Building resilient communities and resilient destinations
Building resilient communities and resilient destinations

Gopinath Parayil, Founder of The Blue Yonder

18 April 2020

Tourism industry has seen many disasters. Terrorist attacks, earthquakes, climate crisis related natural disasters, financial market collapses and infectious diseases like SARS in the past. It's a long list.

The past was about localised challenges. Regional challenges. Some other parts of the world still continued to function. When Bird flu spread across South East Asia, tourism elsewhere didn't stop. When there was militancy in Kashmir, Kerala tourism benefitted. When Plague inflicted scores of deaths in Surat in 90s, domestic tourism increased in others parts of India. Nipah virus crisis in Kerala benefitted destinations elsewhere. Tourism didn't stop all together. It was business as usual elsewhere.

But, the past hundred days has changed it all. Covid-19 has brought us to a standstill. Many a times in the humanitarian sector, we speak about localisation. About how to build capacities of local players and find resources when it comes to disaster management. This way aid agencies (Global) can focus on their core competencies. All of a sudden, there is no super hero from 'somewhere' else who will fly in with aid to save us. We have all become locals. We are all global. We all have to be glocal super heroes now, and how!

Those who normally would come to our rescue themselves are affected. Switzerland, with some of the largest humanitarian aid agencies, says that their health system will collapse if the current rate of COVID-19 spread continues. Many already vulnerable countries where tourism was a high contribution to their GDP have now closed borders to ensure travellers don't spread further to start a community spread. Countries that tried to rake in last minute moolah to en-cash the tourism movements have become the hotspots of cluster and community spread.

The humanitarian sector, estimated to be a $27 billion annual turnover economy, is stretched to its limit. A $8 trillion global tourism business needs to protect its employees, businesses and the communities that are dependent on tourism to cover this crisis. The fact that ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel and tourism show had to shut down for the first time in its history was the the first signal for what was to come.

All over the world, Governments, civil society organisations, industries, communities etc are desperately seeking ideas to overcome this crisis. We are still in the process of managing a health crisis, but soon the economic impact of this crisis will start affecting the way how we live and function. Governments like Canada, Germany, and even developing countries like India have started announcing economic support packages for their Covid-19 programmes so that the lack of economic activity is substituted by the interim support from Governments.

Post Covid-19, (whenever that is), can the world go back to business as usual? What shape will tourism take? As a tourist, do you still feel the urge to be part of a cruise itinerary? Are you going to do meaningless, 'I covered seven countries in a week', Instagram-worthy tours? Will companies that arrange just hotel and transportation booking and sightseeing survive? Or is it the time for travel and hospitality enterprises that promote transformational, conscious and responsible tourism to sustain and thrive?

Just before the spread of Covid-19, we were busy talking about the impact of Climate Crisis and it was just that. Merely talking. There were very few serious initiatives from tourism industry considering the global scale of impact. We were starting to see the impact of Climate change in our lives and businesses, but it wasn't yet catastrophic enough for 'everyone' to notice. It was still kind of 'it won't affect me' sort of impact. Finally, we have met with an adversary in Covid-19 that makes us think once again about building a resilient world.

Resilient communities and resilient destinations has to be the new normal

The once-in-hundred-year-flood, occasional infectious disease epidemics etc are becoming part of normal lives. Kerala’s last big flood of similar magnitude before the 2018 one was in 1924, but a flood of similar magnitude hit the state again in just a year in 2019. Ebola, Nipah and other viruses are becoming frequent visitors. How do we become resilient in a world where one out of ten adults are otherwise benefiting out of existing tourism network?

While Covid-19 urges us to socially distance ourselves from each other, the impact of this spread tells us something else. More than ever, we—those in the development sector, civil society organisations, governments, humanitarian sector, tourism industry—need to come together to create better places for people to live and for people to visit. It's time to handhold and transform the way we see and live the world. Going back to the 'Old Normal' is not one amongst the options.

It's probably too early to judge where Covid-19 is leading us. Humans have been in crisis earlier and they have over come it in the past.

Future of tourism

Though tourism is a product that is consumed by tourist, it cannot be seen as a standalone product any longer. Tourism especially with a focus on quadruple bottom line sustainability including climate adaptability is intertwined with the welfare of people and places. Especially those focusing on experiential tourism know well that the story our travellers carry back with them is about how we create a better place for people to live before there's a place to visit.

Each destination should prepare a sustainable/resilient tourism policy and work hard to implement it in consultation with industry and community stakeholders.

Covid-19 is not the only crisis we are facing. Right before this we were in the clutch of Climate Change induced natural disasters. In the past fifteen years destinations have experienced tsunami, cyclones and floods. It's time to work together to build each destination as a resilient destination. In the rush to address the Covid-19 crisis, we should not forget the Climate Crisis.

Repurpose Tourism Tools 

Like how Uber managed to engage un-utilised private cars to create a new economy, there are different ways how tourism can use its human resources and material resources to help create sustainable/resilient destinations.

A simple kayak, canoe or a boat that's used by farmers and fishermen or adventure activity partners can be a 1) Conservation tool (to plant mangroves or collect paddy in low lying areas) 2) Income generation tool by engaging travellers for offering story telling or sightseeing services 3) search and rescue tool during a natural disasters. Like how we are re-purporsing our hotel rooms to support the state during this crisis. It's a win-win for community, tourism and the state.

For destination or tourism and hospitality partners, prepare a thorough case study and positive stories of how this crisis was/is being handled. Any destination that takes responsibility to document their stories will be an attractive place to visit.

Co-create SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) based on our experiences so far and studies from elsewhere so that tour operators, accommodation providers, DMCs, guides, travellers, hosts etc and know how to respond better if another crisis like this comes another time.

Resilient destinations should be the phase two of Responsible Tourism initiatives globally, where the state works together with tourism industry to create decentralised resilient destinations. For e.g a group of hotels can come together to support a project like Pokkali - The Story of Rice, which ensures food security for the community during a crisis like flood, a supplementary source of income for farmers, an income generation activity for tourism providers as well as communities, a great travel experience for the travellers. During a crisis like natural disasters, the skills developed by the Pokkali farmers in rescue, first response, kayaking etc became an asset in disaster management.

Different destination, different projects co-created by communities and travel industry, ensuring localisation of disaster management/humanitarian activities that are also financially sustainable.

A destination that takes care of its people with compassion and empathy, will be a place one would want to visit in the future. Post Covid-19, travellers hopefully will show interest in responsible, conscious and transformative way of life and travel will be high on their agenda.

To meet such a demand as well as to support their own sustainability, tourism industry should marry into the idea of responsible tourism seriously. A destination where local Government, Civil Society Organisations, Development Sector, Humanitarian Sector and Tourism sector work together for the betterment of local people.

Success of tourism entrepreneurs will be about how they tweak these 'development' initiatives into immersive travel experiences. It's good bye to standalone experiences.

Social entrepreneur Gopinath Parayil is a Responsible Tourism pioneer. He founded experiential travel company The Blue Yonder to promote the unique river valley civilisation of Nila in Kerala