By Alfonso Vargas Sánchez
In the wake of the pandemic, tourism is experiencing a period of transition in which two trends which were already prevalent pre Covid-19 have gained momentum:
- Sustainability, together with climate change, the circular economy and the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN’s 2030 Agenda.
- Digitalization, together with the new technological revolution.
If we focus on sustainability – whilst still emphasizing that technological ecosystems are essential for the development of tourism – we have to be aware that making sustainable that which has not been designed as such (a destination, a resort, a mode of transport, etc.) is not easy, fast or affordable. This is especially true since, rather than conforming to standards, labels or certifications, we must change our relationship with the environment in order to be sustainable, rather than just appearing to be so.
Sustainability must be economical, environmental and social
When a term is used so frequently, its meaning tends to become diluted. In fact, in this case, the term sustainable tourism is increasingly being replaced by regenerative tourism.
Not all aspects of sustainability are addressed with equal emphasis. Economic sustainability is taken for granted and environmental sustainability is taken into immediate consideration, while social sustainability is put on the back burner (see, among many others, the case of Ibiza and the cost of housing).
If there is to be true social sustainability, which in turn drives economic and environmental sustainability, the governance of tourism has to evolve.
Before the pandemic, and in the post-pandemic period, news related to the sustainability of tourism appeared in the media.
Negative attitudes towards tourism are once again prevalent, although in reality these are not directed against tourism itself but against certain models of tourism development, the product of a certain governance where it is important to take a look at who makes decisions and how.
More than a one-off phenomenon, the problem of mass tourism is being tackled with various types of measures, such as the following:
- The use of fiscal measures(e.g. ecotaxes).
- Limiting the capacity of certain spaces (or even temporarily closing them).
- The use of the variable prices to regulate demand.
- The use of technological tools that assist in redirecting tourist flows, in an attempt to disperse the masses to other attractions that are not overcrowded (assuming that those affected wish to do so).
- The sanctioning of certain behaviour.
- Limiting accommodation options.
The case of the island of Sardinia and its beaches is perhaps less well known than others, but very telling in this context.
The positive attitude of the population towards the impact of tourism development in their area may change significantly if the negative impact is perceived as outweighing the positive effects of it.
This happens when the tolerance level of the local community is exceeded and tourism no longer contributes positively to their quality of life. The problem arises when those who live there permanently begin to feel that friction with tourists disturbs and damages their lives to excess.
When no one asks them, listens to them, takes them into account and decisions are made that severely affect their lives, it is not surprising that citizens turn against tourism when, in reality, the problem is not tourism, but the management of it.
It is only by involving these communities in decision-making that we will find the missing link in tourism governance.
Today, we usually speak of co-governance rather than governance. In other words, public-private partnership: a two-way governance which, although necessary, is not sufficient because they alone are not the only stakeholders involved.
A partnership with citizens, in a broad sense, is essential to ensure their welfare and to avoid or reverse the trend of disconnection with tourism activities.
The point is that tourism is required as an economic activity that affects the entire community, and the latter is something that seems to be missing or unwilling to be addressed. Tourism should not be created by political and business representatives without the local people, but with them. That’s the big difference.
There is an added complexity, particularly in terms of legitimacy, in identifying the representatives of stakeholders in the territory and establishing effective participation mechanisms – not only with a voice, but also with a vote in certain decisions. However, this is the best way to support the tourism industry and to overcome mistrust and detachment.
We must move towards inclusive and integrative governance, with a three-pronged approach: public, private and community, whose study and application are virtually unknown fields.
The question is not so much of what to do, but how to do it: a new model of shared leadership must include a redistribution of power within the system, which will require an extra effort to break down barriers and overcome resistance.
Co-governance and well-being
To avoid negative attitudes towards tourism, and promote harmonious relationships between locals and visitors as a path to sustainability, tourism must be able to forge a broad alliance with society.
It is not about managing a destination, but a community with permanent residents and tourists, the latter being understood as temporary residents. The well-being of both must be at the core of the governance architecture.
Although there is usually short-sightedness in political decisions – marked by electoral horizons – and in business decision-making – especially if they are geared towards speculation and immediate returns – the lack of support from the local population will end up generating a boomerang effect.
Do we know the type of tourism development desired (or tolerated) by host communities? Are the voices of the local population heard and taken into account in the decision making processes, with a view to their well-being? Local communities have a much more decisive role to play in consolidating democracies. A tourism-oriented society must be geared towards tourism and committed to its development and co-creation.
Alfonso Vargas Sánchez is University Professor in Business Organization, Strategic Management and Tourism, and is retired from the University of Huelva.
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