How to integrate sustainability considerations in destination marketing and tourism management? As the call for a more sustainable tourism is becoming louder, destinations around the world are adapting their strategies to preserve their assets, to cater for conscious travellers, and to meet the needs of local communities.
Brian T. Mullis, a long-time sustainable tourism advocate, in this interview shares how the small South American country of Guyana has managed to position itself among world’s leading “green” destinations, and which trends will most likely impact the work of destination managers in the years ahead.
Brian, prior to joining the Guyana Tourism Authority as its Director, you led Sustainable Travel International, a non-profit focused on sustainable tourism. What inspired you to move to Guyana to lead its national tourism board?
After landing my first dream and becoming the owner/operator of an international ecotourism and adventure travel company focused on providing guests with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, I quickly discovered that it was relatively easy to make money but somewhat difficult to make a difference in the communities we visited.
So, I made a shift that has affected my career path ever since; I founded Sustainable Travel International with a colleague in 2002 with the aim of taking the wonder and thrill of travel and making it better by using tourism as a means to improve the livelihoods of locals, and protect the environments they depend upon.
Little did I know I was embarking on the most challenging undertaking of my life, yet I felt empowered by our vision to mainstream the concept of sustainability in tourism.
Fourteen years in, I was happy with our progress and the level of impact we were having at scale within multinational corporations and supporting governments worldwide. At the same time, I realised I needed a change. Years of 60+ hour work weeks, extended travel and constant stress associated with running dozens of projects had taken its toll.
After becoming a father of two beautiful children from Ethiopia, I knew I had to find better work/life balance. So, I took a step back. I passed the reigns to a successor, reassessed what I wanted to achieve in the next stage of my career, and then set out to secure my next dream job.
It was paramount that my next role enabled me to have a deep, meaningful, and long-term impact. Little did I know that the small South American country of Guyana would soon become my next destination and family’s home. Leading the Guyana Tourism Authority (GTA) has been an honour and a privilege.
How have your views on Guyana as destination changed since then?
Guyana, as a relatively recent entrant into tourism, presents an opportunity to “leap-frog” tourism development, to avoid the mistakes many other destinations have made, and to become a model sustainable destination.
Despite having a long-standing sustainability agenda and some of the most intact and spectacular natural landscapes in South America, the country remains unvisited by outsiders. With approximately 90% of the country’s population concentrated along the coast, Guyana has remained remarkably free of large-scale development and pollution.
More than 80% of the country’s forest and vegetation remains in a natural state. This vast expanse is one of Earth’s last great regions of tropical wilderness, home to thousands of plant and animal species, many of them found nowhere else. Jaguars, Harpy Eagles, arapaimas, giant anteaters, giant otters, anacondas, and more still thrive in this interconnected ecosystem and can be encountered with relative ease if you know where, when and how to spot them.
Sustainability is a way of life in Guyana. Nine indigenous nations have occupied Guyana’s interior regions for thousands of years, cultivating a close relationship with the forests and savannahs that sustain them. They were Guyana’s first scientists, whose wisdom long preceded modern medicine and ecology.
As might be expected, indigenous people have extraordinarily keen senses and possess an unsurpassed knowledge of the plants and animals around them. With no need for a translator, visitors are able to really get to know their indigenous hosts, and gain true insight into their lives. It is far more of a genuine human connection than most travel experiences provide.
Sustainability is an important success indicator now for any destination. How do you master this balancing act between wanting more attention and visitors, and at the same time having to protect the natural environment and ensuring the wellbeing of local communities?
Guyana is not a mass tourism destination, nor is it “touristy”. We are pursuing a progressive path to tourism development focused on maximising the local socio-economic and conservation outcomes.
There is a proven formula, involving inter-ministerial, multi-stakeholder collaboration through structured partnerships and integrating sustainable destination management and development best practice into all aspects of our strategy planning, policy, product, and promotions.
While we want to incrementally increase the number of travellers in the areas of Guyana that will accommodate more volume, our primary focus is on increasing the value that each traveller represents.
Our destination marketing strategy is predominantly centered on attracting travellers who seek out authentic nature, culture and adventure experiences. These travellers tend to stay longer and spend more during their vacations, travel with a lighter environmental footprint, and many want to leave a positive impact on the people and places they visit.
We are also making a concerted effort to scale up community-led tourism. To my knowledge, Guyana is the only country in the world where tourism that is led by indigenous communities is the primary focus. It is home to some of the world’s best examples of community driven, owned and led tourism. The host indigenous communities own and manage the enterprises, which results in all of the residents receiving economic benefits.
