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Responsible Tourism Destinations Conference (RTD7) #Barcelona
I wrote this blog from the balcony of the award winning INOUT hostel in the mountains of Barcelona, listening to the chimes of nearby church bells and the buzz of the city below.
INOUT hostel employs people with a range of disabilities, it's a brilliant place bursting with the energy and pride of its achievements. I found this gem thanks to the 7th Responsible Tourism in Destinations Conference (RTD7) which not only provided a fantastic conference but also the opportunity to enjoy the Mendes Islands, discover a city based nature walk and the unforgettable experience of participating in the Catalan tradition of 'human towers' shown in this picture. I'm in the red, nervously looking up at the talented child gymnasts above....
When I arrived in Barcelona I spent the afternoon by INOUT's pool preparing my presentation in the sunshine. The academic day of the conference followed and after a brief visit to Rafael Nadel's training club (to ask for directions) I met fellow responsible tourism students and academics at Turismo Sant Ignasi to explore the opportunities for tourism to promote local distinctiveness and take responsibility for its environmental impacts. I presented my Chinese Market research which explores the opportunities for destinations to provide responsible tourism for the Chinese market and ideas about how responsible tourism could become the principal way this market segment 'consume' Cumbria in the future.
Wednesday took conference delegates out of Barcelona and north to Torroella de Montgri and L'Estartit to learn about its impressive and transformative tourism regeneration. Dedicated individuals influenced this destination to turn away from the outdated growth centric tourism model, typical of the Costa Brava, and toward a more responsible form of tourism development. Tourism that provides quality, protected landscapes, excellence and visitors who are interested in the activities which local people also enjoy. The panel discussion explored how this transformation was achieved and the conference theme of commitment, collaboration and common sense began to take seed. The challenges of Torroella de Montgri and L'Estartit rang true for many delegates from all over the world who continued the discussion on a glass bottomed boat (with occasional 'wow look at that' interruptions) around the fabulous Mendes Islands.
The industry aspect of the conference began in earnest on Friday with presentations that continued to demonstrate how responsible tourism is being achieved across the globe. I particularly enjoyed presentations from TUI who engage their 30 million customers in the ethos of responsible tourism in a variety of ways. Whilst Jane Ashton admitted the scale of the task ahead, TUI are unafraid to state where they are now and outline their future aspirations, a positioning decision I respect. Another powerful presentation came from Frederic Gonzalo from Gonzo Marketing. His passion for social media platforms and their power was evident and he convincingly made the link between social media and responsible tourism 'with great power, comes great sustainability'. The idea of utilising social media as a microphone for local people to champion and communicate their places, providing a smorgasbord of visitor experiences, was an inspiring and refreshing move away from the usual destination marketing technique of dictating to visitors – a method that rarely reflects the reality or sense of place within destinations. Similarly, Dr Xavier Font noted how visitors are increasingly underwhelmed with vanilla flavour experiences and instead demand to be wowed, creating an opportunity for responsible tourism to be the ice cream equivalent of Gingers Comfort Ice Cream Emporium (shameless Manchester plug, the venue for RTD8) compared to the traditional ice cream van.
Another highlight was the city nature walk with Evarist from Naturalwalks. During this 3 hour walking tour we discovered parts of Barcelona minutes away from the Ramblas yet miles apart on an imagined authenticity scale (more trees and city folk walking their dogs than non- Catalan tapas and Sangria). Evarist taught us about Carrob and its connection to its weight in gold, he showed us the amazing overgrown Olympic parks and the city's cemetery where the stunning Cyprus trees prompted conversations about the Mediterranean attitude toward life and death. I was chuffed throughout the tour, chuffed that all the info he shared that evening would have remained completely unknown to me had I wandered down the tourist trail instead of discovering his perspective of the city he clearly loved.
Despite my nervous peek to see what was happening in the tower forming above me, the human tower experience was by far the most memorable part of RTD7 for me. The towers began in the 18th century and to date there are over 60 Castell groups who compete and perform throughout Catalonia. A castell needs many supporting hands as the base provides the stability and structure for the tower. The image of the tower hands was the chosen image for RTD7 because they represent commitment and collaboration which are essential for ensuring the safe completion of a human tower, no scope for distraction or nonsense here. Responsible tourism shares these traits, and like the quiet confidence experienced amongst the Castellers of Barcelona I believe responsible tourism will confidently tower above the traditional models of tourism thanks to the dedicated and engaged professionals I met throughout this conference.
As mentioned above, RTD8 will take place in Manchester in April 2014 and whilst delegates won't be able to take part in a human tower (an assumption I'm confident to make) they'll definitely discover another flavour of Responsible Tourism in Britain.