Florian Kaefer

"The real change in the next years regarding tourism sustainability is going to happen at the destination level. Destinations are the ones most affected by the not so pretty consequences of more and more tourist arrivals"

Dr Florian Kaefer is the Founder and Editor of The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project, based in Girona near Barcelona, Spain. He holds a PhD in Management Communication from the University of Waikato, New Zealand and an MSc in Sustainable Development from the University of Exeter, UK. As a researcher, journalist and entrepreneur he is "on a quest to demystify Place Branding" and to connect academics with practitioners. His main interests are in the reputation and perceptions of places, sustainability and tourism.

ecoclub.com: You have researched tourism sustainability at the highest academic level and also interviewed over a hundred sustainable tourism leaders, as you call them, during the past years. The problem is when few follow the leaderswhen real followers are even fewer than the leaders. Do you feel that large, mainstream, tourism businesses are finally following? Have they finally understood and endorsed the concept of sustainability and its linkages with climate change or do they mostly go through the moves without implementing serious changes, mostly for image-making purposes?

Florian Kaefer: At the moment we have both: tourism businesses whose sustainability initiatives aim at creating or maintaining a positive reputation in the eyes of stakeholders, and those who are taking bolder actions because they have understood that sustainability is no longer just about being a responsible corporate citizen or about promoting a ‘green’ product or experience.

Especially for tourism businesses and destinations, being sustainable - as much as possible - is about remaining competitive, surviving as industry and maintaining legitimacy in the eyes of those in charge of ensuring the livability, attractiveness and reputation of destinations, be they cities or rural regions.

For a long time, tourism got away with being a laggard in the sustainability sense because we all treasure our vacation time, which is also the time during the year where we want to disconnect and not worry about all those things. In addition, promotional campaigns in tourism have done a great job emphasising the beautiful, exotic and exciting, so unless you live in a tourist destination or make a conscious effort to look behind the scenes, you won’t notice the bad and ugly.

But I also think that we are now at a stage where we’ve realised that tourism activities will never be entirely sustainable, for instance, due to air travel which in many cases is necessary to reach a destination, especially islands. That’s why we now hear the more cautious terms Responsible Tourism, or – as South Africa’s Heidi van der Watt explained in her interview with the Sustainability Leaders Project, Better Tourism.

ecoclub.com: Global tourism bodies are famous for issuing annual self-congratulatory statements about tourism's good intentions and inherent benevolence. But do they have a point? Can it be argued that the tourism sector as a whole, even including the more unsustainable bits, is far better in most key aspects (human rights, employee rights, environmental footprint, employment generation, grassroots entrepreneurship, and benefits to local societies) than other industries of comparative size which are competing for the same pristine and semi-pristine areas such as mining, forestry, industrial livestock and agroindustry?

Florian Kaefer: Despite all the problems we encounter, I believe that we should remain optimistic and not forget the enormous potential of tourism to be a force for good. If done well – responsibly – tourism can be a real game-changer for communities, particularly in developing countries and rural regions. As Luigi Cabrini of the GSTC put it in his interview, tourism is the pretty face in international relations. There you have an industry which allows people to live of their natural or cultural treasures, without risking their destruction.

Unlike mining and other activities, tourism provides jobs especially to women who – I dare say – often have a better hand at administering money and making sure it benefits their families. As for industry bodies and their communications efforts, their mandate is to lobby for their members, which in the case of tourism means to make sure it is regarded favourably in the eyes of regulators and the public. I think it is getting more difficult now to hail the benefits of tourism and not mention the problems. Organisations like the WTTC get around this quite nicely by making room for some critical commentary and reflections in their conferences and communication channels. Of course, what happens behind closed doors at the very same conferences is another matter.

Sustainability Leaders Project founder Florian Kaefer (right) with ecotourism colleagues and friends at ITB Berlin 2016Sustainability Leaders Project founder Florian Kaefer (right) with ecotourism colleagues and friends at ITB Berlin 2016ecoclub.com: To take us further towards tourism sustainability, do you believe that voluntary industry initiatives, such as certification and corporate social responsibility, perhaps encouraged by tax incentives are the way to go, or law enforcement by national and international legislation, or even do we perhaps need a radical overhaul and transition to a post-capitalist system, built from scratch on economic democracy?

Florian Kaefer: Tourism is an industry and activity which involves so many cultures, beliefs and value systems that getting all players on the same table and agree on a voluntary initiative can be by itself a success. The more stakeholders you have, the more difficult it is to achieve change, even more so if you are aiming at systemic changes which require adjustment of corporate or traveller behaviour.

The good part of capitalism is that it is based on financial/economic incentives, something which, to some degree, appeals to everyone. Tax incentives are a useful tool to try and get tourism on a more sustainable path. And if that doesn’t work, then bring out the stick and regulate. Sustainability in tourism is foremost about product quality, community wellbeing and reputation. It should be a key component of any quality assurance scheme, like the hotel stars classification. A four or five-star hotel should have to meet minimum sustainability/quality requirements.

