The role of the UNDP Accelerator Labs is to explore ‘weak signals’ of key emerging issues with the potential for high development impact, and to map effective solutions to systemic and complex social issues while also experimenting before taking them to scale. To do this, the Labs rely on local communities to generate valuable population data that can steer them in the right direction towards achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) where we know that recent events have both stalled and reversed progress. But reports can tell us only so much. The information that data gives us, and the knowledge we gain is limited. If we go beyond data, then a different picture begins to emerge.
For example, the tourism sector in Mauritius, directly employs about 1 in 8 people. However, this figure does not speak to the many that fall outside of official statistics and yet contribute to and depend on the sector. For the past 7 months, the UNDP Mauritius Accelerator Lab has been exploring the tourism sector and has found a much wider ecosystem. The tourism ecosystem tends to have both formal and informal linkages to many other parts of the economy making it difficult to accurately capture essential information on how it works, who it benefits and how it is evolving. Yet, it remains important to understand what is happening to not only to draw conclusions but to capture trends, especially in the context of a drastically changing global tourism landscape.
Development pathways will be governed in the long-term by the choices countries make now. And these choices will need to be backed by the reality on the ground. A few months ago, the Lab gathered a group of diverse stakeholders in an exercise of Collective Intelligence. We learned at least three things – first, small businesses are struggling, second, many are pivoting towards alternative livelihoods and third, the current tourism model needs to become more inclusive of big and small operators. Despite these challenges, small business owners told us that they want to remain in tourism.
Weak signals are where the people are
It is clear that the world is increasingly relying on big data to make decisions, and yet (big) data continues to have several pockets of exclusion. For development policy to be inclusive of the societies it serves, it is important to collect data and information and generate knowledge from end users. We must listen to individual, and community needs and support spaces to iterate and adapt. Using the learning from our collective intelligence exercise, the Lab has continued to expand our data sources and map information to better understand the tourism ecosystem. We are expanding our knowledge and understanding by meeting with micro and small businesses across the island – from fisher communities to women producing 100 % natural and biodegradable plates made from palm leaves, all of whom depend on tourism for their livelihoods.
The knowledge and information that is shared through conversations with these communities is often excluded from official data, and if it is included it remains without the nuance of their lived experiences or context. For example, in the wake of both COVID-19 and the Wakashio Oil Spill in the Southeast of Mauritius in August 2020, small businesses in the region were heavily and doubly impacted. While they received support through existing governmental social assistance, this was not sufficient. Some were new small business owners who, prior to the pandemic, had taken significant loans to start their businesses. With economic activities coming to a complete halt as borders shut, these small businesses holders found themselves unable to pay their debt. As an alternative, in these communities some were quick pivot to other income generation, with one diving instructor becoming a temporary contractor, working with holiday-let owners to conduct renovation works in the absence of tourists and bookings.
Governmental cash assistance helped day to day living but did not address the full economic and social implications of the oil spill and lockdown. Investment is needed in re-skilling and upskilling as a preparedness measure that can enable communities to pivot – even for the short-term – to alternative livelihoods.
Tourism is more than the arrival of tourists on the island; it includes investment in infrastructure and services needed to attract and retain tourists. Such investment should be paired with equal investment in resilience building for communities that contribute to and depend on the sector.
The tourism ecosystem is witnessing a high level of change, sometimes, way faster than official data and machines can apprehend. Human experiences and their coping mechanisms are symbolic of the transformation occurring at the heart of tourism. Communities and people at the frontline of the tourism ecosystem are coping using varying means and methods. Their voices and experiences will define the future of tourism for Mauritius. The way forward is to promote inclusive and local data collection, information, and use, and more importantly, believe in the power of the crowd.
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