Can Mass Tourism Be A Force For Good?
In 2012 we reached a major milestone, never seen before: 1 billion international tourists across the twelve-month period. In 2019 we got to that figure in less than 9 months. If you then count the number of tourists who are exploring their own country (domestic travel represents 73% of total tourism spend globally), it’s clear that tourism’s scale is unprecedented, vast… and still growing.
It’s also big business. Generating USD $1.7 trillion in revenues in 2018, international tourism remains the third largest export category behind fuels and chemicals.
In this context, destinations are struggling to cope and there are now too many examples across the globe where the cracks have surfaced: where residents have taken to the streets in protest, attractions have been closed to tourists or restrictions put in place, resources like housing and infrastructure have become stressed, and environments have been polluted.
Tourism has long been held up as a force for good, and this can often be true from an economic perspective, providing much needed jobs and investment. But it is rarer to find examples where tourism is a force for conservation, cultural preservation or social wellbeing. We need to find a way to balance this so that tourism benefits more local people and protects the local environment.
So what should be done? It’s tempting to assume the answer lies in rejecting package travel in favour of small group tours, locally owned hotels or guesthouses, and getting off the beaten track. We’d agree with that up to a point, but there are two problems: 1) it’s not realistic to expect everyone to travel like that, and 2) even if they did, this would simply disperse the problem, adding vulnerability to communities which may be even less prepared to manage impacts. For instance, consider how much easier it is to manage the environmental impacts of hundreds of tourists when they stay in one large hotel. This is because that hotel benefits from economies of scale, so it can more readily invest in sophisticated monitoring systems and the latest green technologies.
“Our mission is to reimagine and reconfigure tourism in its various forms to increase its benefits and minimise its impacts.”
In Jamaica we are working with the TUI Care Foundation to spread the benefits of tourism to more small businesses and entrepreneurs. Tourism is the main engine of growth for the Jamaican economy, but as tourists often don’t stray from the comfort of their all-inclusive hotels, many local people do not get the opportunity to benefit directly. By exploring outside their hotels and spending money with small local businesses, for example on gifts, activities and food, tourists can contribute to the local economy and help spread the benefits of tourism.
We focused initially on Montego Bay. Our Crafting Livelihoods project helped to support artisans and market traders at the Harbour Street craft market to improve the visitor experience and increase footfall and sales. This included training and marketing support for 250 craft traders and six local government tourism trainers in how to deliver our programme so that they can continue to support craft traders here and in other markets around the country.
Knowing that the main reason given for not leaving an all-inclusive hotel was that “it has everything I need”, we also set about to improve communications about what’s on offer out and about. Through our Warm Welcome campaign we created a new pocket map and guide to the local area and provided training for hotel staff and tourist police to become ‘Resort Ambassadors’, enabling them to promote what’s on offer in the local area.
As a result, 14,000 more tourists each month visited an attraction that they wouldn’t otherwise have visited, and 400% more tourists visited the Harbour Street craft market – with customer spend up by 50%.
Now we are expanding our reach beyond Montego Bay with the ‘Big Up Small Business’ initiative, where 150 small businesses across Jamaica are set to receive support to create opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect to the tourism sector.
The benefit of working with mainstream destinations is that you can have a big impact. As the UN’s World Tourism Organization said back in 2012: “one billion tourists, one billion opportunities”.