Judging by what we’ve learned through the interviews on Sustainability-Leaders.com, the real change in the next years regarding tourism sustainability is going to happen at the destination level. Destinations are the ones most affected by the not so pretty consequences of more and more tourist arrivals. There is now a lot of talking about Overtourism, the overcrowding of popular city destinations especially. In such situations, the absence of a strategic plan to develop and manage tourism sustainability will negatively impact the competitiveness and reputation of the place. Not just as a destination but also as a city to live, study or invest in. Loss of city brand equity is something no one can afford, even less in a world where cities compete with each other for talent, investment, students...

ecoclub.com: You are currently leading and pursuing two separate initiatives, the Sustainability Leaders Project and The Place Brand Observer. What keeps them separate and what are their key similarities and differences in terms of audience, business model and aims? 

Florian Kaefer: One similarity is that both The Place Brand Observer and Sustainability-Leaders.com aim at connecting academics with practitioners. There is a huge gap between academic research priorities and the interests and needs of those “on the ground”. By telling the stories and sharing the experiences of the key actors in the respective fields, we want to help to connect the two.  

“I do it because I love it” is another aspect which connects both projects. This work ethic might be very “Millennial”, but is something I am sure will become more common, especially since most ordinary jobs are likely to disappear in the next decades. In practical terms, this means that I enjoy and focus on the process of building those projects, rather than striving for success – financial or otherwise. This gives me the flexibility to try out things, to learn, and to give others the chance to experiment, explore and participate through our volunteering program.

Regarding business model, both The Place Brand Observer and the Sustainability Leaders Project serve a professional audience, often senior management. Those tend to have little time, high expectations and more offers on their table than money to spare. As knowledge business, this means that you’ll have to invest considerable time (in our case roughly three years) and energy in building a strong brand, before you can expect to be able to sell anything, be it subscriptions or services. 

ecoclub.com: Do you share the view that despite (or perhaps due to?) a proliferation of online tourism media and social media there is little in the way of quality, investigative & critical travel journalism and plenty of image-making consultancies? 

Florian Kaefer: Yes, and I don’t think this is going to change soon, simply because the business model for high-quality, investigative and critical travel journalism (and journalism in general) has been seriously disrupted (for those interested, I recommend our interview with Jonathan Tourtellot, former editor of the National Geographic Traveler).

Investigating and producing high-quality content takes time and is costly. Those expenses used to be covered by advertising revenues, but that is now dwindling because many of us no longer bother paying attention to ads, especially in travel. For a destination, it is much cheaper to have a group of bloggers visit and share their experience through their social media channels, than paying for an advertising campaign in leading magazines. Bloggers, on the other hand, realise that if they want to earn money, they’ll have to do what the destination or businesses want (them to write), so are unlikely to offer critical coverage.

Communications consultancies, such as Travindy, have filled the spot by producing some original content and syndicating other, but again on a shoestring budget – not something on which investigative reporting could thrive. Across the board, membership associations are struggling to find viable income streams which would give them operational independence and financial sustainability. 

ecoclub.com: Today, sustainability and tourism sustainability have moved a long way from its radical green roots and has have been enthusiastically endorsed by powerful (tourism) business associations and pro-business politicians. Is there a danger that tourism sustainability may become too innocuous and pro-status-quo as a result, and if so, what should be done to avoid this?

Florian Kaefer: One of the questions we routinely ask in our 120 interviews to date with leading sustainable tourism professionals is whether they believe that “sustainability think” has become mainstream. In most cases the answer is not yet, but that we are on the way.

Since for many – especially destinations – sustainability is now a matter of brand equity, competitiveness and reputation, we might (as customers, travellers) see less of it in brochures and on websites. Behind the scenes, however, it will likely become much more relevant, as part of strategic decisions and operations.

ecoclub.com: As a Destination Branding Expert do you think that it is practical for many local destinations to decide their tourism development model (and brand) in a devolved, inclusive, participatory democratic way (one local citizen-one vote), or is an as-transparent-as-possible  'stake-holders' (one local dollar-one vote) process the best we can hope for? In other words, is there a feasible, distinct, green and economically democratic branding process or is this a business undertaking best left to experts?

Florian Kaefer: Destination Branding is a complex endeavour and the more voices you want to include, the more complex it gets. The best chance for success is for public and private sectors to work together, in consultation with key community stakeholders. Most people don’t like change and will resist, so sometimes it takes strong leadership and bold decisions to get things done. Take for example the decision of Ljubljana’s mayor to make the inner city car-free, which, despite initial strong resistance, has now earned the city the title of Green Capital, stimulated green entrepreneurship, increased visitor numbers and led to many citizen initiatives.

In addition, place branding can be very political. Often, a predecessor’s brand strategy – no matter how elaborate or expensive it was to put together – is thrown out as soon as the new leader takes office, especially if it’s a different political party. This can be frustrating for stakeholders, who’ll then be invited again to participate in lengthy meetings and discussions.

