Highlighting Destination Stewardship in Seville: Collaboration, Standards, and Good Policy

Good destination stewardship planning requires more than good intentions. It requires genuine and diverse community collaboration, setting and following rigorous standards, and good public policy that enables action. Tiffany Chan, Destinations Program Coordinator at the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), describes the key themes and main takeaways from the 2022 Global Sustainable Tourism Conference.

Sustainability is only effective if it is a collaborative process

After a two-year hiatus during the pandemic, the Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s (GSTC) 2022 Global Sustainable Tourism Conference resumed in person on December 12th-15th in Seville, Andalusia, Spain at FIBES Sevilla, the city’s Exhibition and Conference Centre. With 350 delegates from 61 countries and hundreds of viewers joining the livestreams, it was the largest GSTC conference yet.

Destination stewardship was one of the main themes, in addition to tourism adaption to climate change, mainstreaming sustainability standards, green mobility and accessibility. Below are the key takeaways from three particular sessions:

  • Destination Stewardship Councils
  • National Tourism Programs Using Existing Sustainable Tourism Standards
  • NTOs Engaging and Promoting Certification of Businesses.

People fill the FIBES Conference and Exhibition Centre in Seville, eager to learn and collaborate at the largest GSTC conference to date. [Photo courtesy of GSTC]

Destination Stewardship Council Approaches

The relationship between tourism and a destination is complex and requires a collaborative approach. In the Azores, the perception of stakeholders varies from island to island, as do local problems. Carolina Mendonça stresses the importance of stakeholder engagement to ensure they are part of the process. Azores DMO created an action plan based on the commitment of relevant stakeholders, identifying successful actions, and reviewing the process of unsuccessful actions. Nine green teams, public working groups, and local organizations were involved to ensure active participation of the entire community.

“You need to have people who are committed to reaching the goal. It is not possible to start the process without it,” states Stefano Ravelli from DMO Valsugana. Valsugana’s approach to cooperative engagement emphasizes the importance of communicating values, talking to tourists, and investing in residents – the ambassadors of the destination. In doing so, they developed a kit for operators to effectively communicate what sustainability means. “You don’t have to convince anybody. It’s just a matter of explaining the journey.”

Tree planting in the Azores during the 2019 post-conference tour to offset the carbon footprint. [Photo courtesy of GSTC]

A similar approach is also seen in another Italian town nearby. Through Eggental Tourismus’ certification process, Stephanie Völser quickly learned that sustainability is the main thread and overarching theme of the destination’s strategy. A participatory process – such as engaging partners, stakeholders, and municipalities – before the certification process allowed for general consensus and understanding of important sustainability matters. Eggental also organized working groups with a variety of members, which provided meaningful engagement with stakeholders from the community.

In the mountain town of Park City, Utah, extreme periods of visitation during high season put a strain on the community. “The community of Park City is afraid it will lose itself to the destination of Park City,” quoted Morgan Mingle. A situation assessment on resident sentiment was conducted as part of the destination’s planning process. Community buy-in ensures that local residents and stakeholders are aware of the scope and that sustainability is not just about the environment. In the formation of a destination stewardship council, Park City tried to bring in as many diverse perspectives and conflicting interests as possible to ensure that all voices are heard and approaches are agreed upon. This process helped to understand stakeholders’ needs.

Putting people first is a key design for the sustainable management of a destination. Starting with the “why” allows everyone to understand the common goal. Certification is not necessarily the end goal, but an ongoing process. A long-term multi-year strategy is required for continuous improvement. As a result, holistic management that includes citizen participation can enrich communities and provide the means to preserve natural environments and cultural heritage with many benefits to local residents.

Using Existing Sustainable Tourism Standards is Beneficial for National Tourism Programs

National sustainable tourism certification programmes add credibility and promotion, but why are there so many different approaches? Some destinations develop their own programmes from scratch, which can be time-consuming and costly, while others use the framework and criteria from existing standards to build their own national certification system. Some base their program on a range of international certifications, while others opt to work with the one scheme that best suits their needs.

The European Travel Commission, representing 32 national tourism organizations in Europe, published a handbook last year emphasizing the importance of a national approach towards planning, developing and implementing sustainability in tourism through certification. International certifications can be white-labelled and tailored to the needs of any destination. According to the handbook, it is easier to adapt or adopt an existing standard or a scheme than create a whole new one. It specifically recommends the GSTC framework.