Furthermore, due to the market demand for birding and wildlife spotting, host communities have an incentive for conservation and habitat protection, and due to demand for cultural experiences, these communities determine what is sacred and what they want to share, which fosters cultural pride and the protection of culture and heritage.
To put things into perspective from an environmental standpoint: if, for example, each European visitor to Guyana generates 2.79 tonnes of CO2 and Rewa Village alone is protecting primary rainforest that absorbs approximately 70,000 tonnes per year, the potential for scaling up community-led and owned tourism enterprises country-wide becomes clear.
This defines conservation travel — tourism that creates a net positive gain in ecosystem services and exemplifies why we’re supporting an increasing number of communities to establish tourism enterprises and community conservation areas.
If you had to summarize Destination Guyana in the length of a tweet – what would you say?
Are you ready to embark on an epic adventure? Experience diverse landscapes, exotic wildlife, warm hospitality, a mix of cultures and authentic community-led and owned tourism. Travel how it used to be and let Guyana help you to rediscover the meaning of a five-star experience.
Here a short introduction to the kind of experiences waiting for you when visiting Guyana:
As demand for a more responsible tourism is growing, do you think the success of DMOs should be measured linked to the UN sustainable development goals?
Absolutely. To help maintain the ecological health of the planet, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be adopted by all industries, including the tourism industry at large and related sectors.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and its member states have formally recognised the actual and potential contribution of tourism to all 17 SDGs. That being the case, the tourism sector has an opportunity to take a leadership role, and in the process protect the assets upon which it depends.
Well-designed and managed tourism is renowned for its potential to contribute to the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage upon which it depends, empower host communities, generate trade opportunities and foster peace and intercultural understanding.
We need more governments engaging in destination stewardship and the tourism private sector demonstrating global corporate citizenship. This involves, for example, investing in World Heritage Sites and national and community protected areas and ensuring that local communities benefit more from tourism than international investors.
Travel and tourism should be driven less by short-termism of the markets and more by the longer-term protection of our shared natural and cultural heritage.
Few emerging destinations and tourism benefits have sophisticated means like Tourism Satellite Accounting for measuring the impacts and benefits of tourism. But now that a myriad proven sustainable tourism solutions are readily accessible, everyone can make more of a concerted effort to maximise their positive and minimise their negative impacts.
Some of the outcomes will be difficult to quantify, yet many of the qualitative results will be apparent. What’s important is sustainability needs to be embedded in strategy and driven by a more holistic set of metrics.
Which main trends do you observe right now, likely to impact the work of destination leaders in the years ahead?
There are a few key trends that are transforming destination management and marketing generally, and more so for tourism in Guyana.
Conservation tourism is a big one: tourism businesses, communities, donors, and government working together to make net positive contributions to the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
As previously mentioned, we are responding to this trend by helping more communities establish their own tourism enterprises to incentivise the establishment of community conservation areas. This has several key benefits, including improving wildlife spotting and birding.
Furthermore, with an increase in flying shame among environmental conscious travellers, visitors to Guyana can support communities that protect forests that sequester far more CO2 than is generated from their travels.
Traveling in Guyana is experiential in that all of the senses are engaged through many of the experiences that are available.
While this trend continues to grow, few destinations have integrated into their strategies to support MSMSE development. In an effort to build on the trend, the Guyana was among the first countries in the world to launch a national initiative to scale up experiential travel and join the Transformational Travel Council. We believe in transformation travel and that it happens from the inside out, often inspired by exploring a new destination and experiencing the extraordinary. New products and experiences are being developed with this mindset in mind.
As your readers well know, placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of every community, strengthening the connection between people and the places they share. This collaborative process is beginning to gain momentum in Guyana’s capital city of Georgetown, where business and community leaders are increasingly coming together to revitalise public spaces.
Which cities, countries or regions have served you as source of inspiration, in how they approach destination branding?
I consistently seek out examples of best practices. The destinations that are balancing sustainable destination management, development and marketing are the most interesting. Through the work of groups like The Travel Foundation, Green Destinations, Swisscontact and Sustainable Travel International, for example, destination managers can identify and learn about all types of destinations that are on the cutting edge in varying ways and means.
From the Azores, Barcelona, and Bhutan to Namibia, Scandinavia and Thompson Okanagan, there are many multi-national, national, regional and community level examples to follow for inspiration.
The Guyana Tourism Authority is interested in sharing lessons learned and success stories with other destinations that are doing all they can to benefit residents, visitors and society as a whole.
Thank you, Brian.
Featured image: Brian T. Mullis with the staff of Atta Lodge, Guyana