterranean Diet is good for you. We can see that in the fine health of people who have spent their lives eating this way, and esteemed doctors have backed that up with data. But this wholesome way of life is at risk in the place where it began.
The premise of the Mediterranean Diet originated in Crete shortly after World War II, resulting in “The Seven Countries Study.” The basic findings were that some people in Crete lived long, healthy lives because of what they ate (and did not eat) during those hard times. There was no laboratory food, chemical agriculture or mass tourism yet. The only option was fresh and local food, which I call Real and Safe Food (RSF). But things have changed.
Mass Tourism Endangers Mediterranean Diet Foods
When I moved to my grandmother’s homeland of Crete 16 years ago, some communities were importing the Worst of the West at warp speed. Generic forms of holiday making (mass tourism) swept through entire regions, leaving virtually no trace of local life. It didn’t happen gradually enough for residents to determine how to stop the heritage bulldozers. Many people anticipated a better future. But mass tourism affected the way most of my neighbors wanted to live and eat.
Mass Tourism, Malia, Crete, Greece.
Society was moving from subsistence farming/bartering to a world created by multinational corporations and public agencies that served them. Young Greeks wanted what the tourists had – vacations abroad, pizza and beer. The older Greeks wanted their children to have a better education, because their traditional lifestyle was no longer viable. So my neighbors bought into this fast-track system (unwittingly or not) in exchange for their pristine environment and what it provided – RSF.
Crete’s RSF is at risk, and so is the population’s health: the rates of diabetes and heart disease are rising because residents have accepted corporate laboratory food from seed to table. Greek farmers and artisan food producers are rarely invited to speak in international forums, but the truth cannot be told without their voices.
My first concern is, who is thinking about what Crete really needs right now? We need to hear from the people who actually know and are implementing solutions. For more than half a century, public agencies have been appeasing industries that have not served citizens well. Their promotion of Crete’s cuisine or tourism in the countryside is not comforting unless agencies and industries have a plan to protect it first.
Now we have another heritage invader: All-inclusive hotels are on the rise, causing sudden death to local businesses. These compounds typically import 90% of their products, including food. The hoteliers’ excuse is that there is no consistency in local products. Are delectable local tomatoes too good for their customers?
On the ground in Crete, I work with many specialists in organic farming, viticulture, heirloom seed saving, traditional cuisine, botany-ecology, ecotourism, archaeology. Their stories tell about the lack of support for producers of RSF, the lack of protection of biodiversity where our precious wild greens and medicinal plants (horta) comes from.
Chef Mavrakis, Collecting Horta, Crete
Now that our cuisine and nature is “news,” we have the threat of mass tourism operators infiltrating our countryside with caravans of tourists in jeeps or 50 pax buses (they don’t call them people) on their programs entitled, “Authentic Crete.” It’s just the decades-old destructive system invading our priceless heritage.
Chef Dimitris Mavrakis Preparing Horta (Wild Greens)
So when it was time for me to share my knowledge about Cretan Cuisine at a recent conference, I began by sharing my favorite recipe: conservation. Conservation of our priceless ingredients is what we need now more than ever.
Both the local and global community benefit from RSF. UNESCO declared the Mediterranean Diet an “intangible cultural heritage.” While that is admirable, protecting the source of life of all species on Earth cannot be “intangible.” It must be Real. People accomplished this for thousands of years before the advent of chemical agriculture and mass tourism. There are still many people who know how to accomplish this today.
Ask the Producers Themselves What They Need
Instead of the mindset that we are supporting our RSF providers, let’s consider accepting their support. Let’s ask our RSF providers how we can make it easier for them to:
Train and support more sustainable organic farmers, vintners, small-scale fishers, and artisan food producers
Break down the barriers to success – fixed pricing, taxes, distribution, export laws
Create incentives (real living wages and training) to produce and distribute high-quality sustainable organic and sustainably harvested products
Collaborate with lodgers, restaurateurs, chefs and cooks supporting those above
Sustain and create more bona fide eco-agritourism initiatives (not just a place to stay in the middle of nowhere)
Collaborate with archaeologists striving to protect our heritage and share their knowledge about lessons learned and ignored
Collaborate with ecologists and support conservation initiatives
Once we accomplish the above, we can honestly celebrate our priceless “Mediterranean Cuisine.”
Related Video presentation by Nikki Rose on Crete trends in tourism, food, and farming, at the National Hellenic Museum, Chicago, 2013