Showing posts with label community tourism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label community tourism. Show all posts

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Day trip from Berlin: Lunching in Poland

Unsurprisingly, there is no tourism office in Rzepin. There are no tourists, and from a brief wander through the town, this is hardly surprising either.

Coming here was a good idea. Dining at a lovely little local Bulgarian restaurant in Berlin last night, in response to a general question about what to do today, I said “Let’s go to Poland for lunch”. The idea took root, the train schedule to the first town across the border was determined, alarm clocks set and away we went.

William and Daisy at ITB
The idea was not entirely random; the major global tourism show, ITB is held annually in Berlin, and as a part of our tourism development work with the Arctic community of Qikiqtarjuaq, we have two delegates from the community in Berlin, learning about the travel industry, the channels of distribution, product development and clients’ expectations. Among other things.

A part of this immersion program is the practical aspect of being a tourist, and thus a random visit to an unknown community in a different place with different money and language formed an integral part of the process.

Rzepin was determined solely by geography. It was only 90 minutes by rail from Berlin, but it could have been a continent away.

Having been brought up in the era of the Cold War, simply taking a train from Berlin Ostbanhof to Poland was an exercise in nostalgia. It was a simple journey today, but only twenty-five years ago, the paperwork alone would have taken a month. The train pulled out of the station and rolled through the forbidden Berlin suburbs toward the border.

Berlin is a most interesting city, and in particular the architectureof The East astonishes. The drab Soviet Blocks have had a lick of paint; new cladding he replaced old concrete in places, and suddenly shiny blocks push their way up from the ground like a bright new tooth implant. Jocular shaped shops interspersed with forbidding facades from the DDR line the streets, and the overall impact is of sudden and manic growth after a period of forty years’ dormancy. Beirut is a little like this; none of the gradual change in architecture on a year on year, or even decade on decade basis, no, it is the leap from 1960s SovConcrete into the jazzy freedom of Berlin in the 2010s.

And so to Poland, and across the border, there was none of the money of Berlin, nor the money of central Poland. Rzepin is not Warsaw, and has none of the charm of rural Southern Poland. No, this is a town of emigrants, the flip side of the complaint of “too many immigrants”; here the problem is of “too many emigrants”.

Information about Rzepin
The first hint of the community's charms was at the railway station. Shiny, new, clearly constructed with reconstruction funds, the station’s information boards were silent and empty. We should have taken the hint and climbed back on the train. We didn’t, and instead, in the manner of clowns filling a circus car, we piled into a taxi whose driver agreed to take us to the “Old Centre”. This sounded promising but wasn’t. We were dropped off in a square that had seen better days, surrounded by buildings that flaked apart around us. Sadness and stoicism filled the air as we set off to have a look.

Old buildings, old people, closed shops, abandoned houses, a large church and a cobbled street. A friendly dog who alone seemed to find joy from the town followed us for a few hundred yards before tiring, and alone again we wandered on. The post office was alive with a couple of counters of cards, boxes and surplus Beanie Babies; the military graveyard was well kept, with the obligatory cannons recently repainted. The local council buildings were smart, reconstructed with reconstruction money and sporting the EU flag, but little sign of any economic development seeping further than the cars parked outside.

Rzepin - the other side of migration 

Lunch was a highlight. The Restauracja Mak was friendly and full of food. Good pizza, great soups and a welcome relief from the attempts at trying to find Rzepin. We might have been wandering through the town for a while (8,306 steps before lunch, to be precise), but we couldn’t find it.
And that was the instructive part of the day.

We were tourists; Rzepin was perfectly located for a “day away” from Berlin, and I have no doubt that many, many individuals do as we did over the course of the year. And I have no doubt that the people of Rzepin are delightful, interesting and have plenty of interesting items for visitors looking to pass a few hours in their town. However, the community seemed silent, almost abandoned.

 Unhelpful, and if a town could do such a thing, it felt as if it was turning its back on us. It is an instructive lesson for anyone starting to build a tourism business in their community.

Visitors know nothing, want to learn everything and need information. And that good food, served in a friendly manner can be the saving grace of a day of mild disappointment.

Back to Berlin!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Tourism at the Tipping Point; what is too much of a good thing?

