Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks to mgr Anna Młynkowiak-Stawarz from the Faculty of Management UG about new travel models, environmental protection and wellbeing tourism.
– On one of the blogs on sustainable tourism, I found a definition defining this mode of travel as a ‘form of tourism and recreation that respects both the environment and the community hosting tourists’. It aims to ‘create a balance between economic benefits and the protection of the environment and local culture’. Why should we now change our travel model?
– This definition originated from the early 1990s UN documents. Therefore, it is not new, and the process has been ongoing for several decades. Scientific research, increased public awareness, and climate change, which can be seen with the naked eye today, mean that the pursuit of sustainable tourism has greatly accelerated in recent years. The principles of sustainability and environmental protection are being introduced in the tourism industry for the same reasons they are in other industries: to combat harmful climate change and to work towards improving the quality of life for both travellers and those living in attractive tourist regions. The choice of tourism model and principles depends, of course, on the travellers themselves and their awareness of sustainable tourism. However, there are both economic and social arguments behind sustainable travel, as well as individual arguments concerning the well-being of individuals. In my research, I deal with the latter aspect of travelling – well-being tourism, which fits into the concept of sustainable tourism. So if we are not convinced by economic, social, educational, or environmental arguments, perhaps we will be convinced by those related to our well-being.
– What does well-being mean in tourism?
– As I mentioned, it is a part of sustainable tourism that is unfortunately confused with, or limited to, wellness tourism, whereas it is a broader concept and concerns the entire well-being of both travellers and those who host them. Well-being tourism focuses on the balance between the environment, economic development and the well-being of individuals – physical and mental. I most often refer to the definition formulated in the project 'Wellbeing Tourism in the South Baltic Region – Guidelines for good practices and Promotion', implemented by universities and organisations from the Baltic countries. It is based on six pillars. These are: soul, society, body, environment, mind, and economy. It is, therefore, a specific type of tourism that aims to nurture the health of the body, mind, and soul through products and services created through sustainable actions in the environment and communities to which we travel. According to this definition, tourism should develop in a way that both tourists and hosts can experience well-being. In environmental terms, this refers to shaping a tourism offer geared towards relaxation, tranquillity, creativity, activity, and protecting the environment. Those who host tourists must earn a decent income so that the economic benefits of tourism are fairly distributed in the places where tourists visit. It is therefore necessary to support local communities by, for example, choosing local products, food outlets or accommodation.
– What does it mean in practice, from the perspective of people who want to go on holiday, to travel sustainably in order to experience well-being? Reducing flying on planes and reducing the carbon footprint? Staying out of chains of huge hotels? Choosing less popular destinations?
– On the one hand, the answer to this question is simple. There are the recognised and well-known choices you have already mentioned, such as: reducing the carbon footprint, i.e. reducing flying on planes, choosing other means of transport such as the bicycle, if possible for closer distances, the train, as a last resort the car. Looking for smaller, more intimate guesthouses, hostels, agritourism, and certified places whose way of operating aligns with sustainable or well-being tourism principles. But our needs, possibilities, and travel constraints are often more complicated. The answer at the micro level, i.e. our individual choices, is no longer so simple. For me, however, the most important thing is that travel is conscious, that we understand that our personal choices matter on a macro scale. Not only for us but also for the place and people we visit. We should realise that we are just visitors staying somewhere for a while. Where I go, where I stay, whether I segregate my rubbish, what kind of food I eat: local or from hypermarkets, how I travel around the place: by public transport, by bicycle or by car, which places I visit, all have an impact on the environment. It often seems that we are, after all, just a single person; therefore, our environmental contribution does not matter much. And the opposite is true. If we multiply these choices by millions of tourists, we find that we significantly impact environmental protection on a macro scale. The sum of our individual decisions adds up to the whole. But it's certainly not a quick process; getting to sustainable tourism takes time and a change of habits for both travellers and hosts. Because hosts also influence the new tourism model. Sometimes it is enough to ask if it is a place where rubbish is segregated and local products are offered, thus putting pressure on hosts to make their businesses meet the conditions of sustainable tourism. We should learn to plan our trip. Dedicated online calculators allow us to calculate our carbon footprint and reduce travel costs. There are also websites that can help us choose certified destinations.
– Is it difficult to get certified?
– In Poland, certificates are not yet so popular. One of the results of the project I mentioned earlier is creating an organisation that will bring together operators in the field of well-being tourism. A verification system has been prepared, which will make it possible to determine whether a given facility meets the conditions for this type of activity. There is already a website: wellbeingtourism.com, where we can find such places in the South Baltic area, including Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. However, certificates and other forms of structured verification are more prevalent in Western Europe. The further out into the world, the more difficult it is to find this kind of verification. But suppose we are interested in a place, and it does not function in any structured form. In that case, it is enough to ask about all the aspects we have already discussed – local products, creators, community, waste segregation – and on this basis, form our own opinion about the degree of commitment of the hosts to well-being and sustainable tourism.
– Is it worth implementing educational programmes to convince people of sustainable tourism?
– I think I have a professional bent because I believe it is always worth implementing good educational programmes. More than that, you need to educate from an early age. Let me give you a simple example – I belong to a generation living in a world where rubbish was not segregated. For my children, segregating waste is obvious; they don't know any other world, and these habits have been developed in them as if by themselves. It can be the same with well-being tourism.
– How and what to teach?