Thus, designing a sustainable tourism program to achieve national goals is a varied process. Four national schemes were examined at GSTC2022: Visit Estonia Sustainability Plan, Sustainable Travel Finland, Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism, and Switzerland Tourism’s Swisstainable Strategy.

According to Liisa Kokkarinen, Head of Sustainable Development at Visit Finland, the first step is difficult but the most crucial. Visit Finland struggled to find an existing program that directly served both destinations and businesses when they started this process. They wanted the entire industry to be on the same journey. The Sustainable Travel Finland program is built on the GSTC Criteria. It is regarded as a pathway to ensure tourism businesses and destinations start by committing as the first of seven steps.

Slovenia Green took on the existing Green Destination standard in Slovenia and adapted it to the Slovenian model and brand. The Green Destinations standard is internationally recognised, which was an important factor for Slovenia Green when choosing a standard to white label. Slovenia Green is not only a certification program but an important tool on a national level that is recognized by the ministry. It started as a manual for hotels and developed into a certification program six years later in 2015. “The main aim of our sustainable Slovenia Green program is that it provides evaluation and improvement to more responsible tourism management and I think this is one of the main advantages that a national program can bring to the destination. It is our job as a national tourism organization to really give the tools and information to businesses and smaller destinations who might not have the time or resources.” Slovenia Green is owned and managed by the Slovenian Tourist Board, working alongside accredited partner Good Place and international partner Green Destinations.

Tourists stroll a street in historic Tallinn, Estonia, now in the early stages of a national green program. [Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot]

Estonia is in the early stages of developing its national program. They first started by surveying which methods countries are using and realized that for a small country, it didn’t make sense to build a certification program from scratch. They decided to instead adopt an existing certification program. Visit Estonia participated in the Green Destination program in 2020 by piloting 7 destinations. After a successful pilot phase, the Estonian sustainability scheme is on the trajectory of becoming its own national-level green program. Liina Maria Lepik, Head of International Services at the Estonian Tourist Board also agrees that the first step in creating awareness and commitment from tourism companies and destinations is the hardest, but most crucial. It is a learning-by-doing process, so sharing success stories and knowledge within countries, but also with other countries that are on a similar journey is important.

The national “Swisstainable” program builds on existing credentials, like this restaurant’s certificate tied to the Entlebuch Biosphere Reserve. [Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot]

On the other hand, the Swissstainable program is neither a label nor a new certification scheme, but is referred to as a holistic approach that builds on existing certification to provide guidance and orientation for guests. “Recognizing existing forms of credentials allows us to consider many positive developments without having to establish a time-consuming control system,” explained Helena Videtic, Sustainability Manager, at Switzerland Tourism. The Swisstainable program focuses on organizations and businesses.

When asked about the key factors for success when starting a national program, the four destinations offered the following advice:

  • Ensuring that you have a clear structure to see the path that you are taking, with easy first steps and small success stories to help build momentum and motivation to get to the final stage.
  • Understanding the needs and obstacles of key stakeholders and partners.
  • Recognizing that when it comes to sustainability, many businesses and destinations often don’t have the capacity or knowledge, or don’t know where to start. This can be overwhelming.
  • Having a simple, ready-to-use, and easy-to-understand program is also key when providing tools and knowledge as a national tourism authority.

Destination sustainability requires good public policy that informs private-sector practices

Criterion A4 of the GSTC Destination Criteria states that the destination should regularly inform tourism-related enterprises about sustainability issues and provide guidance with the implementation of sustainability practices. As such, DMOs must take an active role in engaging with the private sector to encourage more sustainable forms of services and experiences.

Realizing sustainability goals in Singapore as a nation is guided by the Singapore Green Plan 2030. Singapore has engaged with over 27,000 stakeholders, working with private and public partners to take action, share expertise, and co-create sustainability solutions. Certification is a key part of Singapore Tourism Board’s strategy, strongly encouraging tourism stakeholders to obtain internationally recognized certification in accordance with the GSTC Criteria. However, as Cherie Lee, Chief Sustainability Officer of the Singapore Tourism Board, mentions, “Certification is not the end all be all. It is a learning journey to see how to continue to improve and strengthen sustainability performance.” Tourism enterprises that want to become certified can receive financial support from STB, as well as training opportunities and participation in an accelerator program working to develop innovative sustainable solutions.

