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For the travel industry at large to truly embrace sustainability, it must work alongside communities as stakeholders, and not as mere projects and beneficiaries of tourism.

Arguing against the short-sighted view that the community should merely have a seat at the table or be referred to as a third party, John De Fries, the first native Hawaiian to head the Hawaii Tourism Authority, told the Skift Destination and Sustainability Summit Wednesday, “I’ve concluded that the community is the table and the community issues the invites.”

“The community walks in daily into every one of our tourism enterprises and makes every one of them operational — without them there is no tourism operation,” De Fries added.

Denaye Hinds, managing director of JustaTaad, a sustainability consultancy firm and a board member for the Center for Responsible Travel, concurred and spoke of how she’s applied her experience in the hospitality building industry and engineering to erase historic silos in sustainable tourism to involve the community and elicit their ideas and feedback at every juncture.

Lebawit Lily Girma, Skift’s global tourism reporter, led this discussion on “Strengthening the Relationship Between Communities and Tourism.”

In developing tourism sustainably and rebuilding the industry, it is essential to ensure “communities are involved in this process because they are the lifeblood of what happens,” Hinds said. “They are the ones who understand whether or not this makes sense or if it doesn’t.”

But it isn’t enough to invite the community to get involved and then to end it there, Hinds said, adding that community members should be able to provide their ideas and feedback in a cyclical manner at every step along the way.

De Fries agreed that in Hawaii and other places around the world communities “are not going to be spectators to their own future nor should they be.”

He said at almost every community meeting in Hawaii, the first issue that people raise is whether it is possible to cap the number of flights or passenger seats that come into the state. He added that’s difficult because the right to travel is basically ensconsced in the U.S. Constitution.

In Maui, he said, the Hana highway is overcrowded as tourists stop along the way to take photos of picturesque vistas. Collaborating with multi-jurisdictional agencies has been key in controlling and curbing this behavior.

The biggest challenge is to educate visitors, De Fries said, about how to be safe and community-friendly.

For Hinds, tourism starts before getting on the plane and taking that trip, and getting that responsible message across to future visitors is where the opportunity also lies as far as including communities in marketing messaging, Hinds said.

“Test, ideate and look at different solutions in approaching sustainable tourism – don’t count communities out.”

De Fries, who has led Hawaii tourism’s new regenerative tourism campaign, as well as opened up community discussions to craft destination management action plans across the archipelago’s multiple tourism hubs, the seam between the tourism as an industry and the community is artificial.

“Get over it and begin to see this holistically because some of the best ideas reside in the community population that you employ.”

No doubt, it’s an unapologetic and honest approach to destination management that helped improve the latest scores on Hawaii’s most recent independent resident sentiment survey on tourism.

Photo Credit: Hawaii Tourism Authority CEO John De Fries said communities must be treated as the most important players in tourism – not as third parties. Erik Cooper / Flickr.com