I recently run a practical workshop in Warsaw on ‘Challenges, barriers and opportunities for responsible tourism’, organised by the Polish Tourism Board. It was aimed at the management and staff of the regional and local tourism boards, Destination Management Organisations (DMOs), local governments, academics and local tourism businesses from across the country who participated in this year’s edition of the EDEN project: European Destinations of Excellence, in the health and wellness sector. EDEN is an annual competition launched by the European Commission in 2006 to promote sustainable tourism development models across Europe.
Together with Adam Mikolajczyk, the CEO of the European Place Marketing Institute Best Place, we presented and analysed good practice as well as less successful examples in planning and implementing responsible tourism across the world, mainly from the health and wellness sector or destination with similar context to Poland. The participants then shared their experiences of successful solutions and, more often, of barriers and problems they have experienced in their destinations. With active participation of all trainees, we have identified key challenges in developing responsible tourism in Poland:
- Lack of trust, cooperation and communication between stakeholders: both between private and public sectors as well as amongst tourism businesses.
- Lack of long-term vision and responsible tourism strategy, with the lack of leadership in implementing tourism in destinations. This is a common problem of destinations with no effective DMO to oversee the strategic development.
- Lack of strategic and coordinated marketing, the problem often emphasised by unfair competition between small tourism providers.
- Lack of professional hospitality, management and language skills amongst the local population, resulting in poor quality of service.
- Lack of awareness of the benefits of developing tourism sustainably amongst destination managers and decision makers, tourism businesses and the local population.
- Low awareness of the local attributes of the destination that can be turn into products and experiences. This is a result of lack of understanding of the motivations and expectations of modern tourists.
- Unbalanced promotion of destinations across the region or the country – a lot of focus and money is being spent on some regions, causing uneven distribution of tourists and already overtourism in some destinations.
Not only Polish problems
At the end of 2017 I ran similar workshops for destination managers, decision makers and local businesses at the Sustainable Mountain Tourism Forum in Georgia. For two days we have discussed the successes, opportunities and challenges to develop tourism more responsibly in the Caucasus region. I wrote about it here listing 10 key challenges – the first few are exactly the same like the ones in Poland. In addition, in both destinations the progress and success in tourism is still being measured by the quantity and not the quality of tourists. I will write more about this in a separate article as this is worth looking into in more detail.
Light at the end of the tunnel
It is not all that bad though. The participants of our workshop have been chosen by the EDEN project for their successful attempts in developing tourism and products based on the sustainable tourism principles. According to them, there are some positive changes already happening in various destinations across Poland:
- Good cooperation, or at least the willingness to cooperate between tourism stakeholders, mainly in promotion
- Using local products and local people to provide services
- Some destinations already work on responsible tourism strategies
- Growing trend in long-term waste management
At the end of the workshop the participants worked on a scenario that required them to provide innovative and practical suggestions to minimise the negative and maximise positive impacts of tourism in a national park in Poland. They have used and adapted some of the solutions from the case studies presented earlier. I do believe that raising knowledge and awareness about the benefits of sustainable tourism and long-term planning, overcoming mistrust and raising cooperation are key for responsible tourism development in Poland.