“All private companies that apply for funding with Innovation Norway have to answer to the 5 areas: Value creation, Ripple effects, Guest satisfaction for priority target groups, Attractive local communities and happy residents, and Climate footprint.”

Norway’s sustainable destination program started with four small destinations and now 28 destinations are approved to be part of the main process. This is in addition to 30 more destinations already in the early stages. “Most who aren’t involved are calling and want to be involved in the sustainable destination program,” said Knut Perander, Head of Tourism Development at Innovation Norway. Innovation Norway measures DMOs on the certification rate of businesses in the destination. All private companies that apply for funding with Innovation Norway have to answer to the 5 areas: Value creation, Ripple effects, Guest satisfaction for priority target groups, Attractive local communities and happy residents, and Climate footprint.

The Mauritius Tourism Authority is committed to sponsoring 60 tourism small- and medium-sixes enterprises (SMEs) to achieve certification with the financial support of other partners. Almost 90% of tour operators in Mauritius are SMEs. The Mauritius Innovation Framework, developed by the Sustainable Island Mauritius (SIM) project, was inspired by the GSTC Criteria, as well as the local standard MS 165 2019, also known as Blue Oasis Certification “Strong adherence to the GSTC Criteria is the only path to achieving ambitions at the local and international level,” explained Lindsay Morvan, Director of the Mauritius Tourism Authority. Mauritius is also in the process of becoming a GSTC Accredited Certification Body, the first government body to apply for GSTC Accreditation.

Elephants draw photographer attention in Chobe, Botswana, which stresses sustainable destination criteria, essential for tourism. [Photo by Jonathan Tourtellot]

Botswana was one of the early adopters of the GSTC Destination Assessment. According to Mafila Richard Malesu, Environment & Eco-Certification Manager of Botswana Tourism Organisation, it was an eye-opening experience. “I put emphasis on Destination Criteria because it is more than just dealing with an individual operator; you are looking at the whole destination and seeing how united are we and how are we in achieving our goals.” He also stressed the importance of involving the private sector and stakeholders in certification. The collaboration of private and public sectors can create a good model to ensure that conservation efforts are in place and tourism companies are profitable.

Upcoming Destination Stewardship Sessions at GSTC2023

At the closing ceremony, three GSTC Conferences were announced: GSTC2023 Antalya (May 2023), GSTC2024 Sweden (April 2024), and GSTC2024 Singapore (November 2024).

Destination Stewardship will be one of the four main themes at GSTC2023 in Antalya, Türkiye, focusing on Port Destinations, Coastal Destinations, and Rural Tourism.

Recordings of the conference’s sessions can be found on the GSTC YouTube channel.

Resurrected Matera Faces Overtourism

Inviting Hollywood into your home can backfire badly. Often, a roaring success on the screen may cause instant, irreversible collateral damage to the destination, its culture and citizens. Arild Molstad explores the too-much, too-fast story of Italy’s ancient, now-restored town of Matera.  

Once Called “the Shame of Italy,” Matera Grapples with Modernity, UNESCO, and James Bond

Until three years ago few but Italians had heard about this little town at the southern end of Italy’s scenic Apennines’ mountain range. For centuries it was a neglected, forgotten place. Now millions of travelers are placing Matera near the top of their bucket list of dream destinations.

Hard to find – and for those who knew its awful past – easy to keep hidden in the Sassi Gorge  (Italian for “stones”), Matera fills a narrow ravine where its stacked dwellings, churches, and monasteries were carved into the limestone.

Daniel Craig poses in front of Matera’s famous cathedral while taking a break from filming his new James Bond movie, No Time to Die. [Photo courtesy of Esquire Middle East]

Had somebody in the 1950’s told  the poor, overcrowded, and undernourished inhabitants of Matera that their children and grandchildren would be living in a site inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List (1993), they would have been laughed out of town.  The Sassi, which once housed 20,000 inhabitants, was reduced by then to around 1,500 people – still today’s population.

The Town that God Forgot   

Matera was first caught in the global spotlight before World War II, when Benito Mussolini’s regime deported a young anti-fascist artist to this desolate town, where he could do the regime no harm. Instead, Carlo Levi wrote Christ Stopped at Eboli, shocking the world. Photo: atp.basilicata.it

It was only in 1986 that the Italian government, with World Heritage status in mind, decided to invest serious money into the rehabilitation of Matera. A handful of years later rumours about this unique site started slowly to circulate. Its position – deep in Italy’s Mezzogiorno region and off the beaten track – was the reason that early visitors called it “a hidden treasure.” Even backpackers exploring the triangle between Naples, Rome, and the Adriatic port of Bari missed it.