– For example, organising colonies and camps is a perfect time to teach the principles of sustainable tourism through play. This is easier when children are involved and in a peer group. We can teach them to make informed purchases. I often see children on organised holidays buying all these plastic toys from stalls, which will end up in the rubbish immediately when they get home. There are also special places where children can be taught good environmental habits, such as technology parks. Websites such as wellbeingtourism.com above are also a form of education. Special tours are offered there, for example, the 'Sustainable tour of Gdansk' or 'Kashubian tranquillity'. So sustainable tourism can be taught systemically, but we as parents can also send our children to places where the environment is cared for and choose tour operators who will guarantee this. As I said, just asking about basic things, such as the need to have our own water bottles not to multiply litter in the form of plastic bottles, creates a kind of pressure. Small things make big changes. We should also consider the socio-cultural aspects, educate ourselves, and teach our children to respect other cultures.
– But most of us want to go on holiday and not think about anything.
– I often hear: ‘I want to go away to relax and not worry about anything, not think about anything...’. This is said by people who have taken part in my research. And I even so simply, humanly understand it. But a lack of awareness and making the wrong choices firstly mean that we don't really relax on holiday, and secondly, on a macro level, they contribute to all those negative climate changes that we don't want to deal with.
– I don't think these phenomena can be ignored any longer.
– Of course – and we can already see changes in travel models and the shaping of tourism offers. It’s just that it's not mainstream today. Tourism is still shaped by an industry focused on economic profit. It is comforting, however, that more and more decision-makers are recognising the fact that, in the long term, over-tourism causes more losses than profits. This group includes the authorities of cities such as Barcelona and local government officials in Poland. To make changes, however, research is needed to show the impact of tourism on a region not only from an economic point of view but also from the point of view of the inhabitants' quality of life. Local government officials from Sopot or Gdańsk, with whom we cooperate and conduct research as part of the Bruno Synak Chair of Marketing and the Pomeranian Scientific Institute, have recognised that tourism is a positive phenomenon for the city, but up to a certain point.
– Does this mean reducing tourism in these most famous places?
Certainly, but it is not about drastic changes but about conscious planning. It is possible to skilfully redirect this tourist traffic, create new routes, and propose less well-known but equally historically attractive places. For example, this kind of planning can be seen in Gdańsk, where tourists are offered previously undiscovered places and histories. Tourism in besieged areas can also be modelled in other ways, for example, by providing mobile urban games that take tourists out of city centres. This way, tourists can see beautiful places they would typically not visit.
– Are we also talking about a change in the travel model because it has become easier today?
– In a technical sense, indeed, yes, especially in our part of the world. But it doesn't have to be mindless travel, especially as we have opportunities to travel more responsibly and sustainably. This is also linked to economic development and can be seen in Scandinavian countries, where tourists consciously choose well-being tourism and pay attention to environmental aspects.
– It sounds as if only wealthier people can afford well-being tourism.
– This relationship is not so simple. Our choices depend on our level of education, and higher quality education is where we spend more money. But sustainable travel doesn't have to be expensive; there are many ways to travel cheaply, they just require effort and planning. There are plenty of travel blogs from which we can learn how to travel cheaply while caring for the environment and our own mental and physical well-being.
– Have phenomena such as the recent fires in Greece or the pandemic, which created great expectations regarding changing the way we travel, taught us anything?
– Yes, but this is linked to many different factors. The pandemic has shown that we can work partly remotely in many industries. The labour market has changed, and there is a new phenomenon called workation, which combines travelling and working, often over a more extended period, sometimes even several months. There is also the phenomenon of staycation, i.e. combining rest and work at home. Young people, in particular, opt for jobs that allow them to travel for longer periods, during which they can visit and simultaneously carry out their professional duties remotely. Architectural changes are emerging in large cities, creating places where it is possible to spend leisure time and work at the same time.
– In the context of tourism, we often speak of the depopulation of entire attractive tourist districts of cities, which are only crowded in high season. The permanent residents move away because the quality of life there is drastically reduced due to excessive tourism.
– The aforementioned pandemic has had adverse economic effects on tourism but has also brought about positive changes. People no longer want to live in city centres not only because of the tourist traffic but also because they are looking for places close to a park or green areas. This is also a challenge for city authorities, who have to organise urban space to meet the expectations of tourists and residents. Visits to the neighbourhood are becoming increasingly popular, with interesting excursions and tours being organised, enabling people to get to know places other than the city centres already mentioned many times in our conversation. Virtual museums are also gaining in popularity. We no longer need to touch everything, to be somewhere in person.
– The new travel models and changes we are talking about require effort. Regarding my background as a journalist, I would like to mention that the excellent reporter Ryszard Kapuściński always argued that every journey should be prepared and that you should know where you are going and why. And I have the irresistible impression that the main reasons our planet is dying are human laziness and greed. Are we prepared to make an effort and limit our travels, denying ourselves or our children things?
– Education, education and more education. Mental change is the most challenging – but possible; it just takes time. My research shows that it is worth the effort. People who plan their travels so as not to damage the environment and at the same time pay attention to the socio-cultural aspects, supporting local communities, have more satisfaction from their trips than those who only focus on relaxing and the proverbial not thinking during their holidays. In my PhD, I investigate Polish cities' tourism strategies and visitors' acceptance of modern mobile solutions. I hope for positive results and conclusions.
– I would like to conclude by wishing us all such beautiful journeys so that they stay with us longer than these plastic toys. And I want to wish you the fastest possible completion of your doctorate.
Anna Młynkowiak-Stawarz – research and teaching assistant at the Chair of Marketing, Faculty of Management, University of Gdańsk. Her research interests focus on consumer behaviour in tourism and leisure, especially in the context of psychological factors influencing tourist decision-making.