Joao Ministro in this interview shares his experience of working in rural development and responsible tourism in the Algarve region of Portugal: learn about the destination’s challenges and economic development opportunities.
Joao, sustainability is now a key topic for most destinations, but it wasn’t always like this. Do you remember the first time you heard or thought about “sustainable tourism”?
It’s been a long time since I first heard the expression “sustainable tourism”. It was during my university studies when doing research about an international case study. At that time, and for many years after, the expression has been used, in Portugal, in an incomplete sense, in my opinion. Mostly for marketing purposes or some kind of greenwashing.
Until very recently the real meaning has been not completely understood or has been ignored. But now, with all the environmental problems we are facing worldwide and also with a better understanding of the greater need for sustainable destinations and businesses, the expression is used every day, and there is now a deeper understanding.
How have your views on tourism and sustainability changed over time? Which new insights have you gained through your work in the Algarve region in Portugal?
Sustainable tourism can be seen or understood in different ways. For many people, sustainable tourism is about being economically viable and profitable. For others, it is about achieving some basic environmental standards – waste management or efficient use of energy, for example.
But, the real meaning is more complex than this. It’s about territory and how we use it. How we interact with the communities living there and make them part of the process. How we use the natural and cultural resources and preserve them at the same time. And, of course, how we produce richness and secure livelihoods in the long term.
My experience here in Portugal tells me that there is much to do. Algarve is a paradoxical region. It’s one of richest in Portugal and the most important in terms of income through tourism. But, even so, some municipalities are among the poorest in the country.
In reality, we have two Algarve’s: the coastal Algarve, where most of the richness and population is concentrated; and the interior, the countryside and the mountains: the poor and isolated areas.
Both very much depend on each other. The water we drink along the coast flows from the hills, into dams where we collect it. The many farm products we consume are also produced there. But, there is a big lack of territorial cohesion. Politics, strategies and development plans are mostly focused on the coastal area, leaving the inland region submitted to a “slow death”.
Tourism can have a big role in establishing some balance between these regions, since it’s the main economic activity in the Algarve and one with more influence in politic decisions.
As Executive Director of Proactivetur, can you briefly tell us what this initiative is about?
For several years I worked in an environmental NGO, called Almargem, where I was a project manager and developer. During that period, I implemented several ecotourism projects in the Algarve, mostly in the inland region. One of them was Via Algarviana, a long-distance trail for hiking lovers.
During those years I got a real sense of what’s happening in the region, the problems and also the opportunities. I realized that there are many things to do in order to support local economies and also to preserve our biodiversity and cultural heritage.
So, in 2010 I decided that I could have a more efficient role in the region by creating my own project – a tourism agency – focused on responsible activities. That’s how Proactivetur was born.
The name expresses what our philosophy is about: we want to be proactive in order to develop responsible tourism programs in the region as a means to create a sustainable economy for us and for those living in the region. We want to nurture and keep alive our nature and culture.
Through Proactivetur we support the economy of these inland regions and the people living there, showing them how interesting their culture and their way of life is, but also the value of landscape. We believe that they should and will be the first ones to act in order to keep it preserved. That’s how ecotourism works!
So, basically, we are a tourism operator, a DMC, developing and selling several programs in Algarve (e.g. hiking, birdwatching, creative workshops), but also consultants in regional development.
Among other things we manage a project called TASA, in order to promote and keep alive the traditional handmade craft of the region. It might seem strange to link a tourism operator and a craft project developer, but both are very much engaged with territory development. And also, some of our touristic products include craft workshops and guided visits.
To your mind, which issues or challenges do small communities, villages and towns struggle most with, linked to tourism sustainability – for example in the Algarve?
The bigger towns, mostly on the coast, must ensure that they are part of future trends and visitors’ motivations (or worries), namely with regards to mobility, efficient use of energy and water, preservation of green areas, traditional architecture, cultural attractions, among others.
The rural and small villages, on the other hand, have different issues. Many of them are getting depopulated, with young people moving away and losing some of their key assets. This is the main problem of the countryside. Without people, there will be no farming, no forest management, no traditional activities (such as cheese production, crafts), which means a loss of heritage and biodiversity.
And these are the main attraction for those that visit and walk in these areas. One specific example: several of the rural guesthouses we work with, are managed by local people over 70 years old. If they stop doing that, for whichever reasons, how will we accommodate our customers there?