When I found myself at the edge of the Murgia plateau in 2021, staring speechlessly down at Matera’s unique network of caves, churches, and alleyways, I was looking at what is said to be one of the three oldest continuously inhabited towns on our planet (the other two: Aleppo and Jericho).

For an absorbing half-hour video presentation of Matera’s history, today’s visitors flock to Casa Noha, an interactive museum housed in a former palazzo. Here I was to learn the long and dramatic journey Matera had taken, from abject poverty during two world wars, to winning European Capital of Culture status in 2019.  

Dangerous living conditions, poor sanitation and disease forced residents to abandon the Sassi after World War II. The writer Carlo Levi, an anti-Fascist writer exiled to the region by the Mussolini regime, compared Matera to Dante’s Inferno in his immortal book, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Matera became known as “the shame of Italy’’ as its hapless, suffering inhabitants succumbed to malnutrition and water-borne diseases at the bottom of the ravine.

La Grotte della Civita: one of the exclusive, repurposed cave dwelling boutique hotels by owner and conservationist Daniele Kihlgren. Photo: atp.basilicata.it

Levi’s book, a heart-breaking wake-up call to Italian authorities, was also filmed here. Wrote Levi: “To this shadowy land, that knows neither sin nor redemption from sin, where evil is not moral but is only the pain residing forever in earthly things, Christ did not come. Christ stopped at Eboli.”  

Comes the Resurrection

The restoration of Matera begun in the 1980s was partly hard labor, partly an outstanding artistic and architectural achievement as the wild, limestone canyon prepared for the coming of more visitors. “It was a sight to behold,” sighs Gianni, a local filmmaker. “Now tourism is outpacing us, year by year, in our efforts to safeguard Matera’s authenticity and integrity.”

In the street, older inhabitants had stories to tell of those who left, and how they refused to return to face the old town’s sudden prosperity. To them, it brought back dark memories of desperation and ignominy. All complained about tourism-driven higher housing and grocery prices. “Where are the benefits?” they asked as Matera received a record-breaking one million visitors in 2019. 

UNESCO Inscription Requires Protection and Management 

Numerous laws, plans, statutes, institutions, and departments to safeguard Matera came into being when Matera was accorded UNESCO World status in 1993. Later, a management plan was drawn up to address tourism and visitation challenges in the historical area.  

The Municipality established a special department, “Ufficio Sassi,” in collaboration with several local offices of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities, recognizing “the need for vigilance in respect” to prevent “negative impact to the development in the buffer zone between the ancient quarters and the modern town of Matera.” I wonder: Has this turned into a bureaucratic maze, to be exploited by fast-money investors with little time for conservation?

Matera by day. Photo: Charlotte Molstad

Matera – A Movie Set

Matera’s appearance has often been compared to a movie set. It is hard to disagree, as I rise early to watch the sun embrace the town’s facades, adding patches of orange and deep shadow to the Sassi Gorge down below, from which only the soft sounds of street sweepers and somebody strumming a guitar emerge. 

Connoisseurs of movie classics will recognize Matera – known as “little Jerusalem” in films by famous directors such as De Sica, Visconti, Pasolini, the Taviani brothers, and Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of Christ. 

My terrace is only a stone’s throw away from a film location shot near the cathedral – a film now being watched by millions of James Bond fans all over the world, as Daniel Craig, in his slick, souped-up Aston Martin, performs impossible hairpin turns in the narrow alleyways and steep staircases. I’d hired a guide to Sassi’s secret hideaways, who suggested that the title of the film, No Time to Die, might be a fitting headline for “an editorial in the local newspaper to help save Matera’s priceless treasures.” He was referring to the numerous unique, fragile cave paintings depicting scenes from the holy scripture.

Matera by night: Wonderfully spooky golden light falls on a maze of streets. Photo: Arild Molstad

Others were more direct. The manager of high-end boutique hotel (who spoke on the promise of anonymity) decried the recent wave of too many restaurants, bars, arts and craft shops, guides that are not ambassadors of this beautiful town, or neglect to respect rules and regulations.” He said, “Residents who moved back in the 90s are now leaving the historical center.” They fear further exploitation and commercialization.” Surely not an unknown phenomenon in UNESCO sites such as nearby Naples or in Sicily – not to mention Venice. 

