Soile Veijola, professor of Cultural Studies of Tourism at the University of Lapland, says that what we see is a radical departure from the thinking that prevails today:
"Tourism is not part of the problem but part of the solution if we think of today’s crises, such as climate change, unsustainable tourism and the throw-away nature of people and places."
New perspectives on responsible tourism are being explored in a multidisciplinary, international research initiative launched and coordinated by Professor Veijola, "Acapella Village: Designing Culturally and Ecologically Sustainable Tourist Communities for the Future".
"Doing research on, planning and concepting the future of tourism requires a multidisciplinary effort", notes Professor Veijola. "We cannot create responsible tourism and a responsible future for tourism from a single mould. Our perspective has to be a comprehensive one."
The initiative involves more than just research on tourism.
"But when we use tourism as a prism we can move a lot faster than if we try to solve all the world’s problems at one go. It is splendid that tourism, with its reputation for being banal, trivial and problematic, can be used to test the criteria for a good life, standards that could then be applied more broadly."
Professor Veijola has been working on different facets of Acapella Village since 2009. The cluster of projects has not set out to build an actual village but rather to challenge the assumptions and traditional dichotomies of modern life, such as the difference between work and free-time or holiday. Unquestioned distinctions such as these are clearly visible and laid bare in tourism, as elsewhere.
"Our destinations have to be distant and expensive. Tourism is tantamount to seeking the exotic and new. Then again, we can stay closer to home – visiting something almost familiar – for a longer period of time. This would clearly be a more sustainable mindset."
Professor Veijola would like to explore the potential of turning attitudes on their head like this. In other words, dichotomies would be deconstructed and the focus would shift to society’s social and cultural needs and meanings and to how society is changing.
We have to do more than keep an eye out for the latest trends and cater to people’s whims; we should build concepts for the future which would be utopias, utopias that would promote a change in more sustainable directions.
The research on tomorrow’s tourism communities examines responsibility from perspectives reflecting the values of the Multidimensional Tourism Institute (MTI): ecological, cultural, economic, political and social.
Professor Veijola considers the concept of sustainability difficult in that it has fallen into a rut and become primarily associated with ecological sustainability. In addition, the concept entails an essentially unchanging time frame.
"But the world and reality are not intended to remain the same; they change over time."
"The concept of acting responsibly, which encompasses the whole spectrum of work in the tourism industry, could be most useful in tourism if responsibility remains the focal element."
As Professor Veijola sees things, this means that responsibility must be shared by all the actors in tourism, not that some try to make a quick profit.
"Responsibility and power also have to somehow be balanced such that we don’t see some actors as having the power, others as having the responsibility, and still others who are paying the price."
She suspects that tourism is still not being developed sustainably, let alone responsibly or creatively, and that these approaches cannot be properly integrated.
"For me, the clear ideal in responsibility is that the local community is always the one to benefit from all of the activities taking place in it. This approach is based on wholly different values than that of large companies, which think only of money changing hands, maximal investments in physical development, and jobs, which in the high season often amount to cheap labour and often also exploitation of workers."
The benefits, if Professor Veijola had her way, would flow democratically to the entire community. In her view, responsibility which is responsibility to shareholders alone is not enough.
The Acapella Village initiative started up with strategic funding granted by the University. Working with design researcher Petra Falin and, for example, Fulbright grantee at MTI, Jennie Germann Molz, Professor Veijola has continued with the theme.
"I have tried to shape the project entity in the form of a game in which new actors and combinations are doing research on tourism. As a research focus, the tourist village of the future is one that would be good to investigate thoroughly through basic research first; only then does it make sense to go on and begin working out concepts."
According to Professor Veijola, combining research in tourism and design is quite a leap in itself, but she and Petra Falin have invited researchers from many other fields as well to join in the effort: architecture and community planning, environmental education, hospitality research and mobility research.
The key area of co-operation where design is concerned is service design, which is one of the university's research focuses along with tourism.
Service design is user-oriented design of a service experience, such as a tourism product, in which the service corresponds to not only the user’s needs but also the service provider’s financial objectives.
Satu Miettinen, professor of industrial design, is of the view that service design and the joint participatory development of products provide an opportunity to engage with the local community more comprehensively than has been the case to date.
Professor Miettinen studied the potential of service design in the development of tourism already some years ago, in her doctoral thesis in 2007. The focus there was communities of women artisans in Namibia who were thinking how they could turn their know-how into a marketable tourist product.
"Service design introduced a means to develop tourist products through discussion and interaction. Developing things together gives stakeholders the power to decide what kind of product will result. It is also crucial that the benefits from the activity remain with the local residents."
How, then, can service design contribute to strengthening responsibility in tourism? Professor Miettinen says that working together provides the keys for promoting at least social and cultural sustainability.
Service design encompasses many ways to address customers, their wishes and needs and to reach the point where everyone is involved in product definition. It is in the next phase that the company works out the financial parameters.
"Often tourist enterprises have a strong need to find new lines of business or to develop their present one so that the investments they have made do not go to waste. Then again, they can try to create new content for an existing product such that it provides more of an experience and more meaning to a tourist."
Professor Veijola points out that the tourist industry should really start building the tourist villages of the future today. However, she wants to take things slowly and spend a few more years on the research.
"To the extent resources permit, alongside the research efforts we will work up 'sparring systems' that will make it possible for us to interact with construction projects that are already under way."
Translation: Richard Foley
Photo: Marko Junttila
|Small businesses in tourism know their responsibility
|Tourism has the opportunity to destroy locations but it can also be a renewing force.
Antti Haahti, professor of tourism, says that this would involve a new form of entrepreneurial activity.
"If the focus is established squarely on local entrepreneurs and the local identity, there is every possibility for business activities that keep local structures intact. It is essential."
Although the generally accepted conception of sustainable entrepreneurship is grounded in the principles of the market economy, it does not exclude responsibility on the part of entrepreneurs for the local community.
"The mindset fits in with classical economics in the sense that entrepreneurs are part of society and have a clear responsibility to act to secure and promote the quality of life of the entire community, not just look out for their own interests."
Professor Haahti himself has experience – as a third-generation entrepreneur – operating a guesthouse whose strengths specifically derive from the spirit of the location. For this reason he has a strong conviction that shirking one’s responsibility cannot be accepted in the business world.
"In interviewing tourism entrepreneurs for 20 or 30 years, I have observed that there is a distinct correlation between responsibility and success."
"I have no doubt that most small businesses in the tourist sector work on this basis. They make a concerted effort to protect the environment, because it is viewed as a crucial resource."
Although the notion of sustainable development has been accepted globally, how well it is implemented depends on which tourism sector one considers.
"When we speak of the different forms of tourism, we are dealing with the full spectrum of human behaviour."
"Tourists bring their own morals with them. Then again, we know that moral norms often disappear and people's behaviour changes when they travel. This is why a trip organiser should build the package such that there is no chance of nature or anything else being ruined", Professor Haahti says.
|Research on tourism and design at the University of Lapland
|Multidisciplinary tourism research approaches tourism as a complex phenomenon and investigates its impacts on the economy, nature, culture and society. This line of inquiry emphasises the economic, ecological, cultural, social and political responsibility of tourism.
Service design affords an opportunity to tap the potential of interaction between art and science. Research makes it possible to develop both products and design concepts in different fields, among them tourism.