The Invisible Burden: Understanding the Impact of Tourism on Communities

Jeremy starts by explaining that what we are experiencing now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build back better.

Covid-19 has decimated travel and tourism with deep-lasting impacts that even now we can't really begin to understand. Some businesses closed forever, communities have changed and behaviour has shifted.

Jeremy starts by explaining that what we are experiencing now is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build back better.

Covid-19 has decimated travel and tourism with deep-lasting impacts that even now we can't really begin to understand. Some businesses closed forever, communities have changed and behaviour has shifted.

Jeremy shares a vision of the future:

Imagine a world where tourism is a force for good, a world where tourism communities are put at the centre of the agenda and their needs and the needs of the destination are put at the core.

Tourism transcends different areas, sectors and economic activities, unlike any other industry.

It is widely accepted that we need to build back better, but what does that really look like?

Can't public and private strategy be shaped by a shared agenda? How can we drive that and make it happen? How can we address sustainability head-on without just tinkering around the sides as we have been doing? This is why the Travel Foundation led a new initiative with the Future Tourism Coalition with the goal of reframing what success looks like whilst putting tourism and communities at the centre of the destination's future. This simple initiative is something that hundreds of signatories have already signed up to.

Their aim is to encourage greater collaboration between businesses and the public sector, with a community behind that determined to make tourism a force for good and a development priority. To do this, success needs to be reframed around new KPIs, such as quality of life, equity for communities, environmental benefits and impact and many more. Transitioning to this, however, requires a new approach to destination management, as we see many shifts from marketing to management. Really embracing this needs a bigger movement - not only an isolated few -  who really shows how things can be done.

Destinations in the future need to ensure that residents and communities are at the heart of their mandate and set a new vision for what success looks like.

Marketing has traditionally defined the DMO's success, with growth being the target and the mandate and visitor numbers and spend being the primary success metrics, along with GDP and contribution to the economy.

In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of some of the pitfalls of this strategy, where there is a so-called leakage of the benefits of tourism. This has driven DMOs to think differently, to think about seasonality, sustainability and experience development with a bigger focus on positive impact. Nevertheless, these new strategies still generally focus on prioritising growth, whilst at the same time, there is a rising tide of those starting to define 'quality' as success metrics. Nonetheless, very often, quantity is still an overarching target, not quality.

The fundamental issue we find as an industry is that tourism is viewed as a set of assets, without much consideration of the rest of the system, such as the environmental impact, the infrastructure impact and society. In other areas, 'the burden' is rarely taken into account and whilst this has eased with restrictions on travel, we know that this is only set to return. In fact, during the pandemic, some destinations which didn't experience over-tourism, such as rural locations, have actually seen a doubling of visitors.

We need to take this opportunity to truly redefine what tourism means to a community. Recent work with Tenerife showed some quite surprising results, with specific sectors impacted in unexpected ways. It emerged that there are issues related to resources or economic leakage; whereas certain sectors benefited in ways that were unforeseen. Destinations need to be more aware of 'the invisible burden', being able to detect and identify the true impact of tourism on societies.

With some asking these questions, we need to revisit 'what is quality' and 'what is value'. Critically, who decides what value and quality are and how do we involve communities in this definition? This is a move towards destination stewardship alongside community and quality of life. It's not just a move from marketing to management, but a move from 'destination' thinking to 'place' thinking, where we see the 'place' and the modern role it place for different communities who play a role in it. Considering 'place' allows tourism to have a seat at the table, to be taken seriously in discussions about the role tourism plays in culture, infrastructure and local society etc. It doesn't mean expanding their expertise or remit beyond what is core to their work, but it is about finding a mandate to have a voice and a role to play in shaping this.

The Travel Foundation is working on ways to accelerate destination stewardship as a driver for recovery. Pushing the public and private sectors to really focus on destination needs is key to intensify all the drivers of collaboration and make them successful in the long-run. In the short-run, there are already drivers which exist, such as the increasing importance of tourism on the political agenda, shown through the impact of 'under-tourism'. Aspects which have been brought about by the pandemic, related to the need for more space, the need for social distancing and a different way of experiencing destinations has really shown us a different approach. The importance of community, employment, prosperity and collaboration have all been exposed as key drivers as we look at trends towards destination stewardship.

Looking across the globe at a wide range of destinations, from cities to rural destinations to island destinations, we see a commonality in recognising some key observations: there is the need to address the issues of tourism when it does start to recover. There's also growing recognition on things like visitor flows and the impact on local infrastructure.

In conclusion, the Destination Organisations of the future need to be thinking about the following priorities:

  • Place-based vision with KPIs linked to the broader impact on the product and place
  • Shifting mandate: different sectors coming together, smarter use of data to understand the impact
  • New roles and capacities in order to tackle and manage tourism better
  • Funding developments will enable new structures and models to take place

Key Takeaways

1. The DMO of the future needs to ensure that residents and communities are at the heart of their mandate and set a new vision for what success looks like.

2. Take 'the burden' into account even if this has eased with restrictions on travel, because we know that it is set to return.

3. Learn and act to detect and identify the true impact of tourism on societies.

4. Move from 'destination' thinking to 'place' thinking: considering 'the place' allows tourism to have a seat at the table, to be taken seriously in discussions about the role it plays in culture, infrastructure and local society.

5. When you plan your recovery, address the past and current issues of tourism and do not consider them as solved without really tackling them.

Published on:
November 2020
About the contributor

Jeremy Sampson

Jeremy Sampson is the CEO of the Travel Foundation, a leading NGO in the travel and tourism sector. Under Jeremy's leadership, the Travel Foundation is working with travel companies and destinations to better understand the impacts of tourism and maximise its benefits for local people and the environment.