Destinations Makers Use Sustainable Tourism to Revive Neglected Italian Cities

Southern Italy's per capita GDP is 45.8 percent lower than Northern Italy's. Despite this alarming statistic, many Southern Italians believe that the unique beauty and overlooked potential of their country could sustain them financially through tourism alone.

Emma Taveri, co-founder of Destination Makers, is exploring strategies to make this vision a reality, and doing it in a way that strengthens local culture instead of diluting it. Taveri believes that tourism is intimately connected to the well-being of travelers and locals alike. But this vision to revive Southern Italy through sustainable tourism has come at a cost for her and her partner, Marco Gentile.

Unsatisfied with the dull routine of office jobs, the couple wondered if there was more to life than paper pushing. They wanted to change lives, develop a new destination model that helped struggling cities, and ensure real value for real people. Together, they took a leap of faith and risked stable jobs to make their dream a reality.

Brindisi Is My Destination was their first experiment in Apulian city of Brindisi, once known primarily as a hub for cigarette smuggling. It marked the start of their new career and spawned an exciting a new social enterprise. Destination Makers was born soon after building on what the couple learned in Brindisi. It’s a network of allies who share Taveri and Gentile's vision of "happy destinations" around the world.

I recently caught up with Emma Taveri, co-founder and dreams developer at Destination Makers, to learn more about their experiments in sustainable tourism.

Bloggers shopping at the market in Brindisi.

What is Brindisi Is My Destination? What problem does it address and how does it solve it?

Brindisi Is My Destination is a social innovation project established in 2013 with an aim to promote the development of a local community's human capital by transforming a troubled place into a potential travel destination.

Brindisi has long been a troubled place. Until about 15 years ago, it was a smuggling hub between Italy and the Balkans, and a place where young people had few ambitions and struggled to find work. No one wanted to stay here and, as soon as they finished school, they left to pursue a career or to simply find employment in a better location.

In the last 10 years, things have slowly started to change. We decided that we wanted to actively take part in Brindisi's transformation. Once we returned home, we started to see Brindisi with new eyes and we asked ourselves what we could do for this place. We noticed that it had the potential to be a sustainable travel destination and we decided to work on it.

Since 2013, we have undertaken over 10 different projects. We have found motivated locals to create new businesses and have had over a thousand people in our training programs. We have hosted several professional and trainee start-up projects in our destination development hub where every day we dream and act for a better future.

Our "destination office" is where we organize motivational training courses. Our team works on the start-up of tourism-related projects developed by young and passionate locals. We organize blogger experiences with international travel bloggers and visitors of Brindisi, as well as meet our local operators and producers to create unconventional promotional materials about their experiences.

What was the hardest moment in developing Brindisi Is My Destination and how did you turn it into an opportunity?

Our friend Annibale D'Elia, a social innovation guru here in Puglia, often talks about the "nil-nil theory" in which it is better to do nothing at all rather than do something that casts politicians in a bad light.

In the first instance, no one bothers to consider if there’s a better way of living or doing things. If, instead, individuals take a more pro-active approach and manage to inspire positive change, local governments are forced to rationalize and defend their own idleness in doing so.

Our hardest moments were when we had to relate to very conservative local governments. We had the fortune of meeting a few very inspiring people, but also had to face incredibly conservative, negative types that tried in every way to obstruct the regeneration process we were starting. Luckily, our team’s work and the support of the right community helped us to survive. We are here -- keeping positive and stronger than ever before.

What’s the funniest or most surprising thing that happened while working on Brindisi Is My Destination?

I met people that I admired and those whom I had followed for the awesomeness of their projects around the world. They would approach me with, "Wow, you're Emma from Brindisi Is My Destination! You guys are great! I really want to visit Brindisi." My response is always, "Really?!"

When we started, I never expected that our small idea could really inspire and interest such personalities. I find it funny because, at the end of the day, Brindisi is a city on the heel of Italy that is not widely known. I am just a regular, young dreamer that tries to do her best to share happiness and optimism in her life and work.

Just as Muhammad Yunus once said, "You don’t have to solve all the world problems. Focus on solving a problem for five people and that will go far." This is what is happening to me and to Brindisi and I am really thankful for it -- even on the hardest of days.

Emma Taveri and her father, who taught her to love Brindisi.

What are the greatest lessons you have learned?

Sadly, I learned that you hardly get anything for nothing. Even in social projects, everyone has their own ambitions, agendas, and expectations. You always have to understand who your interlocutors are, and the hardest challenge is to find those who share common ambitions and visions.

The second lesson learned is that there is a huge difference between those who want to change the world and those who do change the world. You can rely on few people, and it won't be easy to find them. But when you find the right ones, you're already half way there.

The third lesson (which is also a Walt Disney tagline) is, "If you can dream it, you can do it." Nothing can stop dreams from coming true if you work hard for a good cause.

