Value your HERITAGE to develop responsible tourism experiences

Posted by on Jun 19, 2014 in All Blogs, Blogs | 0 comments

Value your HERITAGE to develop responsible tourism experiences

In 1992, I migrated to Lithuania, where I lived for 4 years. These were the most formative years of my life. I love the country and Vilnius’ unexpected bohemian and Mediterranean charm, but crucially, I love the way it makes me reconnect to nature in the simplest and truest of ways. Two months ago, Martynas Uzpelkis from KULTUR, commissioned by Vilnius International Business, gave me the opportunity to run seminars on Responsible Tourism (RT). These were targeted at 40 Lithuanian hotel managers, travel agents, tourist information staff, teachers and tour operators.

My brief was simple: test the extent to which the participants could apply the theory of RT to product development in their own country.

Napoleon wanted to take it back home in the palm of his hand

Napoleon wanted to take it back home in the palm of his hand

 

Now, the thing about the Lithuanians is that although they are a very proud people, with a fascinating culture and history (Lithuania was once the largest country in Europe, worshiped a multitude of gods and its language is rooted in Sanskrit), they just don’t shout about it, and don’t realise that it could be of interest to others. Unlike Tallinn and Riga, which have become popular destinations, Vilnius is still the ‘best kept secret in Eastern Europe’, the title of a BA dissertation I wrote 10 years ago!

I very quickly identified that few participants had travelled, which begs the question: How can you identify what makes your culture attractive and unique when you cannot compare it to others? In fact, every time I asked: Tell me why I should holiday in Lithuania, rather than in any other neighbouring Baltic States, or Poland, Croatia or Slovenia?, I was met by a stunned silence. It was therefore necessary for my audience to understand what I (as a foreigner) valued as great Lithuanian experiences, although I wanted them to find these out themselves.

Girls make and wear flower crowns, which will be left to float in the river at night.

Girls make and wear flower crowns, which will be left to float in the river at night.

So I spent a large part of the seminar teasing out that information (and sometimes the teasing was painfully slow). I asked and asked again simple and leading questions, such as: What happens to witches on the 1st day of Spring? Where do you go after work during the summer, and what do you do there? How do you celebrate 21st June? Talk to me about wild strawberries, mushrooms and pagan gods. What object makes Easter celebrations so unique in Lithuania? Why do you always sculpt Jesus sitting down? etc.

Eventually, I ended up with a satisfactory list of cultural and natural heritage USPs, which painted an exciting picture of the country. But there was no point in compiling such as inventory without spending time discussing how these assets could be shared with tourists to create experiences. At this point it was clear that communist thinking had not quite deserted the country: still too many expected the government to develop the products they should be developing themselves (responsible tourism is also about taking responsibility for one self).

We also discussed “green washing”. For example, one of the hotels that branded itself as “eco” was nothing of the sort, and more worryingly, its staff had not realised that they were selling experiences, not mere rooms under a roof. With some, I debated their role in dealing with sex tourism in their establishments, making sure they understood that RT was not only about the environment, fair pay or the sourcing of local produce, but also about taking a stand on prostitution (a big problem in the country, which also affects children). Needless to say this sparked a few arguments but the participants were left no choice but to confront their company policies and ethics and to assess if these were appropriate.

Getting rid of the winter witch to welcome spring

Getting rid of the winter witch to welcome spring

 

Promoting RT products to western tourists in Lithuania is no mean feat: the country lacks exposure and therefore clientele to bring in enough income to sustain what could become a great portfolio of experiences. However, it can start by making existing products more responsible. I don’t doubt for a minute that Eastern European tourists would respond to more interesting and enjoyable experiences too.


This is why seminars like these are so useful (the vast majority of participants voted my session as their favourite during their 3 day course): through the eyes of an outsider, they can start to better appreciate and value how their own cultural and natural heritage can enrich the lives of others.

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