The travel and tourism industry has seen the greatest boom since the onset of social media and innovative re-packaging of information online in the last decade. With close communities and forums like Courchsurfing and tweetchats popping up, exchanging notes on travel and indigenious cultures has seen a massive surge and revolution. One of the pioneers of this online travel exchanges has been Ron Mader, who founded an exclusive portal called Planeta.com on eco tourism and responsible travel even before the Y2k bug bit us. In 2001, Ron started an annual tourism fair in Mexico and has been leading many online conferences like the Financing Sustainable Tourism,NGOs in Tourism and Conservation, Ethical Marketing of Ecotourism, Environmental Impact of Transportation,Urban Ecotourism Conference and Responsible Tourism Week (#rtweek on Twitter), that he started five years ago.
Ron Mader, with a prolific background in journalism and communication, talks to The Alternative about the need for responsible tourism network conferences, the status quo of responsible travel in India and abroad and it’s growing invasion in the tourism industry.
What is the idea behind Responsible Tourism Week and how did you get started?
We’ve been holding online conferences since 2000 and our first Responsible Tourism Week was held in May 2009. In 2011 we switched the month to February so the week would coincide with Valentine’s Day, prompting the tagline ‘Fall in love with responsible travel.’
A crazy idea in 2009, could we hold an online conversation across multiple platforms? Could we use a ‘hashtag’ to aggregate information? This terminology – liking, favoring, sharing, tweeting, retweeting, all wonky indeed – has entered the mainstream and tourism pros are learning that it’s not sufficient to have a single website or to work in isolated silos. What’s needed is to extend presence onto the social web - Facebook, Flickr, Google+, TripAdvisor, Slideshare, Twitter – where travelers and tourism pros are already hanging out – and to be social.
I like the fact that we hold Responsible Travel Week ‘early’ in the year because the event is an excellent jumpstart to the year. One thing I’ve noticed with mom and pop tourism pros I work with is that they tend not to prioritize communication. They’re busy with tours or book keeping or the daily grind. By holding Responsible Travel Week early in the year, they get a wake-up call that their work has value but will only work if they get their message across.
How has the growth been from the 1st online conferencing to the present 5th one this year?
What is ginormously gratifying is how Responsible Travel Week has grown each year. We get more people ‘going’ on Facebook, more people tweeting on Twitter and more original art through the Poster Challenge and a request for presentations on Slideshare. Each year there are more ‘local’ events.
This year we will be talking up the ‘mainstreaming‘ of responsible travel, how it applies to big cities like Las Vegas, USA and Mexico City and smaller towns like Kiruna, Sweden and Oaxaca, Mexico. Responsible travel runs the gamut from eco issues including wildlife conservation and recycling to social issues including the respect of indigenous cultures. It’s not a ‘niche’ but rather a must-have to be embedded in tourism policies, development and promotion.
My fingers are crossed and I’m hoping that the concept of the Photo Safari takes off because of the actions this year. RT Week participants held local safaris in Mossel Bay, South Africa and Las Vegas, USA. At zero cost, I cannot imagine a more cost-effective marketing scheme and it’s a great way to make the noble discussion of ‘responsible travel’ part of everyday conversations.
The upside is that the safari creates mobile face-to-face encounters, which generate photos are shared online.
Why do you see the need for more responsible tourism networking conferences – online or offline? What should be the clear takeaways and action steps from such conferences?
I believe we need as many opportunities as possible for networking and sharing stories — successes and failures. I’ve rarely attended official tourism conferences that included the viewpoints and active participation of locals and regular travelers. Thus, the official events are usually insider-only, closed door endeavors that cannot galvanize the interest needed to put ‘responsible travel’ on the lips of locals and visitors. I’ve only been to a few trade shows that made the most of their host city. I’d love to see more events in the natural world be more welcoming to locals. They’re the best ambassadors any place can have.
Do share some interesting online and ground responsible travel initiatives that have happened over the course of #rtweek2013 as well as from the previous years.
Here are some favorite resources we learned about thanks to Responsible Travel Week:
We also learned about a number of events that will take place later in this year including:
How do you see this in India?
Last year I had the pleasure of making my first trip to India for COP11, aka the Eleventh meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. I facilitated the Global Workshop for Indigenous and Local Communities: Biodiversity, Tourism and the Social Web but had little time to be a tourist in Hyderabad. What I see is that there are plenty of opportunities to work with local communities, to opt in for travel that can be mutually beneficial. I attended and recorded the session on Indian Festivals and Biodiversity which gave me some great insights on what I’d like to see and how I’d like to visit India on a return visit.
Can you share with us a model example of responsible tourism in a rural destination and a city?
In Oaxaca, Mexico I’m a big fan of Fundación En Vía which combines the power of microfinance with the power of tourism to create business opportunities. Tours that literally ‘give back’ and create low-interest loans are much-needed in Mexico and I like the way this organization connects the capital city of Oaxaca with rural towns.
Is responsible travel starting to count? In what ways is it both applying pressure on businesses and encouraging travellers?
Defining responsible travel as that which ‘creates better places to live and better places to visit’ makes it easy to see a win-win scenario for locals and visitors. Think of this as a continuum that starts with dissatisfaction with ‘business as usual’ – the tourism that irresponsibly exploits locals, visitors or the earth – and proposes healthy alternatives. I wish the tourism officials, academics and policy wonks would avoid the temptation to become too prescriptive and too demanding in specific recommendations. We need more descriptive terms, goalposts for the type of tourism that benefits travelers and locals.
Responsible travel is something we should celebrate every day. So on Twitter and Google+ we’ll be segueing from the hashtag #rtweek2013 to #rtyear2013. What’s next? You tell us!
The Alternative is an online media publication focused on sustainable living and social impact.