Is Brindisi Is My Destination a replicable model?

From the very beginning of our adventure, we received several requests to replicate our model in similar destinations rendered powerless by local communities who were unconfident about enhancing their potential and who had been discouraged by the disastrous policies of their local government. These people just needed a path to follow and a model to learn from and Brindisi Is My Destination was the perfect solution.

What we look for is not difficult to find in these kind of communities: humility; a desire for improvement; a willingness to work hard, share knowledge and experiences, and co-operate with others to achieve the best possible result.

We replicated our formats and models in several places around Italy and Europe. The most frequent consequence is the creation of pro-active teams that work together on new projects, ideas, and start-ups.

Destination Makers was born in this way: We met many people just like us who were passionate about their territories but found it difficult to act and innovate. We decided to create a network between us and between our and their territories to share expertise, knowledge, and ideas about how to convert difficult places into "happy destinations." This is what has given us the positive energy to keep going and have faith that together we can convert the world into a better place.

With Destination Makers we proved that Brindisi Is My Destination is replicable. We can help to build up difficult areas all around the world plus communities that preserve local traditions and passions and convert them into travel experiences for visitors.

Young people usually don't see the potential of their territories and leave without even trying to change things or invest in their future there. Our international experts show them that sustainable tourism can be the way to live in these places and encourage young people to follow their passions in the meantime. Regular tourist experiences are not the models that we show, because they often don't start from passion, but from pure economical objectives. To build our ideal destination models, we focus on happiness, sustainability, and local traditions.

What is Destination Makers and how did it come to be?

The aim of Destination Makers is to transform lesser-known territories into happy destinations. The chance to improve the well-being and quality of life of residents are key attractions for the traveler to choose to visit a happy destination over another destination. Our enthusiastic and highly motivated team of local, national, and international experts work to support the development of these destinations by enhancing their potential through our innovative formats, ideas, and strategies.

It started when we left our corporate careers in 2013 and decided to go back to Puglia -- the "heel" of Italy. Our first project was an experiment in Brindisi: a place with a bad reputation and difficult circumstances in Southern Italy, which is also our hometown. We wanted to see Brindisi with new eyes and this is why we named the project Brindisi Is My Destination. It was to be a brand-new Brindisi for us, for locals, and for visitors.

The aim of our social innovation project was to help improve the human capital of the local community in order to generate a new sustainable economy based on the travel industry. We wanted to make Brindisi a happy destination.

We were overwhelmed to quickly discover that our vision to transform Brindisi was shared by local and international friends who had the same dream and ambition for their own beloved lands. This interest is how Destination Makers and the resulting network of local, national, and international professionals who work to develop more happy destinations was born.

In Destination Makers, we share our models and apply them to different territories. Our formats -- including Experience Lab, Blogger Experience, Mappiness -- may have started in Brindisi, but now they are developed by our experts in different places across Italy and everyone who is a part of our network remains actively engaged. We are also very interested in meeting new "destination makers" who want to share this vision with us.

An Experience Lab group gathered in Puglia.

Why is education essential to the process?

Education is essential! No happy destination would ever exist without a cultural transformation of the local communities involved. It's not just education -- but also motivation -- that is one of the key tools at the base of our bottom-up strategies.

With our training programs (Experience Labs) we motivate locals and teach them how to convert their passions into a sustainable future for themselves and their families. Quite often we build bonds of trust and long-lasting connections between our destination makers and the communities involved in order to support them along the way.

Who are your local stakeholders and how do you create a common vision with them?

Our projects have been developed in cooperation with local public bodies and tourism operators. We chose to work only with honest, reliable, and passionate stakeholders. We could not do so otherwise as intellectual honesty is essential to our brand identity. Often they have different needs and expectations, but we brought them together around the idea of a better place for their beloved families and children.

Another crucial point that usually interests our stakeholders is the possibility of tying their name or brand with a social project; they improve their brand awareness by supporting an innovative project for the well-being of the local community.

How do you share knowledge and foster collaboration in the Destination Makers programs?

We invited national and international experts who employed the best practices to demonstrate that there was a different and better way to do things and that it, too, was possible for Brindisi.

During our workshops, they share new collaboration methods which communities can use to develop their ideas and start-ups. Our Destination Makers motivators are very much insistent on employing an idea taken from an African proverb: "If you want to go fast, you can go alone. If you want to go far, you need to go together."

We strongly believe that innovation needs to be the primary focus of our training courses. We try to share our vision with local communities and stakeholders through creative thinking sessions and team-building experiential workshops. Hands-on labs are fundamental to creating a link between people in the community; a bottom-up approach is needed to have everyone involved in the strategy to be applied to a destination maker. We figured out that, if everyone takes part in the process, the engagement brings new and positive energy to the project and small and mid-sized enterprises develop together practical solutions for their own and shared development.

