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“White Men in Suits” and Sustainable Tourism – Challenges for the ITB and Suggested Solutions

by Marta Mills (@oneplanetblog), Stakeholder Engagement and Communications Director, Transcaucasian Trail Association


According to UNWTO, tourism’s role in the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development is to promote inclusiveness: inclusive sustainable economic growth, social inclusiveness, diversity, mutual understanding. The word “inclusive” appears in five Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet one thing that was clearly missing from the ITB’s “Sustainable Tourism Program 2017” was inclusiveness.

ITB Berlin (held 8-11 March) is “the world’s leading travel trade show” with over 10,000 exhibitors from over 180 countries, and over 160,000 participants. The three-day-long Sustainable Tourism Program of seminars, workshops, panel discussions and award ceremonies included over 200 speakers on 12 different stages in seven halls. However, the programme lacked speakers from the southern hemisphere; it showed race, nationality and gender imbalance amongst panellists; and lacked the Responsible Tourism (RT) practitioners during debates on big stages as if RT was not part of the “proper” tourism industry. I found it quite puzzling and questionable, particularly now in the Year of Sustainable Tourism.

There were some very inspiring and insightful sessions I am going to refer to later on, but I will start with the challenges that should be addressed in planning next ITB.

Nationality, race and gender imbalance while discussing sustainability in tourism

Nationality, race and gender imbalance while discussing sustainability in tourism

 

My ITB hats

I attended ITB wearing two hats – a sustainable tourism practitioner and a MSc student of Responsible Tourism Management. With a background in sustainability communications, I work on developing sustainable tourism in the Caucasus region through the Transcaucasian Trail project. I study how to implement responsible business practices for the benefit of communities and the environment in destinations. I was therefore keen to hear the latest news, trends and practical solutions in sustainable destinations management and in maximising the positive impacts of tourism globally. And anything related to trails, understandably.

Morning queue outside the venue: 160,000 people from over 180 countries attend ITB Berlin each year

Morning queue outside the venue: 160,000 people from over 180 countries attend ITB Berlin each year

The programme and the venue – first obstacles

The first ITB challenge, even before going to Berlin, was to go through the 27-page-long (!) CSR programme, pick the sessions of most interest, and work out whether it is actually possible to get from one to the other (often held in different halls on different floors) on time. The venue is huge – there is a shuttle bus cruising between 28 exhibition halls!

It is pretty time-consuming to work out what sessions happen simultaneously, and the app doesn’t allow to put “my favourites” in order either. I ended up making a spreadsheet of my timetable to work it out and wondering why this can be simplified. Perhaps the ITB could make it easier next year and run a scheduled timetable of all sessions so we could see at a glance who, when and where is speaking?

But these are technical issues that can be easily resolved. I believe that the lack of inclusiveness I referred to above is much more serious. Here are the challenges mentioned in the introduction:

 

  • Nationality/race imbalance:

Vicky Smith of Earth Changers, a RT practitioner and the ITB veteran, made a point that “although held in Germany, ITB is the international show, and therefore has more of an opportunity to showcase international players, start-ups and initiatives on its stages in order to represent the worldwide perspective.” And the worldwide perspective doesn’t only come from the European, white middle-aged men in suits. Particularly during debates on sustainable tourism.

I believe that at such an international show there should be a better representation of speakers from developing countries. The practitioners on the ground in destinations are not given the chance to participate effectively. The ones with hands on experience and often have a much better practical understanding of various sustainability issues than CEOs of companies based in Germany.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development calls for inclusive participatory processes from designing change to implementation of good practices. Without “southern” speakers taking part in global discussions we are not addressing the sustainability of tourism. One of those small handful of “southern” speakers, the Founder of the Gambian Institute of Travel and Tourism Adama Bah, told me that “the purpose of the global discussion is to raise awareness so that the industry will take responsibility of making tourism sustainable. Without hearing from “southern voices” where most negative impacts of tourism do happen, educative global discussions defeat their purposes to make tourism sustainable.”

 

  • Gender imbalance

And speaking of other imbalances… One of the most-attended debates on “How Can Sustainable Travel Offers Be Marketed Successfully?” was led by seven white men on stage. Six Germans and one English. I tweeted ITB asking whether it was really that hard to find at least one woman who knows how to communicate sustainability (didn’t get a reply). Some other tweets about “the glass ceiling in tourism” followed. A quick glance at the small presentation offer in hall 4.1 (dedicated to Responsible Tourism) would have provided a few names of women professionals to choose from. Again, something to consider for next year.