The big challenge is: How do we attract young people to these regions? How to keep local business working? We are actively involved in trying to find a solution. In 2016 we co-founded a local development cooperative QRER, with other small companies. Its main purpose is to attract and establish new projects, ideas and entrepreneurs in the countryside. We hope to encourage new business in the region, working with the local institutions, decision makers and other organizations.
Tourism is sometimes criticized for being a very fragmented industry, dominated by short-term, silo thinking and lack of collaboration across destinations, agencies and institutions. From your experience, which are the main barriers that might prevent tourism marketing organizations from playing an active role in destination management and regional development?
On the one hand, I think there is still a lack of awareness and responsibility from tourism industry actors about their role in these issues. We must be able to inform and appeal to them for the necessity of acting.
Tourism cannot be only a “collector” activity. It must be also a “giving-back” industry, in terms of regional development, territorial cohesion and environmental sustainability.
Tourism businesses must be part of sustainable solutions for nature and heritage preservation, social promotion, entrepreneurship, etc. Those things that are very important for the touristic experience must be also supported by the tourism industry.
What can happen is that they don’t know how to get involved. Local governments should take a lead in involving them in the process. There is also lack of understanding from local governmental agents of the need to involve this sector in the decision-making process, be it as a counseling partner, or even an active project partner.
As tour operator you put a strong focus on ecotourism and especially active, cultural tourism. Do you observe growing interest among Algarve visitors in more authentic, perhaps even transformative experiences, rather than “just” sun and sea vacationing?
Yes, for sure. Not only here, I believe, but everywhere. Tourists are becoming more curious and interested in the local way of living, the cultural issues and natural areas. They want to be part, even if just for a moment, in the local community’s daily routine. Even the typical “sun and beach” type of tourist, at certain moments, wants to have a more local experience, by having a traditional meal, visiting a local market, walk in a special natural park, learn something about traditional activities, etc.
People are looking more and more for experiences that have a bigger emotional impact on them.
How do you engage political and business leaders in your destination sustainability work?
Fortunately, the message of a “sustainable tourism” in Algarve is getting stronger. Two main reasons for that: for one, there is now acceptance across the region that we need to reduce seasonality and be able to attract tourists all year round. Second, the national effort to reduce asymmetries between coastal and interior regions. In both cases the answer is much related to providing other types of tourism offer (such as hiking, ecotourism or cultural tourism). And these two things are very much related to what I’ve been doing in the Algarve in the last 15 years!
So, it allows me to get more connected with some councils, regional institutions and several organizations. Also, to be part of discussions about product structuring and destination management, in order to reach those new markets.
Also, in our cooperative, we organize events throughout the year to discuss and inform about matters regarding responsible tourism, destination management, services qualification, among others. In these events, national and regional institutions are a regular participant.
Recently, I became part of Algarve Tourism Association, the regional organization responsible for the international promotion of Algarve, bringing together several business leaders of the region and also the Algarve Tourism Institution. So, I hope my message will reach both politicians and private tourism leaders.
Having worked with environmental NGOs previously in your career, which would you consider the main differences in their problem-solving approach (regarding tourism and sustainability, or environmental conservation), compared to your approach as social enterprise?
The main difference is the “economy effect”. Through our activities we try to ensure a direct and sustained financial benefit for all stakeholders involved, through our projects and programs. In the end, money is a key issue to ensure all local partners are satisfied and aware of the potential and impact of this kind of tourism.
Also, being part of an international businesses network (we work with several international tour operators), gives us a stronger capacity to educate/inform local governments and business agents about these important issues regarding environment and cultural heritage conservation.
Let me give an example: last year a small section of a popular walking trail which we use in our programs was paved and completely artificialized by a local council project. We complained about it, explained the impact that this can cause on our program – even a complete cancellation of it – and immediately an alternative was studied and implemented by local institutions.
Looking back at your career so far, which three bits of advice can you share with newcomers to the field of ecotourism and local development?
- Be aware of what’s happening in tourism at a global level. Be informed about trends, the market, the promotion, new tools of marketing, the business actors and events.
- Know your territory well. Know what you can offer in terms of tourism experiences which are of high quality, distinctive and genuine. Authenticity is very important in this segment of cultural and responsible tourism.
- Be patient and persistent. And be collaborative. This is fundamental to having a good and reliable partnership for tourism success.
Thank you, Joao!
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