In 2021, I developed the Ethnobotany Checklist for the EU inter-regional project on local tourism development on the Adriatic coast and I am still working on a funded project to develop tourism in Slovenia and Croatia. I aim to explain how ethnobotany can serve as a basis on which to generate additional place-based narratives, offering opportunities for destinations to extend the tourism shoulder, and reap the longer-term benefits this can bring.
To know one’s place
I am interested in knowledge and the value of knowledge with reference to the tourism and hospitality industries. I have worked at a corporate level in public bodies and small organisations, such as local ethnography museums in towns such as Okehampton, Newquay and the Torre Abbey Museum in Torquay, interpreting and recording cultural heritage.
I have developed knowledge management systems for museums, collecting stories and narratives built on local people sharing their tacit knowledge. I have developed ways in which the documentation and information owned by small museums and local history groups, documenting a rich and bygone history and heritage, can be shared across the globe, often in an online ethnopole such as a free google site system.
Small museums with access to limited funds often struggle to overcome the barriers presented by funding and installing computerised systems. We can build a knowledge management system that is easy and cost effective to maintain with volunteers.
A place for everything
Another area of my work has involved exploring ways to create engaging content for marketing campaigns, narratives and other non-fiction writing. The travel writer acts as a catalyser, seeking to engage people with a place, maybe through excitement or an emotional response, to create a connection that will spur them to visit.
People can remember places through their emotional responses. Travel writers are co-creating the experience economy and exploring social sensibilities. How do we make choices? Are these rational or emotional ones? Can we store sensibility in text? Can we store that emotional feeling and appeal to our audience through writing text and literature?
Today’s literary travel writers will incorporate literary tools and techniques in their writing and seek to engage with people in an emotional space. This is a way of valuing cultural heritage, lived through the emotions of the visiting travel writer who is in contact with a city or town’s residents and interacting with them multiple times a day.
Fall into place
I have also worked with the hospitality industry, engaging with hoteliers in chic resorts and fashionable retreats as well with small boutique hotels, many of which are family businesses.
I work to help build their story and sense of place, to root their business in its surrounding historical and geographical environment. I have also designed workshops teaching people the process in order to do this for themselves. The creative process involves engaging with people and exploring the local area, investigating how their business connects with it and the multiple ways a traveller can engage with and experience a place such as through food, music, history or the countryside.
People can create walking routes through a townscape that do not necessarily coincide with the tourism product. This re-storying and re-authoring process offers a revised narrative that – embedded with new personal meaning and emotion – results from the experience.
For holidaymakers, the centre of the city, and the pivot around which their experience unfolds, is often their hotel (or these days their Airbnb accommodation!) For day trippers it may be the railway or bus station, or the pier or quay. These diverse routes for exploration construct different narratives for the same place.
Ethnobotany: time and place
A specific area of interest for me is ethnobotany. This is the study of a region’s plants and their practical uses governed by local lore, knowledge, rituals and traditions. On a trip to Cherbourg in Normandy, France, I discovered an agricultural and production process that has been erased from the city of Cherbourg but remains in its hinterland; growing pears and perry making.
Perry is a wine-like drink made from pears or apples. In Cherbourg and the surrounding region, it has become a cultural product to share and enjoy, much like some of our West Country ciders or local craft beers, which visitors can enjoy in their landscape of cultivation and production. My study explored how the local population processed the pear crop to make perry, from the fermentation of the fruit sugars to the malo-lactic fermentation.
The perry-making narrative not only describes a lost art but also explains local land use. Pear and apple orchards dotted across a beautiful landscape based largely on the meadow orchard system. Products yielded from the land complemented each other; this led to the creation of branded products for pear growers of this specific region.
A job for all seasons?
Understanding a region’s ethnobotany can help visitors engage with an area more deeply. Creating narratives is often linked to finding the right season for promotion. It can also bring greater economic benefits.
Perry, like wine, takes time to mature. While the crops are harvested in autumn, the wine is not ready until the following spring. This is when the Perry festival is held and the first drinking of the previous year’s crop takes place. Perry production can be connected to the tourism shoulder; the harvesting and tasting of the perry is of interest to Cherbourg’s visitors; perry making can extend the tourist season from early spring until late autumn.
Extending the season of interest can make people’s lives and livelihoods more sustainable. Tourism is a notoriously seasonal industry. Work in the tourist industry is often low paid and low skilled. This presents a real challenge in places like the South West. Once the season is over, people get laid off. This has a hugely detrimental effect on families, communities and the local economy.
Ethnobotany can help us identify ways in which the offer to tourists can be expanded throughout the seasons. By broadening the tourism shoulder, more people can earn a living through tourism for more months of the year. It also makes tourism a more attractive and sustainable career choice. People can earn a better wage and are more likely to be able to provide for themselves and their families. This could be a real game-changer for regions like ours.