Did you know that Montenegro is mentioned in Dante’s Inferno? It turns out that in a small northern town located on the river banks of the UNESCO protected river Tara, 13th Century King Uros II “earned” a place in the eighth circle of hell for manufacturing replicas of Venetian coins and passing them off as his own.
There are many more hidden gems (both natural and cultural) in the country’s northern region, which is also the most underdeveloped. And yet, while Montenegro gets some 1.5 million visitors a year (and this number is growing), only five to seven percent of them venture to the country’s north.
The relatively marginalized population and the unique biodiversity are both integral parts of UNDP’s mandate. So with my team we started to wonder: is there a way to use social networking to reach 1.5 million tourists, attract them to Montenegro’s protected areas for a one or two day trip and inspire them to try out goods and services the local population offers?
We recognize of course that successfully attracting potential visitors would create the need for investment in infrastructure, conservation programmes and more diversified goods and services – in other words, aligning economic and environmental policy.
Could social networking help in that respect, too? Could we for instance track (with their consent!) where the toursits go and feed the information back to local municipalities to improve infrastructure, and to local businesses to offer better targeted goods and services?
We don’t have a solution at the moment, but in the meantime we’d like to test a location-based social networking service like, say, foursquare to empower local communities to generate their own tourism content, and offer some new experiences not featured in mainstream marketing.
We’ve chosen four groups of graduate students who are currently taking a course called Public Participation and Protected Areas and teamed them up with local communities to venture out in the North of Montenegro to identify four compelling stories from the region.
They will narrate their stories through lists of things to do, places to see, and experiences to try, with unique tips about cultural, historical and outdoors things to do.
Our idea of using geolocation services for promoting tourism is not unique. You can follow Mayor Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, Florida and the state of Pennsylvania also partners with foursquare for tourism. We came across some fairly high profile examples from Mexico and Japan, too.
We have a hunch that social media could play a role in linking people who wish to experience something different with people who are economically disadvantaged, living in beautiful protected areas and who want to offer these types of activities.
So far, we identified some potential drawbacks:
- Geolocation services have a still relatively limited penetration outside of the US.
- Internet access in the targeted regions is limited to WI-FI areas and the rest is mainly only satellite, so the cost reduces the likelihood of usage especially if the user is already roaming.
- A project like this is likely to raise expectations that need to be managed; and if it is perceived as a failure it is likely to reduce the chances of similar initiatives in the future.
On the other hand, we can also see some obvious benefits:
- The project between the students and the local community will generate new stories about little advertised destinations in Montenegro.
- It will introduce a new means of harnessing community activism, provide new avenues for entrepreneurship and marketing, and eliminate the need for an intermediary between tourists and local communities.
- Geolocation services seem like a natural fit for the tourism industry and Montenegro could position itself strategically on that front.
- By potentially unleashing the fastest growing niche in tourism (ecotourism), this initiative can stimulate investment in a variety of services, including infrastructure, Internet access and conservation programmes.
So, that’s where we are with our brainstorming! We’re sharing these early ideas with you in case you might have any experiences to share, skills to contribute or might be interested in partnering with us to explore this concept further. We’d love to hear from you!