24 Jul 2012

Why Tourism’s Impact is Hardly Noticed – a response

The following article was written by Anna Pollock and originally posted on her ConsciousTourism blog. 

It's time to wake up guys!

The following post titled Tourism’s Huge Impact Hardly Noticed caught my attention recently and stimulated me to pose a contrarian view. Martyn re-posted an article in support of Rob Gialloreto, CEO of Tourism Victoria (BC, Canada) about declining public funding and lack of action by presumably (it’s not clear) government agencies. Best to read Gailloreto’s article here first although I have paraphrased the key points.

Having spent over 25 years working towards building a vibrant tourism economy in western Canada, I might be expected to agree with the sentiments in the article but I don’t. I’m not saying tourism shouldn’t receive more support but the approach taken by Rob is one pursued for decades and it’s not working.


One of the reasons - and there are many – why tourism is not perceived as popular with the Treasury Boards of the western world is that they also get tired of this form of whining and rarely does tourism have all its data act together to justify its position. Leaders are loquacious about benefits (employment, foreign exchange, peace etc) but pretty quiet about costs, net return and productivity. Another is that public spending on tourism is shared across all levels of government as well as to different sub sectors so the precise total investment is often not appreciated.

Tourism is not different from other sectors in its complexity and diversity. Healthcare, education, and food production affect everyone’s lives even more cogently than tourism and are also comprised of heterogenous agencies (SMEs. Independent professionals, small numbers of large enterprises large pharmaceutical or grocery retailers, large numbers of micro enterprises (doctors, dentists, physiotherpapists, home care helpers, farmers, vets etc).

Tourism is an export business but so are software, mining, animation graphics, fashion, manufacturing, education and some forms of healthcare.

Rob says we treat tourism like a test that we didn’t study for and we cross our fingers and..."we hope that the airport runway will be extended to bring in direct flights from the UK."

It’s true that international destinations need planes and the airports to enable them to land but it’s also true that trees have to be cut down to export lumber or furniture; open pit mines are gouged out of the earth to sell off coal, pipelines are needed to oil shale and quotas placed on fishing boats. As populations and consumer demand for goods increase, the decisions about what infrastructure the public sector needs to build when and where will, I hope, come under increasing scrutiny as the consequences become more complex, intense and diverse. Tourism isn’t being singled out here – it’s just being asked to think and act responsibly and play by the new rules…

Rob observes “we hope that marketing will be enough to bring visitors here despite rising ferry fares, order issues and economic hardship in the US and Europe.” Well again, the truth is that most factors affecting the ebb and flow of tourism are, in reality, out of our control (in the short run) whether they be currency exchange rates, terrorism, ash from volcanoes or other natural hazards, epidemics and financial collapse. Some of these factors are place specific and others affect the majority. Again it’s the way things are based on our core model of production and consumption. Tourism isn’t being singled out or victimised.

If tourism is going to survive in this chaotic and uncertain world we have created for ourselves, its hosts will have to be relentlessly nimble, adaptable and irrepressibly creative and curious. More money spent in the UK on more direct flights will be of no help given that most of us in the UK can barely afford the train fare to Heathrow.

No one doubts that folks in tourism don’t work any less hard than people in other sectors but sometimes it seems as if they are emulating the reputation that farmers used to have for being chronic complainers.

Of course tourism is vital to the economies of developed and developing countries. In fact in many ways it is now a victim of its own success. Having boasted for years about its resilience and its ability to bounce back, many government personnel took notice and realised what a potential cash cow tourism could become. In the UK, for example, the Treasury now appears to consider the Airport Passenger Duty on the same level as the so called “sin taxes” applied to liquor, wine and cigarettes because they know their imposition won’t stop people either drinking, smoking or travelling in sufficient numbers despite the moans of industry.

So what I am suggesting is that it’s time to stop behaving like the adolescent boy pouting because he’s spent his pocket money; his Dad won’t lend him the family car which is out of fuel to go on a hot date and his Mum is imposing a curfew.

Perhaps I am being as harsh as I believe Rob was being indulgent but I honestly believe that tourism – as a sector – would be taken more seriously by policy makers and might get the kind of political attention it craves, if it (i.e. the people making a living from tourism):

1. Wakes up to the changes occurring in the world at large;

2. Grows Up and stops repeating the same old complaints or expecting special treatment;

3. Lives up to its true potential and generates a higher net return from its environmental and cultural resources;

4. Opens up to be more inclusive in its approach – by attracting people to places not selling destinations;

5. Steps up and takes responsibility for addressing the problems of our time – ecological destruction, social injustice and a growing sense of spiritual/psychological despair among affluent and poor alike; and

6. Meets up – forms small but powerful groups of committed conscious hosts in destination who decide to stop complaining and think differently.

