On April 19th, Jeremy Smith’s post on the WTM London blog, When will the tourism industry start talking sensibly about growth? generated a flurry of shares and the beginnings of a debate within the Responsible Networking Group on Facebook.
Thank you Jeremy for raising the question. It isn’t that individuals have not been asking this question for many years but, somehow, we’ve failed to kick start an industry-wide debate. Perhaps this time it’s different. I sure hope so because the future of tourism depends on it and here’s why.
- The challenges facing humanity in general and the tourism/hospitality sector in
particular stem from a failure to recognize that the current version of the economic system has, contained within it, structural and systemic flaws that result in success (as in continued growth) becoming the cause of its own demise.
- As far as destinations are concerned growth is currently defined in quantitative terms (more visitors, more spending, more GDP, more jobs) but NOT in terms of net positive outcome for all stakeholders involved including residents and hosts.In short, success is defined as “more” not as “better” regardless of how that better is distributed among stakeholders.
- Furthermore the full range of the environmental and social costs of tourism/hospitality is not measured with the same diligence as gross economic impact; nor are tourism suppliers required to pay for many of the external costs that affect the commons. (Recent research by Truecost has shown that, if most sectors were required to pay the true cost of production & consumption, they would go broke)
- There is no dependable evidence that future growth can be adequately de-coupled from resource use and harmful waste generation nor that host populations will tolerate more visitors beyond a subjectively appraised “carrying capacity.”On the contrary – research undertaken by Professors Gossling & Peters* argue that resource use outstrips all efforts at sustainability.
If tourism growth continues unabated, tourism will use up the world’s entire carbon budget within 40 years.
Dr Peters in Keeping Tourism’s Future within a Climatically Safe Operating environment.
Furthermore, as colourfully described in articles such as Refugees Welcome Tourist Go Home, the Spectator article by Sean Thomas I have seen the future of tourism and it is designed to keep you out , that prompted Jeremy Smith’s question, the documentary Gringo Trails, Elizabeth Becker’s Overbooked and Leo Hickman’s Last Call, resident tolerance is declining rapidly as visitor numbers in specific hotspots increase.
- We’re in danger of assuming that, due to the rising number of responsible tourism awards, sustainability certification programs, sustainability-certified suppliers, and a huge amount of green rhetoric, we can avoid looking at root causes and in some cases, go so far as to label critics of growth as defeatist.
- While huge investments have been made in marketing, promotion and growing demand, little has been spent on developing the capacity to manage demand and its consequences. As a result we lack the intellectual and imaginative capacity to consider a range of alternative possibilities and often demonstrate fear at the prospect of having to challenge the status quo and business as usual.
The growth debate is long overdue and should be honest, rigorous and fearlessly self-critical. It is not about blame – a “bad” “mass tourism” and a “good responsible travel.” The first was necessary to create the conditions for the second to emerge. As described here, it’s simply about evolution and survival. According to Darwin, only the “fittest” survive in nature but by “fit” this eminent scientist didn’t necessarily mean the biggest or most powerful but, instead, those whose characteristics were most suited to the changing conditions of their environment. Life evolves in response to accumulative but severe mega change in external circumstances.
That’s where the current debate – what little there is – is missing the point. We are continuing to run a global tourism-hospitality economy in much the same way as was done when it “took off” in the 1950s and 60s, despite the fact the conditions have changed in virtually every way:
- We now live on a finite and full planet, transgressing many of the planetary boundaries considered essential for life to flourish.
- We continue to operate as if we had to stimulate demand when there is no way we can accommodate the tsunami of demand that is gathering on our shores.
- A major shift in lifestyle preferences and core human values is altering what consumers expect of companies in terms of purpose, mode of operation and outcomes; and enhanced their awareness of and concern for fragile environmental, social and cultural resources.
- Instant, global and ubiquitous connectivity is accelerating the speed with which those shifts in values are shared, actions are made transparent and accountability assigned.
We’re not being asked to tinker at the edges with micro measures and siloed programs but to journey collectively to a very different future. Fortunately all journeys – even global expeditions – start with a few steps and all conversations that matter start with heartfelt confessions and sympathetic ears.
To that end I am pleased to invite serious thinkers to a NEF-sponsored event in London, June 14th: Measuring What Matters in Tourism. It may not be the ideal conversation opener, but the ground will be firm beneath our feet for a while and we can find out who our companions on this journey might be. Please join us.
*Assessing tourism’s global impact 1990-2010 Stefan Gossling and Paul Peters, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2015?Vol 23, No 5, 639-659