Are newly-elected councillors qualified to serve on tourism boards?

With 2016’s municipal elections behind us, newly appointed councillors have begun taking their places on the boards of tourism bureaus around the country. But do they know what they’re doing there?

Martin-Hatchuel-2012-WEBFirst, and it’s sad, but let’s get ourselves into the 21st century: the local tourism bureau has shut up shop, and the beloved tourism bureau tannie – the passionate tea-and-koeksusters auntie who loved her village and knew everyone in it and ran its information office like a mouldy but well-annotated family photo album – has retired.


Why? Because of the power of the internet (which, by the way, celebrates 25 years of public access today, 23 August), and because of the increasing complexity of economies – and with it, our collective realisation that tourism isn’t (never was, really) a special-needs business. It’s an integral part of the entire system.

So what’s taken its place?

The DMO: destination marketing and management organisation (yes, I know it has two Ms).

And what’s a destination?

Ah! That question gets to the essence of this conversation.

Right now, DMOs everywhere are flapping around like fish out of water because they’re unsure of their positions – because their funding municipalities are appointing new, untrained, councillors to their boards, and these newbies, who’re usually quite unschooled in tourism, have begun stirring things up as new-bloods like to do.

As one of them put it on Facebook on the day after the elections: “I’ve hit the ground running with a plan for tourism in the townships.” Which is odd, because he’s never had anything to do with tourism before, he’s never lived in a township (terrible Apartheid-era word), and he refused to discuss his ideas.

New concept

In ‘Destination Management and Destination Marketing: The Platform for Excellence in Tourism Destinations’ (in the journal Tourism Tribune 28(1):6-9, January 2013; pdf, 620 kb), Alastair Morrison wrote that, “Destination management and destination marketing are relatively new phenomena in tourism professional practice and in the tourism literature.

“The… data from Google Scholar show that the topics of destination management and destination marketing started to enter the tourism literature in the 1980s; received more attention in the 1990s; and then became ‘mainstream’ topics from 2000 to 2009… About 95% to 96% of the references to the two topics have occurred from 2000 onwards.”

If the people who’s lives revolve around studying how DMO’s work are still trying to figure it all out, how can we expect people who’ve never even met the concept of destination management before to know the ropes?

What’s a destination?

A destination is the sum of everything that makes up a municipal area – and since tourism can only ever be one aspect of any economy, no town can ever be ‘just’ a tourism hotspot.

Successful destinations work as inseparable triumvirates: the local economy + the local community (and its visitors) + the built and natural environments.

And achieving this is the work of the DMO.

It’s a two-phase approach that begins with destination management (the process of finding and unlocking opportunities that exist in the region) and moves on to marketing only when the destination is ready to receive visitors and investors.

To quote from the membership prospectus of Knysna’s DMO: “As destination managers, Knysna & Partners

  • Finds and fosters connections between complementary businesses;
  • Inspires the development of new products that come out of these connections; and
  • Facilitates alignment with local, regional and provincial government strategies.”

But this requires a nuanced and knowledge-based approach which can be difficult to achieve in communities that are usually characterised by conflicting interests.

Ruling is listening

The musician Daniel Barenboim – a citizen of both Israel and Palestine – said in the fifth of his 2006 BBC Reith Lectures that, “Peace requires dialogue, a dialogue which consists of sensitive talking and often painful listening.”

He was talking about the situation in the Middle East, of course, but those six words – “sensitive talking and often painful listening” – could possibly be the most insightful ever spoken on human interactions, since they apply as much to world peace as to any discussion between any two individuals.

But even allowing for the fact that each municipality has its own institutional arrangement with its own DMO, it’s beginning to seem as though the politics of these organisation – and the politics between them and their municipalities – has the potential to sour at this important time in our democracy (and our economic history), simply because new people are coming into positions of power on their boards, and talking loudly without listening at all.

Not only that, though: they’re talking about how “we’re going to rearrange tourism.”

Alan Winde, the Western Cape’s Minister of Economic Opportunities, who’s responsible for agriculture, economic development, and tourism, said that, “Every single DMO, LTO, RTO,* or tourism bureau that I visited in the lead-up to the elections had the same problem: it was about its relationship with the council, it was about the model, it was about the funding.”

His department’s going to approach the challenge differently to what it might have in the past, he said – but in the same way it approached capacity-building in the management of public finances.

“It’s not about the tourism people – it’s about the destination, the entire region.”

So he’s going to go to the councils and the DMOS and say, “You present to us what you want to do, what your plans are, and then from our side we’ll do a kind of peer critique of it, and then say, ‘well, this is where we see it, there’s a gap, and this is where we think we can support you’.”

Which is how Ernesto Sirolli approaches development: “Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!” (TED talks) .

Alan did point out, though, that he has a problem in many towns in the Province where business in general fails to talk with one voice.

“And the businesses see themselves differently to tourism – but it’s all one economy.

“When is business going to get a voice and find a space that they can all get into?

“I need them to become far more bold.”

The solution: it’s everyone’s party

Look, everyone wants their town to prosper – and yes, many of the promises made during this last electoral campaign held that tourism would be the silver bullet that’s going to achieve that.

But it isn’t that easy.

It’s no longer just – let’s put an ad in the Sunday papers, and watch the visitors stream in. And this is partly because no one really reads the papers anymore, partly because that approach never worked anyway, partly because mass tourism isn’t anyone’s idea of fun (Tourism, we need to talk about your growth), partly because the destination has to be ready for the influx – and its managers and planners have to properly understand both what visitors want, and what the destination is able professionally to deliver (Destination marketing: who does know what they’re talkin’ about?), partly because of the way government works (Solving the municipal mystery: why local government is failing tourism), and partly because you aren’t getting fully involved in the process – and nor are your colleagues in other businesses.

For officials, politicians, members of the board, and businesspeople alike – tourism needs you to spend a lot of time talking sensitively, and even more time listening.

Especially when it’s painful.

  • *DMO = destination management and marketing organisation; LTO = local tourism organisation; RTO = regional tourism organisation.

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Now go away on holiday – it’s in the economy’s best interests. And have a great tourism week!

Martin Hatchuel
Chartered Public Relations Professional

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