If any of the above prescriptions for success are of interest, read on. If not – find a bar and tell your woes to the bartender. he’ll likely be an attentive listener but he won’t be able to do much about it either.

1. Wakes Up as in became conscious of the fact that the world is changing and the next 60 years will be both different and a lot harder than the past 60. Public treasuries pretty well everywhere are running on empty and incurring huge debts; all kinds of pubic costs are rising; populations are aging, incomes in real terms are declining in most households. Public funding for tourism – especially in established western economies – will continue to plummet and we’ll have to make do and depend on each other and not the state for a change. The tourism community has to wake up to the fact that a drop in funding is not the end of the world considering that we are living through one of the most environmentally, financially, politically and socially hazardous yet potentially the most creative, exciting period of history. When some of the world’s most reputable scientists suggest we only have a 50-50 chance of surviving the century, then tourism should stop sweating the small stuff.

2. Grows Up – if tourism wants to be taken seriously, it needs to show what it’s doing to address the solutions to the key challenges of our time. The question proposed by J.F. Kennedy is pertinent

“ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”

A sign of personal maturity occurs when an individual starts to recognize that being part of a family brings with it responsibilities as well as rights and there is awareness that it’s not all about me or I but “we. ” That’s something that Millennials or Gen Y seem to understand intuitively but they are not running tourism just yet. This generation wants to be working for companies that have a real sense of purpose higher than just making money – the latter is taken as a given.

The venues run by people in travel and hospitality are the hubs in any community and their operators can be the true connectors. It’s through connections that places and people become smart and create the conditions for innovation and creativity. It’s through being exposed to worldviews or ways of perceiving that differ from their own that help us wake up to the fact that our worldview is one of many and likely needs to change, There is no reason for tourism hosts to be nothing more than the writers of invitations and the silent pourers of coffee. Travels hosts (i.e., tourism providers) can become agents of change and find greater meaning and purpose in their work by actively protecting, preserving and rejuvenating the preciously unique ecosystems and cultures that make up their home – their unique place.

3. Lives Up – to its potential. The real definition of the word sin is to miss the mark – not to be all we can be. Travel isn’t a sin in the traditional sense as the Bishop of London once implied from his pulpit – although denying our responsibility for reducing our share of waste and and over use of scarce resources such as water, land and energy might be. No, the sin comes from not delivering the highest and best return on the gift of a unique place and culture we call the destination. That’s the sin and it’s committed every time when we panic and sell ourselves short through sales, discounting and excessive couponing and suggest to our customers that cheap travel is their right and no one has to pay for the hidden costs of our fun & pleasure.

4. Opens Up – tourism has kept a tight rein on its domain for too long. It’s no longer just about marketing destinations but ensuring that “places” can attract visitors, students, residents, investors, talent and capital to thrive. It’s time to break down the invisible walls that deny our own interdependence with all sector of society and the economy and acknowledge our utter dependence on a healthy biosphere. We need to break down the walls that separate tourism from economic development , inward investment and cut our costs and pool our resources .

5. Steps up. Tourism’s ubiquity, pervasiveness and size, combined with its embeddedness in all aspects of what is now a global economy (“tourism is everybody’s business”), could enable its hosts to become effective agents of change, in the communities. Our purpose (the higher purpose of tourism) is to heal, to connect and to revitalize that deep sense of wonder and awe of Nature that re-connects human beings with their source. People – yes the human beings working in the travel community – are in the best position to inspire our guests to take better care of their planetary home but only if we shed our tendency to see sacred places as products (objects) and our customers as walking wallets (more objects)

6. Meets up. 99% of enterprises in tourism are small and most operate in relative isolation – that’s our source of weakness. But across the globe, there’s growing recognition that we cannot depend on “top down” solutions from old-style command and control organizations to fix global problems by policy or diktat. Change will not occur because self or institution-made leaders with titles write declarations but because ordinary men and women, in community, decide to do things differently.

The fastest most effective change occurs at the grassroot community level when individuals come together and decide to take back responsibility. Within any tourism community it does not take ALL hosts – simply a minority of brave, highly committed, open minded, collaborative, curious sometime heretical individuals willing to experiment, innovate, try, fail, learn and try again as we implement a vision for tourism that does more harm than good.

That’s what Conscious Travel is all about – working with small groups of committed hosts in places where tourism providers want to make change happen.