Tourism is a wonderful industry, but as with many endeavors, it comes with its own perils. It embodies the ideal of people moving around the world to meet other people, understand other cultures and become more globally aware, an important asset in today’s globalised society. It brings wealth to countries with few natural resources, and in many regions, tourism is a major employer.

What is not to like?

Lisbon is a very desirable place to visit.
Success is a very, very hard key to measure, and for each tourism destination there is a “tipping point” at which the problems start to outweigh the benefits. It is difficult to see that spot, and harder still for societies to protect themselves against Rampant Tourism.

This is only March, and mid-March, at that, yet Lisbon is full, Funchal was full and I could only shudder to think of these cities in the height of the season. Prices rise, and rise for locals as well as visitors, for everything from restaurant meals to property; crowds are relentless, rush hour lasts all day, there seems to be nowhere to escape People, and the destination loses its rhythm. While I have often scoffed at the made-for-tourism resorts like Cancun and much of the Spanish shoreline, I am now seeing these developments as necessary buffers for those folks who actually live there.

The Ice Park in Dubai. Really?
Visiting these man-made destinations makes no pretense at visiting a "real" destination; there are none of the same pressures that come with a gradual transformation of a local town or community into a theme park. Global brands are there, prices are high and everyone knows the score. It is the gradual layering of visitors on top of functioning destinations that leads to problems.

There are places that have, in my humble opinion, passed through the barrier and are now distinctly top-heavy with visitors. Barcelona leads the pack, Dubai, Florence and Edinburgh are not far behind, and for the world’s smaller destinations, there is nary a Caribbean capital nor a Mediterranean town of any size that has not fallen foul of the tourism bug.

Even cities like London have become oppressive. It is difficult to manoeuver even in the “off season”, and come the heat of the summer and the hordes of visitors trying to press their way in every direction, the city will become overwhelming and stressful.

Costa Nova waiting for the tourists to arrive, and Agadir, wishing that they would return

There is, however, a fine balance, and it has been interesting to contrast and compare Funchal and Lisbon. Funchal, with a population of about 110,000 is unquestionably a tourist city; its geography leads toward a concentrated centre, and although one realises that there is a great deal of commercial and administrative activity that have nothing to do with the visitor economy, the life of Funchal has been subsumed by tourism. Lisbon is a considerably larger city, of course, but its population of 520,000 is rather differently spread. There are densely populated, high-rise developments that circle the city, and a central, historical core that is where the tourism activity is concentrated.

Load of tourists! 
Lisbon is one of Europe’s top short-break destinations; the advent of the three-day vacation has been propelled by Europe’s low-cost carriers, and these seem to have become the staple break for millions of people. Walking through the city one can hear dozens of languages spoken; hotel occupancy has grown from 63% to 76% in only five years and this 20% increase in tourists has been hugely positive to the local economy. Restaurants are booming and the local tourism providers are making a good living.

What is not to like?

Nothing at the moment, but it is only March. July and August will be hot, very crowded and the prices for all of the goods and services that tourists use will rise. Pressure on the city’s infrastructure will grow, and at some point in the future a positive, balanced growth will give way to a something more dangerous. Prices will rise fast, for tourists only; pick pockets and petty crime will rise; the tolerance and good humour of the locals whose city has been overrun and transformed will become increasingly distant.

Lot's of things to sell to the visitors!
We start by visiting a city to see how interesting life is in that destination; we engage the local people in this exposition; and finally we turn the destination into a parody of itself. Locals in Barcelona do not like the vast numbers of tourists who now visit; Londoners are fed up with throngs that make their city unlivable in certain months; and most certainly Mexicans, Moroccans and Dominicans resent the fact that their homes have been turned into expensive and unaffordable theme parks.

It is a fact of life that visitors change the places they visit. It always starts well, but as travellers want and demand more and more services, and local residents are priced out of markets for property, food and entertainment, tension will grow. We can help, of course, by being less demanding, by seeking local interaction and not simply observation, by exploring and getting even a mile away from The Hoards. And by visiting countries and parts of countries that are less explored we help spread the wealth and allow a greater interaction with the folks who live in our destination all year round.

We will also be very welcome, and not simply seen as another visiting ATM.

