Interview: Miles Davis, Ecotourism Consultant

Some in the sector would say the most pertinent reason as to why international development agencies do not take tourism so seriously, or rather, why very little funds are allocated to it, is that international development is increasingly being used as an investment tool by donor countries' governments and is implemented in exchange for favourable deals and/or prices in areas such as import/export, industry, energy, resources, etc, which is not workable if the intervention can only be conducted on a small scale.


Miles DavisMiles Davis
 has over 10 years of experience in ecotourism, sustainable tourism, pro-poor tourism and related issues, mainly conducted in the sector of international development and cooperation. Other issues worked on include environment, ICZM, food security and biodiversity. He has worked for a variety of public, private and non-profit initiatives, primarily from the UK, Italy and those with a global scope, ranging from small consultancies to UN agencies and a wide range of donors. Roles conducted include Project Manager, Researcher, Project Officer, Sustainable Tourism Advisor and a host of consultancies focusing on, amongst others, product development, training for tourism operators and service providers, content development for sustainable tourism operators' publications and websites and interpretive materials and resources. Mr Davis possesses a double major degree in tourism and marketing from his native United Kingdom, though currently lives in Italy. Career highlights so far include overseeing a striking increase in visitor numbers and setting up a network of village home-stays on Socotra island in Yemen and designing a 200km hike and bike trail and map in Montenegro. He has strived to concentrate his efforts on bringing long-term sustainability and ownership to communities and environments through

tourism by passing on skills, relaying knowledge and building capacity. Do you get a feeling that, despite the constant self-congratulatory (sometimes bordering on lyric) press releases of international tourism bodies, Tourism is still not taken seriously by international development agencies when it comes to poverty alleviation? Are they prejudiced, afraid of loosing funds as basic tourism infrastructure is cheap, or do they have a point?

Miles Davis: Although these two elements are undoubtedly connected, they are very separate. The fact that some tourism bodies like to pat themselves on the back is probably largely because they have to justify their existence, even more so if they are publicly funded. As international development agencies are largely publicly funded, I believe they are well versed in the rhetoric and communications employed by tourism bodies. Tourism can be implemented to aid poverty alleviation and can certainly be an engine of growth on both the local, regional and in some cases, national scale. Though it is true that tourism in itself is very fragmented and with lots of different issues at play depending on culture, economy, location, skills, market, etc which creates its own set of hurdles and so is difficult for development agencies to pinpoint targets. When international development agencies do implement tourism programmes and projects, they are usually relatively brief in time and narrow in scope and therefore leave little in the way of tangible legacies. Some in the sector would say the most pertinent reason as to why international development agencies do not take tourism so seriously, or rather, why very little funds are allocated to it, is that international development is increasingly being used as an investment tool by donor countries' governments and is implemented in exchange for favourable deals and/or prices in areas such as import/export, industry, energy, resources, etc, which is not workable if the intervention can only be conducted on a small scale. When private interests (land grab, maximum profits, kickbacks, votes) are dressed up with lofty goals (conservation, heritage preservation, job creation) how easy and how common is it for tourism consultants, who are best positioned to note inconsistencies, to speak up and risk losing future business?

Miles Davis: It is easy to speak up, though I do not know how common it is. It is a difficult topic. I know a few in the industry who have spoken up when finding untoward plans, activities and practices and then found the going difficult. Though what price conscience? Inconsistencies and vested interests are sometimes very well disguised and so easily overlooked. Based on your experience, are community ownership / worker-self-management and direct democratic decision-making in tourism projects still considered impractical and subversive ideas by tourism investors as well as national and international aid agencies promoting entrepreneurship?

Miles Davis: The approaches of tourism investors and national and international aid/development agencies is usually very different. From what I have seen, the majority of private sector investors tend to view co-op practices as cumbersome or unworkable and I am sure the fear of loosing control and/or direction is a factor. If national and international aid agencies have well thought out strategies and targets, co-op practices are very much favoured, particularly in the sectors of cultural and environmental tourism or in situations with no tourism experience and as a way of leaving a legacy of ownership which usually proves to be the foundation for the activity to be sustainable. Is there a practical way / rule of thumb for a community to prevent the donors' or developers' agenda taking precedence over its real needs? Some would argue that the whole package is a Trojan horse, once a community accepts external funding they are eternally doomed - dependent or even displaced.

Miles Davis: There is a plethora of tools and instruments, usually with snazzy acronyms, that can sometimes be helpful for a community and donor/developer to understand each others needs, concerns, experiences, etc. There is often a tendency that the donor/developer will ride roughshod over the community by proposing limited options or there will be a lack of understanding about the community's social, cultural or historical aspects that could lead to problems arising further down the line. The practical rule would be to ensure effective communication and understanding from start to finish, the human element if you like. You have worked in Socotra Island in Yemen, helping develop a village tourism network. Considering the not so tourist-friendly situation (or at least the public perception thereof) in continental Yemen, is there a point in developing peaceful enclaves in turbulent places for the future, even if nobody visits today?