Taking on 007

During my stay, I spoke to others who would welcome a “007 workshop” – to be convened urgently, similar to a town meeting held in 2019, during the Capital of Culture festivities. Already at that time, prominent local leaders were expressing concern about the tourism onslaught, led by Raffaello De Ruggieri, then mayor, who famously told New York Times, “We don’t want tourists,” adding, “it could deplete a city of its soul.” 

On my last evening, the view from my terrace transports me deep into history, bringing to mind Carlo Levi’s words: Matera “seemed to melt away, as if it were sucked back into time ….”

Evening comes to the Sassi Gorge of Matera. Photo: Arild Molstad

A potent cup of espresso kicks me back into the present. With Daniel Craig as Matera’s unofficial, possibly reluctant tourism ambassador, will the film’s spectacular sky dive into the shadows of the gorge spell the end for this still authentic, well-preserved UNESCO site?

The current mayor prefers to take an optimistic view of the worldwide attention that the Bond spectacle can bring to a place still reeling from the pandemic. In a way, I understand. The Matera of today looks and feels like a treasure chest, filled with vitality, culture, priceless traditions, shared heritage – and a need to survive. Its story continues. Clearly, Matera has sent me on my way with an arrivederci – “until we see each other again.”

Innovation in the Italian Alps

? Destination Stewardship Report – Summer 2020 ?

In the last five years, Dolomiti Paganella DMO in the Trentino region in northern Italy has transitioned from a fairly disorganized structure with no community support into a well-managed, prosperous and widely-supported destination management body focused on stakeholder cooperation and sustainability. The DMO’s innovative Future Lab initiative is now helping to shape a roadmap to post-Covid19 recovery in the first region in Europe hit by the coronavirus. Marta Mills explains how.

In Italy’s Dolomites, a “Future Lab” Inspires DMO Innovation

By Marta Mills

Hiking in the Dolomites. All photos courtesy Dolomiti Paganella.

Dolomiti Paganella Tourism Board is a regional DMO (Destination Management Organization) comprising five municipalities in the Dolomites, a mountain range in the northern Italian Alps. The region became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 because of its ‘intrinsic, exceptional natural beauty’. According to UNESCO, the Dolomites are ‘widely regarded as being among the most attractive mountain landscapes in the world. Their dramatic vertical and pale-coloured peaks in a variety of distinctive sculptural forms is extraordinary in a global context.’

Before 2015, the Dolomiti Paganella DMO suffered high seasonality, low funding, lack of long-term vision for tourism, and no clarity on the DMO’s role. The DMO used to manage a lot of different, ad-hoc projects, lacking in specialization, coordination, and leadership. This created unrealistic expectations and demands from the local stakeholders, and also meant that, according to its current Director Luca D’Angelo, the DMO was ‘doing everything for everybody and with no prioritization of tasks, and hence doing it badly’.

The DMO began shifting into sustainability in 2015. Its newest initiative is a research-intervention think-tank on the future of tourism in the region. Launched on 29 October 2019, The Future Lab is engaging not only the industry stakeholders but also – and for the first time – the whole community.

The Destination
Dolomiti Paganella is the brand name of the destination, Paganella being one of the peaks. The five picturesque ‘communes’ – Molveno, Andalo, Fai Della Paganella, Cavedago, and Spormaggiore – are surrounded by imposing, vertical rock walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys. They provide opportunities for adventure tourism (mountain biking, climbing, hiking, paragliding and skiing) and family-oriented experiences, with several aquaparks, wellness centres, and family festivals.

Interestingly, out of the two million overnight stays annually, 65% visit in the summer. That’s unusual for the Alps, where most visitors come in the winter. However, the facilities around the stunning Molveno Lake and a strong Bike Product developed by the DMO allow Dolomiti Paganella to spread the tourism season much wider compared to other alpine destinations.

The Change
In January 2015, Luca D’Angelo, former senior tourism researcher at the nearby Trentino School of Management (TSM) and a director of another DMO in Trentino (Valsugana), took charge of the Dolomiti Paganella DMO. Together with the TSM, he used a St Gallen Strategic Visitor Flow model to work out visitor flows and decided to focus on only four products (biking, hiking, climbing and family experiences). That shifted the promotion of the destination as a whole into developing and promoting specific products, which subsequently changed the whole structure and the strategy of the organization. Such specialization allowed the DMO to prioritize its activities and focus on a long-term vision.

