Can tourism have positive impacts beyond employment and profit?


Tramps and hobos travel from place to place and stay away overnight, but they are not tourists; they are not temporarily staying away from home; they do not have one to return to. Tourists are defined by the accommodation they pay for, or they are hosted by friends or relatives, VFR in the jargon.

Over the last decade, more policymakers, destination managers and researchers have broadened their focus to address the visitor economy, including tourists and day visitors. All those who are travelling into the destination, tourists visitors, the visitors may be travelling to or from home for the day or staying in tourist accommodations elsewhere.

This change of focus to the visitor economy is significant because it emphasizes the economic impacts. Tourism is valued for the additional spending in the local economy, revenues for accommodation and transport providers, retail, attractions and leisure activities. At the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards launch in 1994, Sir Colin Marshall, then chair of British Airways, defined the tourism and travel industry as “…essentially renting out for short-term lets of other people’s environments…”. The rent is collected by the businesses which provide transport, accommodation, food and beverage and retail, those businesses benefit from the temporary residents but generally make no greater contribution to the maintenance of the destination than other businesses – although we do now begin to see taxes and levies being imposed on guests through accommodation providers.

Some retail offers motivate travel; think of Christmas markets or New York described recently in The Telegraph as “a veritable shopper’s paradise.” Paradise is a word more often attached to gardens or tropical beaches. It is rare, but not unknown, for accommodation, transport and food and beverage to motivate travel. Some hotels, food, wine and beer festivals motivate people, as do some forms of travel, think steam trains and Concorde.

Mostly travel and tourism are about consumption, with tourism businesses providing services to travellers, tourists and day visitors. The sustainable tourism agenda has widened from reducing negative environmental impacts to increasing local economic impact by improving employment practices and sourcing locally. These are scalable positive impacts that explain the traditional focus on arrival numbers rather than economic value and yield, although that too changes as concern over overtourism increases.

Attractions are of two kinds, those which can change admission and those that cannot. Where there is an admission charge, the visitor contributes to the maintenance of the attraction, and it may be possible to generate revenue to restore and regenerate the place. Visitors may be encouraged to donate to a restoration or conservation fund to purchase art or to extend or enrich a collection. However, many museums are free toe enter or priced to be accessible to communities significantly less wealthy than tourists.

When we looked in detail at the impacts of tourism in national parks in India, Indonesia and Zimbabwe in the 1990s we found that the entrance fees paid by tourists made little or no contribution to the ‘existence value’ of the park or its management for conservation – most of the fees were swallowed in managing and clearing up after the visitors. There was no discernible contribution to regeneration – I know of no evidence to suggest that tourism is now funding regeneration in national parks, although it is in some privately owned game areas and conservancies. There are examples where the tourism sector supports an ecological restoration project, for example, the Burrenbeo Trust through its Burren Pine project, which is supported and promoted by tourism businesses in the area.

Responsible Tourism has been committed from the beginning to using tourism to “make better places for people to live in” and to visit. But locals, their wellbeing and their natural and cultural environment come first. The 2002 Cape Town Declaration  on Responsible Tourism in Destinations championed tourism that

  • “makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity;
  • provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;
  • and is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence.”

These same objectives are reaffirmed and extended to include contributions to “lived cultures and cultural monuments” in the 2022 Responsible Tourism Charter launched on Magna Carta Island last November

Responsible Tourism embraces regenerative tourism – there is still far too little of it.

Tourism remains extractive, far from being net positive. We need to change faster and step up to make a difference.


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