« If you think it’s right, DO IT ! »
The conference STRD2017 – Sustainable Tourism for Rural Development, celebrated in the context of the #IY2017 – International Year 2017 of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the implementation of the Cork 2.0 Declaration, joined 100 international participants from 24 different countries in Europe. The objective was not only to broaden the view and unleash the full rural potential for leisure through a holistic approach that includes hospitality, food, gastronomy, culture, active tourism, and any other relevant aspects; but also to generate new contacts and practical cooperation amongst participants.
After 1,5 days of intensive discussions in plenary and workgroup sessions, the participants agreed on the following CONCLUSIONS:
- Assets and resources for recreation in rural areas are yet not fully exploited, or even remain undetected. More awareness of potential markets, opportunities for exploitation, and functioning of the tourism economy is needed amongst local stakeholders.
- Vital rural areas with a dynamic demographic, social, and cultural structure are critical for the development of recreational activities. Physical resources as such do not create development; they must be complemented by investment, adequate coverage with services and infrastructure, but also a human and social environment that is supportive and open to innovation.
- New models are required to create this vital environment. The following suggestions were raised for consideration:
- Business support by freelance experts, focussing on animation, cross-fertilisation of ideas, and mentoring over a longer period of time
- Local cooperation between complementary or even competing agents, under the concept of “clever egoism”: focus on areas of common interest where scaling effects are tangible.
- Benefit from the vision and knowledge of voluntary “urban migrants” or “neo-rurals”: persons with an urban cultural background that moved to rural areas for different motives. This includes retired professionals as business angels.
- The Local Community is integral part of a recreation product in rural areas, not just decoration for it. Integration and tangible benefits must be assured through more stress and support to ecosystem services, biodiversity, and landscapes – all of them, also essential for attractive recreational products.
- Establish new forms of partnership in the territory. A post-modern streamlined and digital governance is based on the interconnection of spontaneous or stable networks (“network of networks”). Continuity must be assured, existing structures like DMO and LAG should search for synergies and may consider to merge.
- Circular economy: reduce waste, contamination, and transport through increased local input-output-relations, local supply especially regarding food and beverage, and optimized sustainable resource management.
- Engage positively with the new players both in tourism and distribution of goods (OTA, AirBnB, Amazon, food retailers, and similar) – cooperate in common interests with synergy (quick impact, destination marketing, consumer access, … ) while safeguarding independence in other fields.
- Knowledge and skills: a territory only can be as smart as its agents. New decentralized and “formally un-formal” methods and structures for modular training on specific topics are needed.
- Extend the tourism value chain: observe and exploit the “customer’s journey” from the beginning to the end (including the periods before and after the stay), engage with the visitor at any moment, create long-term emotional and business bounds. Engagement with global digital players (see above) is promising to extend this value chain also to local produce consumption.
- Know the costumer: “Be with the customer at any moment of his journey” – obtain data and evaluate them, market intelligence, new niche segments for rural resources, combine different resources into new products, listen to needs, experiential economy.
- Understand how the professional tourism business works. Big gaps were detected, especially at the side of the rural development structures, but also amongst small service providers and producers. From the commercial side, it comes down to two points:
- Make it easy
- Be reliable
- Distribution channels: know them, and combine according to the characteristic of the products. Apart from the online travel agencies (OTA),
- Specialized small tour operators are highly efficient for international markets. They not only sell, but also provide training and knowledge empowerment along the full value chain.
- Direct media (Social Media, blogs, magazines, forums, … ) are increasingly important for B2B, especially for the “Millenial” generation.
- Organised special interest groups (both virtual and tangible) are ideal to access niche markets
- Communication: direct and personalized access to the visitor, immerse him in the experience even before the decision (virtual and augmented reality, video, direct contact with previous customers). Assure that the message is credible – peer evaluation has more value than certifications.
- Smart territories. Rural territories must get fully “smart” in order to compete with urban areas. Adequate digital infrastructure needs to be accompanied by training measures in their adequate use.
- Digital hubs in rural areas are a promising approach when their concept is not purely technical, but also includes a strong element of social dynamization, support to small and micro-businesses, training, and involvement of the local population.
- Get fully digital. Rural territories must get “smart”. For administration and businesses, the capacity of immediate reaction to customer demand is critical – only a fully digital structure makes this possible even for the most remote place. Established structures still struggle with adapting to this transformation, losing ground to fully digital initiatives.
- Big and Open Data: unsatisfactory use of available data, both due to access restrictions and to low local capacity for processing and evaluation. The absence of homogeneous data formats and ontology, neither at regional nor national or EU level, makes scaling difficult. Specific local knowledge and skills capacities are also missing.
- Connectivity: the digital economy depends on spatial equity, with universal access for all stakeholders at any time and in any place.
- Understanding and knowledge about “how tourism works” must be improved at the side of LAG etc. but also amongst small providers and producers. Specific training on awareness and practical sectorial business knowledge should be addressed with priority.
- The LEADER concept – integral development of a multifunctional rural territory by local governance of multiple funds and sources – is not sufficiently implemented in practice. LAGs must be more than an administrative instrument for the CAP LEADER resources, limitations for multi-fund activities must be eliminated.
- Recreation in rural areas, while “soft” compared with industrial mass tourism and subject to limitations due to volume, size, and sustainability criteria, still is a business activity and needs to be professionally dealt with: “Hard marketing for soft tourism”
- Great ideas are easy and ubiquitous – difficulties are in how to implement them in real conditions. However, progress was and is driven by the initiative of individuals or groups of like-minded persons that are not afraid of problems:
If you think it’s right, DO IT !