Imaginative Community Tourism: 5 perspectives

By: Robert Govers, author of Imaginative Communities: Admired cities, regions and countries

Imaginative communities are neighborhoods, cities, regions and countries that reinforce or build local character and civic pride, while at the same time captivating outsiders (external publics). Imaginative communities have a strong sense of purpose that allows them to come up with mesmerizing, innovative, creative, compelling initiatives that capture peoples’ imagination while at the same time showcasing provenance. Examples are:

  • Estonia adapting its constitution to include internet access as a human right and allowing e-residency, to emphasize the country’s tech-savvy nature compared to other countries in the Baltic region.
  • Bhutan, a country where wellbeing has long been prioritized over material gain, inventing and institutionalizing the idea of gross national happiness.
  • Dubai’s man-made islands in the shape of palm trees, which traditionally represent the source of life in the region around the Arabian Gulf.
  • Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival as a celebration of the city’s musical roots.
  • Finland creating its own set of emoticons to express emotional aspects of Finnishness on social media and on mobile devices anywhere in the world, reflecting the tech-savvy and quirky, fun-loving nature of the Finns.
  • The Van Gogh-inspired “starry night” cycle path in Eindhoven, the city of lights in the Netherlands. The path is paved with fluorescent stones that light up at night to resemble the painting by Van Gogh, who lived in the area.

There are several imaginative community perspectives to tourism:

  1. Tourists are more likely to visit imaginative communities. Projects, investments, policies or events that are intriguing, original and exciting will capture the world’s attention. Initiatives that are clearly identifiably “from somewhere” – i.e. exemplary of community character, positioning or identity – are more likely to build name awareness and reputation. As imaginative communities conquer mind space in tourism markets, they are more likely to attracts visitors. The palm island projects in Dubai, that could only be done there, captured the world’s imagination and positioned the region firmly on the tourist atlas. Whatever you may think of the projects from a sustainability perspective, they undeniably impacted out mental maps.
  1. The sense of purpose that drives imaginative communities can also inform a perspective to tourism policy making. A good example of this is Bhutan, where the drive for gross national happiness has had a tangible impact on tourism policy. While most countries subsidise tourism in order to attract visitors from abroad, Bhutan knew that the success of their happiness concept would drive tourism growth. Hence, they actually decided to impose a rule that tourists must book their trip through a licensed Bhutanese tour operator and that a US$200 per day (low season) and US$250 per day (high season) minimum package applies. Included in this price is a US$65 per day Sustainable Development Fee that goes towards free education, free health care and poverty alleviation. In other words, tourists are taxed significantly as a result of the government’s strict ‘high-value, low-impact tourism’ policy that protects the country’s culture, traditions and natural environment while benefitting local development (i.e. reinforcing gross national happiness).
  1. Imaginative community initiatives can be tourist attractions in their own right, besides building civic pride and profile. Austin’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival or the Van Gogh-inspired “starry night” cycle path in Eindhoven are favourite tourist destinations as visitors love to experience these appealing events and creations for themselves.
  1. Tourists will share their mesmerising experiences with others through social media and word-of-mouth, thereby reinforcing international name awareness and reputation. Tech savvy travellers who visited Finland love to use the Finnish emoticons like the quirky icons of a head-banger, a sauna and the unbreak­able classic Nokia 3310 mobile phone, icons that the world is familiar with. The dedicated emoji keyboard app and images have been downloaded around 300,000 times.
  1. When left unattended imaginative communities can also be crushed under their own success. Because they are well-known and admired, imaginative communities are on many peoples’ bucket list. It can therefore be appealing for policy makers to see tourism as an economic driver and to pick the low hanging fruit. Cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona have suffered from over-tourism as the drive for growth in numbers and a lack of government intervention has had a detrimental effect on the management of quality. It will be of interest to observe how these communities are going to maintain their civic pride and reputation in the long term.

It is clear that imaginative communities have to take into account the potential as well as the consequences of tourism. In some cases, for travellers, the advice might be: go there before it is too late; although I would hope that policy makers, with the use of technology, are smartening up.

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