How did you start making change?

When we came home to Brindisi, we could not accept the idea of simply living in a place without even trying to improve things. Gandhi's quote resounded in our minds: "Be the change you wish to see in the world" (which also became the motto for Destination Makers). We began by trying to figure out who to talk to, who to involve, who to connect to, and to find the appropriate funds to make our dream a reality.

In Brindisi, it started from us, whereas when we replicate the model in other destinations, it's the local community that act as we did, only under our guidance. It's unbelievable, but we truly are becoming the change we wanted to see here and we are inspiring others to do the same in their communities.

For instance, in the Gargano region -- another southern territory facing many difficulties -- we analyzed possible threats to their tourism income. We found that the big players did not have a sustainable strategy and only made low or no positive impact on the territory, and that the small and medium players didn’t have any knowledge or strategy of how to approach the complex and ever-changing market.

We worked hard on pushing the small players’ collaboration, trying to interrupt the “big fish eats small fish” paradigm and instead proposing a “many small fishes together are a big fish” model.

By working with the small and medium players we found creative solutions to generate a more sustainable and quality tourism income by creating targeted experiences that enhanced the original and exclusive value of their businesses. The small players were involved in the process from the initial market data analysis all the way up to experience design, learning how to exploit valuable market niches targeting their travel offers while respecting local tradition and product originality.

Finally, we were able to involve a local tourism player with a great reputation as a successful local businessman who is now keeping the Destination Makers program in mind in many decisions within the local development. It’s important to sow the right seeds and involve those people who make a difference locally. Usually, when we first meet them, they feel that they might have to go it alone, but we surround them with innovators and thinkers that leave them with a new energy, strategic vision to use locally, and a mindset that they have a responsibility to involve others. We facilitate bottom-up management and introduce them to international case studies that are suitable for their territory.

Destination Makers' headquarters team -- the center of a global network of destination makers. Emma's co-founder Marco Gentile is pictured far left. Emma is behind the yellow dot.

How do low-income areas benefit from Destination Makers?

Our projects focus on local traditions and the passion of residents. We believe that most destinations already have a strong potential and power; there is not necessarily a need for conspicuous investments.

We firmly believe that local governments should insist more upon developing the human capital of its communities. People have dreams, ambitions, and hopes, and everyone wants to be happy and be able to live in their hometown. Sometimes they just need the right input, motivation, support, and guidance.

By collaborating with local communities, we also try to create a new, positive identity for a particular destination in order to communicate to potential visitors the importance of its transformation and the motivation behind its improvement. The result of an aggregate of passionate people in these destinations is truly unimaginable, and we are always very much amazed and proud when it does happen.

What positive social or economic role can tourism play in Southern Italy?

As established by Il Sole 24 Ore (the leading Italian economics and finance media), the GDP per capita in Southern Italy is 45.8 percent lower than in the north of the country. On the flip side, the most common statement made among Southern Italian inhabitants is that they could live off tourism alone.

There are several barriers between the reality and this ideal situation. They lie in the behavior of local governments and frequent political corruption, as well as the passiveness and negativity of the local community who share an unfortunate widespread belief that one's future is dependent upon someone else.

On the plus side, there are many intelligent and passionate people here willing to learn and work in our field. If correctly pushed and encouraged, the regions of Southern Italy could benefit immensely from tourism. They could seize the opportunity to tie visitor's arrivals with cultural improvement and secure business opportunities with international and national tourists.

We have several international airports connected with European hubs utilized daily by low-cost carriers. With the support of sustainable tourism strategies by local governments, social improvement and economic growth would be a natural consequence of the arrival of motivated and mindful visitors.

What’s next for Destination Makers and how can people get involved?

A new project is soon to commence. We are about to develop our model in six European countries thanks to the COSME fund.

In addition to Italy, the countries taking part in our latest project include Greece, Croatia, UK, Spain, and France. Anyone else who wishes to be involved is welcome to get in touch via email at ask@destination-makers.com.

Another project we care a lot about is the new pursuit of XFERRY, our family company. During the years of creating happy destinations, we realized the importance of the connections between these lands (which require access by ferry) and the rest of the world -- not only for tourism, but also for training and work-related matters. Often reaching these places, or even booking transportation for them, can be exceptionally difficult, especially for small, isolated islands.

Together with our passionate team members founded in the Brindisi community, we decided to transform our off-line family company into a brand-new ferry comparison and booking platform. Our aim is to make it easier for travelers to book a ferry to even the most difficult to reach islands. We are considering adding sharing economy tools to this endeavor in the future, too. Everyone who is passionate about travelling by ferry can get involved by writing me at hello@xferry.com.

Translation by Nicole Stojanovska.

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