WTM 2019: reflections from a child protection tourist at the world’s largest travel event
Updated: Jan 8
Glamour, excitement and pride
The World Travel Market in London brings together 51,000 travel professionals from around the world and is billed as the leading global event for the travel industry. Where else can you sip wine in a mock-up Canary Island bar under the same roof as dancers from Malaysia? Or watch a travel company executive in a suit and tie learning kung fu routines with Chinese martial artists? WTM shimmers with glamour, excitement and pride in showing off 5,000 of the biggest and most beautiful destinations and brands in the world. So for a child protection worker – like me – more used to seeing the world through the lens of poverty, social injustice and human rights abuses, there is something quite intoxicating about this alternative, more positive and happy view of our world, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
However, in addition to enjoying myself, I was in fact there for a reason. After spending almost the last decade campaigning against orphanage tourism, I had been asked by Professor Harold Goodwin to moderate the WTM Responsible Tourism panel on Child Protection: what is better than orphanages?, which this year was focussed on solutions from within the travel industry. But I also wanted to use this opportunity to learn more about the current trends in the responsible tourism world. As more travel and volunteering organisations respond positively to our campaigning and move away from orphanage visits (great news!), the question I came to WTM with was: “How can we in the international development and child protection sectors help the industry to create alternative products and services which don’t harm children and do benefit local communities?”. You could say I was a sort of child protection tourist at WTM, doing a side-line in ethnographic research.
An ethnography of WTM
So what did I learn? Well, in a sentence, ‘responsible tourism’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘solutions’ are the current buzz words in the constantly evolving global travel industry. This certainly sounds like good news – but what does it actually mean in practice?
These are a few things which had an impact on me:
The climate crisis: Justifiably, the climate crisis and decarbonisation dominated the responsible tourism debate. Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and ‘flight shaming’ are inspiring a massive re-think of what responsible tourism means. Fuel-guzzling aviation was described as an “outdated form of technology”, and carbon off-setting described as a “dangerous distraction”, i.e. it might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do much to solve the problem. Until cleaner forms of technology – such as electronic planes – can be developed, industry leaders are advocating for longer and fewer vacations, and more staycations and more nearcations. In other words, predictably, we need to fly less. Closely connected with this is the plastics crisis. The uncomfortable truth is that the technology needed to develop plastic alternatives has more of a negative impact on the environment than the plastics it is replacing. But this is not to suggest that reducing single-use plastics should not be a high priority for the industry. Developments in the area of garbology – to understand the sources of plastic garbage in the ocean – are producing fascinating data to help environmentalists use their limited resources to strategically tackle plastic pollution where it begins.
Conservation: The narrative of animal rights activists has depressing similarities with those of us advocating for children to live in families and not to be used as tourist attractions in orphanages. As Nik Stewart from World Animal Protection explained, keeping dolphins captive has no genuine benefit to conservation, few educational benefits, and makes dolphins very unhappy and unhealthy animals. Instead, all dolphins should be living in the wild. Not only is wild dolphin observation a more responsible tourism option than captivity, research shows that eighty percent of tourists would prefer to see dolphins in the wild.
Tourism as a strategy for development: In a panel discussion entitled “Is tourism a strategy for development?” the unanimous view of industry panellists was ‘yes’. We learned about the correlation between areas of economic hardship and tourist destinations in western Ireland from Cillian Murphy, and how income from services, food and alcohol can be kept within the local community using a sustained community development approach. We learned how a similarly impressive initiative in the Gambia has brought travellers away from tourism hot-spots along the coastal beach resorts, and towards traditionally less-visited areas along the Gambia River through the use of local myths and stories. A case study about a community-owned lodge in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa emphasised how community development is about more than just supporting the local economy, but also about building local pride and ownership of tourism initiatives.
The commodification of ‘sustainability’: In a panel discussion entitled “Changing the face of international development and dispelling saviour behaviour”, Moderator, Anita Mendiratta, explained how ‘sustainability’ means something different to everyone. Indeed, her panellists’ definitions of ‘sustainability’ included eating local food and doing things with the local community. It presented a framework in which ‘sustainability’ becomes a commodified activity which travellers can choose to buy, and which apparently becomes the “highlight of people’s holidays”. A similar view of ‘sustainability’ was also associated with affluent millennials for whom research shows prefer travel brands that can prove they support sustainability and local communities. This in turn reflects the identity which affluent millennials want to project about themselves. According to Hamish McPharlin, from BBC Global News, one in five affluent millennials have “assisted local community projects” whilst travelling, which of course leads us right back into the voluntourism debate.