As wayfinders and mediators, external, independent destination branding experts can be a real blessing for destinations and cities keen to develop or proactively manage their reputation (brand). Many of the more suitable ones have been featured on PlaceBrandObserver.com, where they have generously shared their experiences, including such pitfalls and challenges.

ecoclub.com: Noting the recent banning of electric bikes and bike-bars and local protests against tourism in various European cities (and city-break destinations) such as Barcelona, where you are based, and more recently in Venice against mega-cruisers, do you feel that 'Overtourism' is a real problem which needs an urgent (legal or monetary) solution, or is it hype indirectly linked to xenophobia and populism? 

Florian Kaefer: You only have to listen to the talks at industry events such as World Travel Market or ITB to understand that overcrowding in tourism is a real problem, especially in popular city destinations. Interestingly, it is now a key topic among both tourism sustainability professionals and destination and city branding and marketing pros. One consequence is that those with some flexibility are moving to smaller cities, as is our case with Girona. But even here, inner city overcrowding is starting.

Just the other day my partner and Associate Editor (of both projects), Natàlia Ferrer Roca, was part of a panel assessing proposals for a strategic plan to manage tourism in Girona. I think that more and more smaller cities will find themselves in the same situation – having to develop strategies and invest in infrastructure to cope with tourist influx and AirBnB-style accommodation which is hard to control.

ecoclub.com: Green destination branding is in fashion, with numerous international events, initiatives, and award contests taking place. Given the competition between similar destinations and the difficulty of gathering credible and comparable data, how can we avoid the dangers of discrediting the concept from the very start through green-destination-washing, self-congratulatory hype, and conflicts of interest between those who evaluate destinations and those who assist destinations in becoming greener? What can prevent, say, a 'green' destination of holding a 'green' event to award itself for holding 'green' events?

Florian Kaefer: There is a widespread misperception about destination branding as something to do with marketing communications, logos and slogans. The impact of those on a place’s image and – over time – reputation is negligible. Real perception change requires place-making as an essential part of place branding, a process which takes at least several years and is quite different from season-focused marketing campaigns. The Place Brand Observer published a useful Quick Guide on the difference between place marketing and place branding, available here.

Successful destination branding requires a lot of listening and stakeholder engagement. It evolves around place identity, desired image, developing a brand strategy and – once the strategy is in place – careful and responsible management and communication. In other words, to be perceived as a “green” destination, you must develop and manage it accordingly.

Awards and contests are good for raising awareness and encouraging best practice, and certifications make the sustainability process manageable for businesses or destinations. As for events, just focus on what is useful for you as participant and listen to but don’t believe everything politicians or destination marketers say. Both are paid for telling you how great their city, region or country is. If in doubt, just look up the destination in your preferred search engine. 

ecoclub.com: How can or should Destinations best cope in the aftermath of a terror attack? Surely, sincerity and safety come first, it would be inappropriate or even ineffective to rush into emergency image-making, or not? 

Florian Kaefer: The best communications strategy in such situations is indeed to be sincere, efficient and straight-forward, but also to keep a close eye on what is being said about the situation in (social) media, and to correct statements, if necessary. Single attacks or incidents are unlikely to have a lasting impact on a destination’s image and attractiveness as a place to visit, especially if it’s “Must-See” places like Paris, Berlin or London.

ecoclub.com: Finally, based on your extensive research, work and travels, if you were to choose the most sustainable tourism business and the most sustainable destination (a city/resort/island), which ones would they be and for what key reasons?

Florian Kaefer: Sustainability being such a broad field, it is difficult to compare initiatives across businesses or destinations. Each hotel, tour or destination has its unique story and challenges. My partner and I have been lucky in that we’ve had the opportunity to get to know many inspiring projects and leaders – not just through the Sustainability Leaders Project but also when reviewing hotels and tours for our travel portal GreenCityTrips.com, where we share info and tips on things to do and places to stay in popular city destinations, such as Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Barcelona and Copenhagen.

For the Sustainability Leaders Project, we have what we call the ON TOUR program, where we visit destinations and talk to the people on the ground. Principe Island in Western Africa was one of those visits during which we learned a lot about the “real” issues at a developing destination. Listening to the different perspectives on tourism and sustainability during our Barcelona visit was revealing. We were impressed by Lady Elliot Island in Australia, which is a great example of how a run-down island can be turned into an ecotourism paradise almost from scratch. What they are doing to protect the Great Barrier Reef is very important.

In terms of hotels, we learned a lot during our visits to Siloso Beach Resort on Sentosa Island, Marina Bay Sands and PARKROYAL on Pickering - all in Singapore. In Europe, there are many good examples of modern hotels built with sustainability in mind. Crowne Plaza Copenhagen Towers (business hotel) is one of those - well worth visiting. Tours: Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours near Melbourne are champions in using ecotourism for wildlife conservation, together with Elm Wildlife Tours in Dunedin, New Zealand.

I invite you to get to know the stories of those change makers and many more by visiting us at Sustainability-Leaders.com, or by visiting our Facebook page

ecoclub.com: Thank you for explaining the importance of communicating and branding Sustainability, we wish you every success with your projects.