Scaling Positive Solutions through Tourism and Development: a Vision for a More Responsible and Equitable Tourism Industry
Growing up, I was privileged to be able to travel a fair amount with my family. Having relatives in India and the USA meant frequent visits to see them, combined with holidays in the surrounding region. This included visits to countries like Nepal, Indonesia, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru.
I have many fond memories of travelling around these countries as a child and teenager, but I also remember having an uneasy feeling, knowing there was a very clear gap between myself, a Brit who has just travelled halfway across the world on a holiday, and local communities in places we visited. At the same time, I also felt that I was too young to do anything about such inequality.
Fortunately, though, that uneasy feeling those trips gave rise to has stayed with me, along with the fantastic memories of the people we met and places we visited, of course. Back then, I was less aware of inequalities within local communities and destinations themselves, but my travel experiences made me acutely aware of the inequalities between the Global North, where I am from, and the Global South, especially in the places I’d had the pleasure of visiting as a traveller.
This is what ultimately led me to studying a Masters in Responsible Tourism Management in 2012, in order to combine my passion for travel with my desire to help reduce global inequalities by using tourism as a tool for development.
How much does tourism really contribute to development?
Since completing my responsible tourism studies in 2013, my mission to use tourism to contribute to development has taken me around Southeast Asia, India and Armenia. One of the most important things I learned from these experiences is that development comes in many different forms, all providing varying levels of benefits to different stakeholders.
My impression has been that the big picture gets far more attention than what is happening on the ground; for example, the seemingly very impressive statistics around jobs created through tourism and tourism’s contribution to GDP that tend to leave the industry lauded as a great developer.
These figures frustrate me, as they prioritise quantity over quality. The tourism industry may well create thousands of jobs and contribute millions to a country’s GDP, but a majority of these jobs, especially in the developing world, are low-skilled and low-paying, and an alarmingly large portion of the revenue generated by the sector remains at the top with insufficient trickle-down effect.
This is something that needs to change and we need to shift away from this top-down perspective when measuring and evaluating tourism’s impact. This is one of the reasons I launched Share The Wonder in 2020, a charity that uses funds from foreign travellers to organise fun and educational day trips for underprivileged children in Asia.
Is community-based tourism (CBT) the answer to responsible tourism development?
In my experience, no. I have spent plenty of time directly working on and indirectly supporting CBT initiatives in Armenia, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, and I have experienced more negatives than positives.
Since most of these projects were operated by development organisations with little tourism knowledge, they rarely properly addressed the tourism market demand, and thus led to failed initiatives. Furthermore, when the development agenda did not properly understand local needs, inequalities continued. For example, community members were often taken away from their livelihoods to participate in CBT trainings without compensation, which never seemed right, especially when the CBT projects could fail, even after demanding such sacrifices.
And the list could go on.
This is not to say that CBT is not a positive form of tourism. Like any type of tourism, when done right it can be an extremely effective community development tool that provides visitors with genuinely interesting and memorable experiences.
However, the strength of CBT lies in its small-scale nature so tourism strategies should not rely solely on CBT approaches, as was the case with Myanmar’s national tourism strategy in 2015 and the following years. CBT, in order to be successful, also requires the right actors to be involved, from top to bottom, including tourism professionals alongside development counterparts, and communities that actually want to be involved with tourism.
How can tourism be better for local communities?
Local communities in emerging tourism destinations can benefit greatly from tourism, but this does not have to mean relying only on CBT-focused development projects. What I have learned through my 10 years’ experience working in responsible tourism is that change must be directed from the top i.e., the government.
Regulation needs to be in place and enforced to ensure that small- and medium-sized enterprises and local communities benefit more from tourism. If there is a strong and growing visitor economy in a destination, it’s natural for large corporations to benefit from it, but the government must ensure that they don’t end up dominating the sector (which unfortunately happens in many countries).
They may well be creating many jobs, but again, we need to ask how tourism can really support local needs and can contribute to the local communities in the long-term. When a few large corporations with close connections to the state dominate the tourism industry, they not only create economic inequalities (with the majority of the tourism revenue remaining at the top), but it also leads to causing irreparable damage to the country’s beautiful natural environment, without which tourist numbers would dwindle.
More equitable tourism wealth distribution
Responsible tourism destination management is key if we want to see the tourism industry genuinely contributing to development in a holistic way. As things currently stand, the tourism sector is a useful tool for generating revenue flows from the Global North to the Global South, however once that revenue reaches the Global South it needs to be distributed more equitably.
This is a major gap that exists in many countries, and tourism development efforts must be improved by scaling initiatives that put local people and nature at the core of what they do. To do so, we need to scale useful solutions, and for that, effectively engaging larger players is key. So we need to step away from the thinking that larger corporations are bad and only CBT can be good.
Rather, we need to advocate for policies incentivising and otherwise encouraging large players in our industry to operate in a more responsible and equitable manner, contributing to the aim of ensuring tourism genuinely benefits local communities. And that’s what I want to promote, and encourage more industry colleagues to join in: Let’s fight to give ourselves reasons to stop thinking that big companies must equal corporate greed, and let’s co-build an industry where those big companies are a part of the solution.