What does this mean for international development and child protection?
So what does all this mean for those of us from the international development and child protection sectors who want to influence tourism so it does not harm vulnerable communities? It means that the tourism industry already sees itself as a leading global force for positive change. With a projected 2.3 billion trips predicted to be happening globally by 2030, there is no doubt as to the sheer power that lies behind this self-belief. The tourism industry is starting to take ownership of what were traditionally development concepts and see them as an integral part of the industry’s narrative, albeit adapting such concepts to fit the industry’s own purposes and context. On one hand this is very good news for those of us who want to see more ethical business practices being adopted by the industry – it gives us a common language and a ‘way in’. But on the other hand – as I saw with the concept of ‘sustainability’ – it risks complex ideas and values from the development sector being watered-down and adapted to suit the needs of a profit-driven and commodity-oriented sector. In other words, it risks development terminology being used to green-wash travel products and services.
An issue for the child protection sector, in particular, to consider carefully is the multitude of competing causes vying for attention in the responsible tourism arena. Whilst my own personal agenda for almost the last decade has been to end orphanage tourism and volunteering, this is just one issue amongst many within the child protection oriented responsible tourism space, and an issue which is arguably becoming more complex as the focus moves towards the ethical alternatives to orphanage visits. For example, when we consider community based tourism through the lens of child protection, it requires a much more nuanced approach than the simple black-and-white clarity of orphanage tourism being ‘wrong’.
Child protection itself is of course just one of many competing ethical issues in the responsible tourism space alongside conservation, community development and – most high-profile of all – the climate crisis. Whilst I will always be a champion for child rights until the bitter end, it is hard not to acknowledge the arguably more important priority for the world to address climate change, as without this there will be no world left for children to enjoy their rights. Perhaps the answer lies in remembering that child protection is an important but individual part of a broader and holistic set of objectives which need to be addressed under the SDGs.
A final issue we need to consider is the growing importance of Asia. China is already the second leading country for tourism destination receipts (second to the USA) and the leading country for outbound expenditure. By 2030 this prominent position is predicted to become even stronger. As Caroline Bremner of Euromonitor put it, “this is the Asian century”, and we are going to see rapidly rising numbers of wealthy Asian tourists and voluntourists. Yet the orphanage tourism campaign is still being largely led by ‘Western’ thought leaders and child protection agencies, which are marketing their materials towards ‘Western’ audiences. This is something which has to rapidly change if we are not to risk winning the campaign in one part of the world whilst losing it in another.
Overall, if I were to be asked what my overriding impression was of the responsible tourism industry, as a child protection tourist visiting WTM – I would say, I was impressed. I was impressed by its energy and drive, by its flexibility and openness to change, and by its self-belief that it will be able to innovate and find its own solutions to the problems it is facing. The tourism industry does not suffer from self-doubt about the justification for its existence in the way we too often do in the international development sector (although to what extent this is a positive or negative thing is a whole other question!). I left with the impression that the tourism industry will not wait for international development advisors to help it find solutions. We may feel secure in knowing that we invented concepts such as ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’, but the reality is that they do not uniquely belong to us, and if we cannot adapt to these changing times then we may lose our influence over shaping these concepts to genuinely benefit communities.
So what does this mean in practice? It means that those of us from the international development and child protection sectors need to become stronger at actively engaging with the tourism industry to demonstrate what we have to offer. We have 30 years’ child protection experience since the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and over 70 years’ international development experience to share. This way of working potentially means crossing traditional and controversial boundaries to support the profit-making travel sector to find safe and responsible approaches to engaging with communities and children. If we do not work in this way, as a critical friend to the tourism industry, then it will move forward without us. I would rather be working with the tourism industry, to help it change, than standing on the side-lines shaking my head when it gets it wrong and children get harmed. ‘Solutions’ was the ultimate buzz word of WTM 2019 – and I couldn’t agree more.