Stakeholder cooperation
Initially, DMO-stakeholder cooperation focused on product development, forming new funding partnerships with local businesses (cable car companies, trail builders, accommodation providers) and the local municipalities who own the land. They jointly create and sell experiences that are then promoted by the DMO through their online channels. The focus on developing selected products (Bike Product for example) and strong cooperation with local business has built trust that allows more participatory, more efficient destination management.

A region of “intrinsic, exceptional natural beauty.” —UNESCO

Every year the DMO organizes two to three workshops with lift companies, bike chalets and bike hotels to jointly visualize the short and long-term goals for the destination in the next two to three years. Involving key industry players has been fundamental both in creating a strategy for the destination and for developing quality product.

Results and Impacts
The change has raised destination visibility, extended the season from April to November and broadened the visitor market. The growth in visitor numbers – 500%, from 2015 through 2019 – has significantly increased the revenue for the DMO and for the businesses. However, this growth came with negative environmental costs, and in the summer months overtourism became an issue for residents increasingly concerned about the region’s capacity for yet more visitors. Their enthusiastic support for the growth that had brought economic benefits started giving way to worry that overtourism was hurting quality of life for the communities. The FutureLab was the DMO’s response.

Next Phase: The Future Lab
As the confidence and trust in the DMO rose, it was the right time for The Future Lab to engage the local population in deciding on the future of tourism ‘as a positive force for the good of our community tomorrow and in future decades’. The Future Lab is involving hundreds of stakeholders in defining the role of tourism in the region, aiming for a more environmentally and socially sustainable model that benefits local residents, the environment, visitors, and tourism businesses.

I learned about it during a week-long tourism training on management of UNESCO natural sites run by the TSM in November 2019. Funded by the DMO and run in partnership with the TSM and Frame & Work, the Future Lab is seen by the DMO as a more innovative and sustainable form of destination management, based on stakeholders’ views on how tourism can benefit them and the natural environment. Over 700 local people attended the launch on 29 October 2019, when consultation on the future started. Discussion focused on four issues:

  • Destination’s DNA;
  • Future generations’ involvement in destination development;
  • Thriving in a future shaped by climate change;
  • Improving tourism balance.

The plan was to continue with stakeholder meetings and workshops in 2020, run by the DMO in cooperation with TSM and Frame & Work. A special Blog and the DMO’s Facebook group (only in Italian) allows the local people to check the updates and interact with the project. Before February 2020, over 20 workshops had been completed, and meetings with various associations and individuals willing to connect with the Future Lab were in full swing.

And then the coronavirus happened.

The DMO and the Future Lab Respond to COVID-19
The most recent analyses predict that the turnover in the region will be 40% less compared with the previous year. During the pandemic, the DMO has focused on two areas:

  • Supporting the tourism industry with constant updates; surveys on feelings and emotions; revision of the event calendar; and creation of a toolkit to help with cancellation, vouchers, revenue, social media communication, market insights, and so on.
  • Creating a strong relationship with the tourism community. For the latter, they have created new content with a different vision of the future, as in this short video. The community was also surveyed about their feelings on travelling again. The DMO encourages the community to use this time constructively by focusing on ‘internal resources that can be exploited’ – in other words, tapping the ideas, know-how, skills, and experience that locals can exchange to help with recovery. ‘We are working on the re-start phase’, says Luca, ‘but at the same time looking for a “new” vision through the Future Lab. This is precisely the idea of the Future Lab: reflecting on today to conceive interesting prospects for the future’.

The next steps will be to reboot project communication and stakeholder engagement, stimulate a new involvement from the community, and build new research tools. ‘It is important to note that we do not aim to turn the Future Lab into a crisis management project for the current challenge’, Luca told me. ‘While there is plenty of work to be done as a DMO to offer continuous support for our local community now, the focus of the Future Lab remains firmly fixed on planning and preparing for a better future.’

Thus, the project is still what it set out to be: a lab focusing on the long-term development and strategic decisions for the destination. The Covid crisis has surely changed the context of the process, and partners TSM and Frame & Work are currently rescaling, refocusing and recharging the project. They intend to incorporate the lessons from the pandemic that can also be replicated in other destinations.

