Thirty years ago, while backpacking to Australia, I trekked into Nepal’s Mt Everest National Park. It changed my life. Awestruck by the majesty of the highest mountains on earth and the warmth of local people, I didn’t want to leave.
During a three-month stay on my return to the UK 10-months later, I learned the easiest way to live in this extraordinary place was on a student visa. With some dogged determination and serendipity, in January 1993 I enrolled on a UK Master’s programme to research ecotourism and moved back to the Everest region for a year. The more I walked through these once remote valleys, studied and talked to local people, the more I became fascinated by the concept of tourism as vehicle for development.
In 1997 I graduated with a PhD and, ever since, I’ve worked as a tourism planner advising governments, local communities and destination managers around the world, including in Bhutan, on tourism development issues.
A couple of years ago, I went back to the Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park. I was asked to accompany ethnic leaders from Myanmar’s far-north, the eastern-most end of the Himalayas, on a study tour. The aim was to build local support for the nomination of their homelands, around the Hkakaborazi National Park, to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The trip got me thinking.
As ever, the place was stunning and the locals warm and super friendly. I was especially inspired by so much positive change. The deforestation and littering common-place thirty years earlier had been left in the past.
Sherpa communities are heavily engaged in all aspects of their development. Not just tourism through lodges, trekking companies, tea-shops, handicrafts and local airlines, but also in education, forestry, waste management, water supply and hydro-electricity. In an age where overtourism is a growing buzzword, it really struck me that the foundations of the highly successful tourism model that surrounded me, were grounded in support for community well-being through ecosystems health, heritage site integrity, a quite profound schooling system, good governance and individual happiness.
A few months later, after completing a Happiness Index survey that measures individual and community well-being, I co-founded Planet Happiness.
Planet Happiness, a project of the non-profit the Happiness Alliance, focuses upon two issues: growing global interest in the happiness and well-being agenda; and, an urgent need to take host community engagement in tourism destination planning to the next level. It’s made all the more interesting by the need to address issues surrounding overtourism, and while it might fail in the months ahead, on the other hand it just might expand beautifully and help us all move Beyond GDP towards new, happier, more resilient societies and economies.
I first learned about Gross National Happiness in 2002, when I was asked to review Bhutan’s tourism system. Ten years later, following Bhutan’s ground-breaking work with the UN to pass a Resolution on Happiness signed by the UN 193 member states, I was privileged to be invited to a “High-level Meeting on Happiness and Well-being: towards a new development paradigm” at the UN in New York. It was high level too!
Among the 800 or so participants, I found myself rubbing shoulders with Prime Ministers, their deputies and heads of cabinet. I learned so much. Not least that Happiness and Well-being can be measured, both objectively and subjectively. Objective measures and screening tools increasingly guide government policy around the world including, for example, a new system of governance in the UAE and New Zealand’s latest budget. Meanwhile subjective measures arguably offer the best approach to global, mass education to help explain what is meant by happiness and well-being. Including how it’s composed of around 11 or so domains.
All you have to do, to understand the basics, is take a 10-15min on-line survey called the Happiness Index. Once completed, one-page score-cards are downloaded comparing individual results across 11 domains, with all other survey takers. Score-cards can be easily shared, compared and discussed with friends and families on social media.
In the same way, by deploying the survey on-line in multiple languages, it’s possible to download one-page score-cards profiling the well-being of host communities in tourism destinations. One-page score-cards and the BIG DATA behind them can be used to engage host communities in conversations to determine how tourism should be used, as a vehicle for development, to strengthen the happiness of host communities. In this way tourists, tourism businesses and governments can be guided by the results towards policies, actions and activities that strengthen destination well-being.
As a tourism planner, I can see how this approach can make destination planning more inclusive, engaging and purposeful. I also believe that by targeting World Heritage sites, that are especially vulnerable to overtourism and the negative impacts of the world’s largest, most labour-intensive industry, there’s an opportunity to start new conversations across continents and cultures about what we truly value. Because we know it isn’t GDP. In our hearts we know it’s happiness, smiling faces, companionship, partnership and eudaimonia that we all strive for. And maybe, just maybe, if we focus from the local to the global upon conversations about happiness and well-being practice, science and policy, we can guide ourselves, our governments and corporate leaders towards Planet Happiness.