This article was originally published on LinkedIN on March 8th, 2019 here

It’s that self-congratulatory time of the year again when the hyperbole about the resilience and value of tourism matches the rise in numbers and spending. It’s also time to re-read and ponder the poetic/prophetic words of T.S. Eliot:

The two primary sources of tourism performance data are generated by the UNWTO which focuses on arrivals and the WTTC which prefers to look at the economic impact – spending, and contribution to GDP, jobs. There’s an inevitable time lag between the two which enables us to get that feel good factor twice in the first quarter of every year, but which also enables many to miss the less comforting, inconvenient truth that emerges only when you join the dots between the two. 

The UNWTO reports come out first. In 2017, tourist numbers (arrivals) reached 1.4 billion some two years ahead of the estimated time of arrival.  In other words, at 6% CAGR, the growth rate was more or less continuing to accelerate – in 2017, tourism arrival growth had jumped to 7%. 

A few months later, WTTC followed with an equally glowing report describing a 3.9% increase in tourism spending that contributed to a total of $8.8 trillion to the global economy generating this enthusiastic declaration of success. 

Both reports observe proudly that tourism growth outpaces the performance of the economy as a whole. No wonder politicians are becoming so enamoured with tourism – a contrast to the days when being named Minister of Tourism was considered a demotion. 

But there’s a crack in the foundation of this upward rising trajectory of success. Can you see it? 

Look closer…..

Spending is up 3.9%, arrivals grow by 6%. 

You don’t need a Ph.d in economics or be a mathematical genius to see the gap between these two data sets.   No wonder we are drowning in information as per T.S. Eliot’s poetic observation, or if you like a living systems analogy, failing to see the forest for the trees. 

That gap signals a significant drop in yield, profitability, productivity or net benefit – call it what you will, that signals rampant “diminishing returns” and this is BEFORE we factor in all the externalities (costs) the tourism sector is still able to ignore (emissions, waste, congestion, food miles, plastic etc.)in its accounting. 

If you really want to see the challenge graphically, then view this graph that charts our progress in Europe (source: Euromonitor Tourism Megatrends 2019). 

Despite the alarming implications of this chart, the Euromonitor commentary is remarkably lame with statements such as:  

·      tourism boards are coming to grips with a future in which they will be looking to attract the “right” traveller; 

·      there is a growing realisation that focusing on volume on its own is not the correct approach; 

·      Niche visitors are less price sensitive, which in turn improves the overall quality of supply. 

Do you need any more convincing that the sustained pursuit of volume growth over net positive benefit leads us to the bottom of an unpleasant chasm – at current rates of growth, tourism will double in size by 2026; we’ll have spoiled our beloved places and lack the resources to climb out. Our claims of resilience will prove hollow should a slow-down, let alone a reversal in economic growth, cause the tsunami-like wave of tourism demand to drain the beach instead of swamp it. 

I stand by the opening statement I made to the ETC workshop called “Managing Sustainable Tourism Growth”

Global tourism, as currently practiced, is underperforming, highly vulnerable and heading towards breakdown. Its operating model is no longer fit for purpose and needs to be replaced.

It is time. Time for all of us who yearn for what T.S. Eliot poetically describes as “the Life we have lost in living,” who love this sector and believe that it can help transform lives, enterprises and  communities,  to wake up. Time to break the trance, the spell that has made us believe that we can have more of the same forever without paying the full price. Time for us to roll up our sleeves, join hands, face our own inconvenient truth and design a better model that meets not just the material needs of a few but the financial, emotional, social and spiritual needs of the many.

Waking-up starts by asking questions, challenging the status quo and by convening conversations that matter. The challenges ahead are such that no individual nor destination can go it alone. Seeing sustainability as a means of competitive advantage is pure folly. 

I am privileged right now to be working with one destination – Visit Flanders – that is prepared to take time to think, to query, to listen and to engage with all its stakeholders. I described the start of their journey in a previous article: Watching A Destination Listen and Learn Together.

Here is a short video that the CEO, Peter de Wilde used to set the stage:

 Over the past two years Visit Flanders has undertaken a Journey of Discovery convening conversations with a wide range of partners including residents of various communities to identify ways that tourism can be an effective change agent enabling destination communities and their businesses, along with guests and hosts (employees and residents) to thrive. 

We’ve focused on looking at the concept of flourishing as an alternative to volume growth (arrivals) as it encompasses a much richer set of parameters than simply financial/economic while at the same time considering ways of increasing economic yield or net positive impact. While the flourishing concept was readily embraced at the grassroots level, it cannot stand alone. It’s a critical element of a richer more inspirational, aspirational model of Regenerative Development that I have been studying and applying for the past two years. It emerges from a fundamentally different way of seeing (perception) and being (values) than the one tourism has applied over the past 70 years. I believe it will better equip us to create a more enduring future that supports the flourishing of all life – not just tourism! Because the questions we are asking must change too. Ours is becoming a life or death situation so, in that context, we must ask as Michelle Holliday has so ably articulated – how can tourism, our business, my life contribute to the aliveness and thriving of all life?

This is not a process that can happen at the snap of a finger or be accelerated by throwing more money at it. It’s a process that requires time, care and, most importantly, sincerity of intent and a willingness to see and think differently. So, don’t expect instant results. But as there is such a hunger for meaning and purpose in our stressed, technology-driven post modern society, it is filling a void.  

As a milestone along their “Journey of Discovery” many Flanders citizens (experts, professionals and lay people) collaborated to produce a magazine Travel to Tomorrow– click here to download the English version

It’s an unfolding story and one that Visit Flanders will be sharing over the course of this year on this web site:

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