Miles Davis: If we look at places blighted by conflict in the present and recent past, most have a niche tourism appeal, whether it be wildlife, landscapes, architecture, a sports activity, culture or history. Some places had viable tourism industries before conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan being the most obvious examples, and so plans can and should be formed to revive the tourism industry when conflict ceases. I believe tourism can also play a vital role in the recovery strategy of a troubled location that has no previous experience of tourism, thereby aiding conflict recovery strategies and doing its bit to kickstart an economy. There has always been and always will be those, however small in number, that will want to visit a place for a particular reason despite the dangers, but one has to hope that conflict, disaster or threat to life will not be a permanent state and plan accordingly. You have also worked in Montenegro and specifically in developing hiking and biking trails. Is there always direct transferable experience and knowledge and replicability from one project to another, from one community to another, in effect to learn from the mistakes of others, or is each case special? For example, do you feel that you directly transferred knowledge gained in Yemen to Montenegro?

Miles Davis: In terms of location, each case is definitely different for they hold their own sets of values, needs, limitations, skills, etc. What works with one particular location/audience/theme/group may not work with another because the intrinsic issues at play are different. In the case of transferring to Montenegro knowledge gained in Yemen, two very different assignments, I believe I succeeded in varying degrees by tweaking the delivery to suit the situation. It is very tempting to think that certain tasks and activities can be replicated. The reality is very different. There is no 'one size fits all' and mistakes do get made. If we look at this objectively and honestly, we need to facilitate the involved community/group/stakeholders to transfer knowledge to US about the issues mentioned above, thus allowing us to do a good job. Speaking of mistakes, what key mistakes did you do as a new consultant and through which process (e.g. by monitoring a project even after completion) did you realise that they were mistakes?

Miles Davis: My main mistakes probably stemmed from being too theoretical at the start and not being mindful enough about the social, environmental and cultural aspects of a given location or group at both the planning and implementation stages. I realised they were mistakes by speaking to the community members, colleagues and stakeholders involved. Such issues make themselves particularly evident when dealing with practical activities. It is something I learnt from. Are you overall satisfied with the way national and international tourism projects are allocated to consultants, in particular the level of transparency and accountability? Do you have any concrete proposals on how the system could be improved?

Miles Davis: Like any other sector dealing with tenders, bids, projects, sub-contracting, etc, there is a long way to go in terms of transparency and accountability. A lot of business gets done via reputation, word of mouth and networks. As eco and sustainable tourism development is a niche sector, many consultants tend to be very specialised, whether that be in marketing, services, training, infrastructure, environment, etc, etc. As the society, culture, and tourism needs and directions are different in each location, means that more frequently than not, just about every job is different and requires a defined level of skill and knowledge. This of course is true for just about any profession, though as our sector is already reduced, I can understand how some recruitment efforts can appear to lack transparency and is therefore not encouraging for those entering the sector. I am not sure of how the system could be improved as any effort would obviously add to bureaucracy and timeframes. Concerning accountability, at least on the part of the consultant, I am sure we have all heard stories of a consultants employer not publishing reports or being late in transferring funds for training courses, etc. The consultant is sometimes wrongly blamed in such circumstances. After all, it is in the consultants' interests to do a good job! It is up to the donor or funder, (public, private and non-profit sector) to ensure transparency and accountability and perhaps it is the responsibility of all stakeholders to put pressure on the donor or funder to this end. In the world of reporters, there is criticism of parachute journalism - journalists, sometimes well-known ones, who have no previous knowledge of a place and who become (or at least sound as) overnight experts for major media outlets. In the world of tourism, perhaps because tourism by definition involves travelling to new places, there is no audible criticism of parachute consultants. Should there be, also given that it is harder for the general public to spot and assess the work of a visiting consultant rather than that of a visiting journalist?

Miles Davis: Consultants usually have a very strict tasks to fulfil and, more often than not, are experts in a certain field or aspect of tourism. I am not sure how public feedback or criticism of a consultant's work would take shape. It is better to have the public's input during the planning stage of a project or initiative, before the consultant receives the job. There are a lot of variables in each job and project and so there would have to be ad-hoc public feedback, which would not be feasible or workable in all cases. Finally, what advice would you give to unemployed tourism graduates who cannot find full-time employment and ponder about embarking on a freelance consultant career?


Miles Davis: I think most freelance consultants are frequently in the position of chasing after work and usually have to do other things in the meantime. Though if you think it is your niche, then you should persist with it. Try to specialise in something. Keep abreast of what is going on in the particular sector you are interested in and make contacts. Thank you for your thought-provoking replies. It is clear that a lot has to be done until tourism projects are decided, run and funded by communities themselves, but there is hope when knowledgeable, well-meaning consultants are on their side.