Luca has no plans to leave the DMO as this new phase is just beginning. Even if he were to depart, the Future Lab’s strong foundations, based on cooperation with partners and stakeholder approval, should ensure the continuity of the project.

Tourism Success Means Protecting Shared Assets

[Above: Manarola, Cinque Terre. Photo: Casey Muller]

I’m just back from Cinque Terre—five hillside towns on Italy’s Western seacoast where you feel like you’re vacationing in the 17th century but still enjoy modern wonders such as trains and cameras. Virtually unknown to US tourists twenty years ago, it is now a destination sensation complete with its own Rick Steves, Rough Guide and Lonely Planet travel guides.

Tourists from all over the world—including many Asians, especially Chinese—clamber up its steep mountain trails and the equally steep steps that double as streets in these former fishing villages. Oh no! That’s the road to ruination, as the authenticity and tranquility of a newfound place is trampled under the weight of countless tourists’ Nike and Timberland hiking boots.

That’s not how the story goes in Cinque Terre.  The reason why can be explained in terms of the commons, a set of principles and practices governing ownership which like Cinque Terre is now being rediscovered by the wider world. The commons, in short, means what we all share together—a surprisingly broad category that includes everything from wilderness preserves to the Internet.  The word is cropping up more and more in conversations about social equity and sustainability.

For a commons of any kind to flourish, it must be managed in a way that ensures everyone can use it without using it up.  Otherwise, it’s ruined for future generations, just like a distinctive travel destination overrun with fast food joints and parking lots.  The aims and ideals of geotourism fit very snugly with the concept of the commons.

Visiting Cinque Terre in late April, the starting line of the tourist season, we were overjoyed to spend a week in a place where pre-Industrial towns, hillside vineyards, olive groves, forests, waterfronts and historic sites are vigilantly cared for. Cars are kept out of the town centers, which are conveniently linked by hiking trails, trains and boats. There are very few chain stores either, creating opportunities for locally run inns, shops and restaurants.

My wife Julie and I attribute the sheer, giddy pleasure we experienced in Cinque Terre to the strong sense of the commons all around us. We hiked from town to town on paths that were public rights-of-way trod over by villagers for centuries.  We whiled away happy hours strolling and dining in narrow Medieval streets and piazzas—wonderful  public spaces open to all.  We voraciously soaked up the region’s scenery, cuisine, history, architectural traditions, agricultural customs and easy-going way of life without diminishing their availability for anyone else.  No tragedy of the commons here.

I sense a lot of overlap in my own work with the commons (as editor of the Commons magazine at www.onthecommons.org and author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.) and as a travel writer and community consultant dedicated to geotourism.

The spirit of the commons and geotourism are both valuable in boosting grassroots efforts around the world to discover ways of making sure that the places we treasure are not irreversibly spoiled. In many cases these two particular words are not spoken, and may not even be familiar to the activists pursuing these strategies, but the intuitive common sense of both philosophies is nonetheless useful in making a difference for a neighborhood, town or region.

Indeed, Cinque Terre has been able to become a popular destination without sacrificing the qualities that make it appealing because of successful management strategies that draw deeply from the same well as the commons and geotourism. The mountain landscape and the surrounding waters of the Ligurian Sea are national parks, meaning they belong to the Italian people.  The area’s natural, historical and cultural qualities qualify it as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that that all of humanity has a stake in its preservation.

Village of Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre. Photo: Klaus with K

Village of Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre. Photo: Klaus with K

But Cinque Terre will need more of this kind of thinking if it is to remain a success story. The growing presence of so many tourists has inevitable side effects.  That’s why sustainability consultant Ed McMahon advocates that the number of visitors be capped each year, as is done in places as far-flung as Spain’s Alhambra castle and the Boundary Waters in Minnesota’s north woods.

Hikers must already pay a fee to hike Cinque Terre’s breathtaking coastal trails to prevent them from being overrun. But when Julie and I were there, three of the four main trails were closed due to damage from mudslides, caused by heavier-than-usual rains made worse by the fact that stone terraces overlooking the trails have not been taken care of.  The bounty of jobs in the tourism economy means that many young people abandoned the hard physical work of tending the vineyards.

Unable to walk along the coast, Julie and I hiked from town to town over the more strenuous mountain trails, which afforded tremendous views of the stunningly blue sea from olive groves and vineyards perched on the mountains.  And we were very happy to notice that many of the terraces had been newly restored—a shining example of geotourism and the commons in action.