Aveiro, Portugal; off the beaten path, and very welcoming

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Suriname: The Suriname River

Apart from geography geeks, stamp collectors and cartophiles, Suriname is a country that has escaped most peoples’ awareness. And this is a great pity, because as a destination, Suriname offers interest travellers a peak into any number of worlds.

It lies, along with Guyana and French Guyana on the north-est coast of South America, tucked in between Venezuela and Brazil. Access is patchy but straightforward; from North America, there are flights into the capital of Paramaribo directly from Miami, or with connections in Port of Spain or Curacao. From Europe, non-stop flights from Amsterdam, recognising the old historical connection between the Netherlands and this remote region, operate daily.

And so it was that I found myself boarding the KLM flight at Schipol, shivering because I had jettisoned my warm clothes in anticipation of two months or warmth, for the nine-hour flight south to Suriname.

It is my fourth visit to the region, and I have to say that I really enjoy coming down to the Guyanas. They offer travellers many options, from fabulous fly-in lodges in the rain forest, fascinating canoe trips, expeditions to see the recently-discovered 5000 year-old petroglyphs in the southern forest, and interesting glimpses into contemporary river life, a one travels the Suriname River.

Suriname’s history is bloody. It is a brutal tale of slavery, plantation, disease and constant bickering and fighting with the British and French. It is a history of injustice on an industrial scale, disease and deceit, purgatory and finally salvation.

In the late 1760s, slaves escaped from the plantations, and headed for the river, safe in the assumption that the wussy Dutch would not chase them there. Eventually, they settled into six tribes in different regions, and to this day, live lives in the upper reaches of the rivers that remain traditionally African.

Pingpe Village
Pingpe Village

There is, of course, contemporary turmoil; the transition from centuries of a cashless society to one that cash is needed is painful. The requirement for money (Digicel can’t be paid with local fruit), has forced many to leave their traditional villages to go to Paramaribo to seek work, leaving a social imbalance within the villages. The elderly, formerly looked after by the next generations are being left alone, and the young children are losing the traditional skills and their mentors are away in The City.

It is a familiar story.

What is less familiar is the way that they are working to try and stem the tide.

The Saramacca people, the tribe that live along the Saramacca and Suriname Rivers, have a strong and established social order. Led by an hereditary king who lived in Asidonhopo until his death a year ago, local government is kept by a council of ten “captains” representing five to ten communities, with each community having their own captain and assistant captain.

The role of the assistant captain is ultimately local; they ensure that their communities are kept clean and tidy, they assign village jobs and ensure that daily activities are completed; simple, but very effective.

The new king will be crowned in another year or so, the work of the pervious monarch must first be completed, and the hereditary role is drawn from the maternal line, as are all Saramaccan family structures.

Interestingly, one major movement within the communities is the development of tourism infrastructure to support the communities and create a source of cash; keen and fervent in their desire to welcome visitors and explain their unique history, the Maroon people have flung themselves headlong into the tourism business.

There are now twenty-two such community-owned resorts along this single 100 km stretch of river; this may, of course, prove to be a degree of overkill, but in the meantime that offer visitors a fabulous combination of options. From the primitive facilities that  offer “back to basics” camps, to the more sophisticated resorts like Dan Paati, there are many options and alternatives.

Atjuna, Suriname
They all start, however, in Atjuna, the freight hub of the river. Lying three-hours south of Paramaribo, it is the end of the road, and the place where people, freight and everything else is transferred to the 40’ river canoes that provide the heartbeat of the River.

From Atjuna, the journey heads south into the rain forest; the river, wide at the beginning gradually tapers over the next hundred kilometres  until it reaches the point that it splits into two smaller streams, the Gran Rio and the Pikin Rio that take you to the very centre of the country. Here the villages are simply traditional African communities, little changed in the past three hundred years; they are home to people from Benin, the Luongo and Ashanti and offer a glimpse of rural life, and all of the spiritual and social beliefs that were brought from Africa so many centuries ago at the height of the plantation era.

And so it was, that I headed upstream to the confluence of the rivers and found a simply wonderful village, Pingpe, and stayed at its cosy and welcoming Pingpe Jungle Resort.