I understand that by supporting various sustainability awards, the ITB demonstrates its commitment to sustainable development and gender equality. And there were women on other panels (although just over 30% – 38 women compared to 115 men speaking on the big stages). But it was quite ironic that a major session on sustainability has forgotten about respecting SDG 5 – Gender Equality.

Interestingly, at the very end of the session, the moderator apologised that “there are all gentlemen up here” on the panel. Considering how much applause that comment got, I clearly wasn’t the only one feeling disappointed.

 

  • (not) knowing your audience

Sometime I also felt that some speakers were not aware who the audience was. While I understand that the level of knowledge of sustainable tourism in the audience varied, I also believe that it is safe to assume that most of us in hall 4.1 (Responsible Tourism hall) knew a fair bit. There was still a lot of vague language from the business representatives, particularly the more senior executives of big companies, for example “we are working to build more capacity and improve sustainability of our operations”. This sounds great, however doesn’t provide any meaningful information nor any clear examples of what exactly the operator did to “build capacity” and what exactly “improving sustainability” meant.

Also, we already are “the converted.” We know that – to quote a few panellists – “everyone has to take part,” “it is our shared responsibility,” “we need to accelerate in sustainable product offer” or “make the message about sustainability more visible.” I didn’t come all the way to Berlin to listen to such old and vague slogans. I came to listen and learn how others actually do it, what works and what doesn’t, how I can get involved in a practical way. And, as many sessions have proven again, the best advice will always come from those who work on the ground, who have tried various approaches, who have made mistakes and are happy to share them, so we can all learn together.

Practical overview and lessons learn from the Jordan Trail Association – an insightful, fun and informative session led by practitioners on the ground

Practical overview and lessons learn from the Jordan Trail Association – an insightful, fun and informative session led by practitioners on the ground

 

  • Not enough awareness

However, these messages are important and should be repeated to the ones who are not converted and who need a constant reminder about the importance and role of sustainability in tourism – and that’s why I would also argue for including more RT speakers in the wider programme of ITB Convention. The whole industry needs to transform to minimise its negative impacts. The ITB mentions that “additional panels dedicated to ecological and social responsibility can also increasingly be found e.g. at the ITB Destination Days, but it should do much more to mainstream sustainable tourism.

For example, “ITB Young Professionals day” discussed which graduates will the industry need in the future. That could have been an excellent opportunity to raise awareness and repeat the messages about sustainable tourism. Or the big debate on “World Tourism Trends.” or “Success Factors for Nation and Place Branding” – giving RT practitioners space on the panels would have demonstrated that sustainable tourism is one of the big trends and brings competitive advantage when it comes to successful branding. And, overall, contribute to raising awareness amongst the wider industry. 

 

But…

I found the events on smaller stages much more informative, useful, practical, and engaging. Most presenters used their 30 min-slot very well – a short summary of the project/issue, how the issues are being dealt with, lessons learnt, time for questions. I immensely enjoyed the session on the Jordan Trail on the big stage of hall 4.1 on Friday 11th – three women panellists, all of them working on the ground in Jordan, representing the business and government stakeholders. Giving that practical overview with challenges and opportunities I was craving for. Similarly, an engaging session on community-based tourism in Myanmar, with a step by step guidance on how to develop tourism in emerging destinations. Both of them proved my point – ITB needs an international representation of hands-on practitioners to share the potential and best practice examples of sustainable tourism.

Peter Richards, Expert on Community Tourism Development and Market Access during a practical and engaging session on tourism development in Kayah State, Myanmar

Peter Richards, Expert on Community Tourism Development and Market Access during a practical and engaging session on tourism development in Kayah State, Myanmar

 

ITB 2018

Matthias Beyer, the moderator of the aforementioned all-men-in-suits panel, noted that his panel in terms of gender balance doesn’t reflect the reality of the industry, emphasizing that for the future, it is imperative to find a better gender composition for such panels. Such an approach is much needed and gives me hope that at future ITBs the number of women and intentional speakers will match the number of white men in suits.

 

Note: ITB Messe-Berlin was unavailable for comment.

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