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Why we need to think about “socialising tourism” after Covid

4 Sep 2020  By Contributor

Crowds of tourists during a carnival in Venice, Italy, in 2017. Image: iStock

University of South Australia senior lecturer in tourism management and former University of Otago academic, Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles, argues we cannot return to the type of hyper-development that tourism suffered from pre-Covid.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles

Right at the centre of the New Zealand Tourism Futures Taskforce are the ideas of responsible and sustainable tourism with values, communities, and people. But what are the ideas of change?

To start with, discussing Covid-19, historian Yuval Noah Harari claimed: “This storm will pass. But the choices we make now could change our lives for years to come”.

As a tourism researcher, I have been interested in how Covid-19 might mark a pivotal moment in the future of tourism. In response to the impacts of the crisis, will we embark on even more hyper forms of tourism development or will we become more thoughtful and discerning in our tourism choices?

It is hard to do such thinking when our tourism and hospitality industries have been hammered. All around the world, borders have been shut, airlines grounded and venues closed. As a result, the Covid-19 pandemic crisis has been devastating in its impacts on travel and tourism, as well as the hospitality, arts and events affiliated sectors.

The World Tourism Organization has estimated: up to an 80% decline in international tourism in 2020; a possible US$1.2tr loss in tourism export revenues; and a risk to up to 120 million direct tourism jobs. Even in places where the pandemic has been well-managed, the threat of second waves looms over us until we find more long-term answers through an effective vaccination programme.

In such circumstances, it would seem logical we would want a return to normal as soon as possible. In terms of tourism, Covid-19 has shown us just how dependent our economies and societies are on tourism and these affiliated sectors. But has this been a good thing?

Before Covid-19 struck, reports came from around the world that suggested that tourism was bursting at the seams.

Overtourism hit tourism destinations as diverse as Barcelona, Venice, Reykjavik, Queenstown, Machu Picchu and Byron Bay. This phenomenon occurs when tourism growth dynamics result in the overshoot of the destination’s carrying capacity (in both physical and psychological terms). This resulted in community protests, calls to stop some forms of tourism (e.g. cruises and daytrippers), proposals to radically re-regulate it and actual closures of places such as Boracay, Philippines and Maya Bay, Thailand.

In New Zealand, overtourism manifested in tensions over freedom-camping, dangerous driving, over-crowding and tourism-induced pressures on living costs.

The causes of overtourism varied according to the destination. The disruptive agents of the sharing economy, like Airbnb, were blamed for bringing more tourists into the heart of communities instead of just tourist sites. Cheap travel and package holidays enabled more people to take short city breaks and cruises, particularly in Europe.

Social media played a role in popularising less-visited places, which went from being off-the-grid to “must-see” destinations overnight. The shifting focus of governmental tourism agencies saw them become almost exclusively marketing-focused with a singular goal of growing tourism.

With Covid-19, we have transitioned from overtourism, to practically no tourism. We could learn some lessons from these recent events and consider how to socialise tourism so that we transform it into appropriate tourism. By socialising tourism, I mean placing tourism in the context of the society in which it occurs and harnessing it for the empowerment and wellbeing of local communities.

There are examples of socialising tourism and tourists that we could already draw on to assist our thinking.

Firstly, we might start with Indigenous protocols and ceremonies which have existed for millennia to socialise visitors on how to respectfully visit the home of another people. New Zealand has been wayfinding in this by respectfully engaging Māori values in its approaches to tourism, most recently in the Tiaki Promise – Care for New Zealand campaign.

Other examples to consider:

  • The Localhood strategy of Copenhagen which proclaimed “we wish to co-create… a future destination where human relations are the focal point, where the differentiation between destination and home of locals is one and the same. A destination, where locals and visitors not only co-exist, but interact around shared experiences of localhood”;
  • In 2019, Amsterdam initiated an Untourism campaign which featured “marry a local for the day” with the aim of harnessing tourists for positive change-making in the city;
  • Like the Tiaki Promise, Palau has sought to transform visitors into custodians and caretakers through the Palau Pledge visa stamp;
  • Creative disruptions such as the Fairbnb cooperative and which make it possible for tourism to once again feature a direct connection between host and guest.

In our current situation, overtourism may seem like a distant memory and a problem that we wish we now had. But we shouldn’t forget the signs that tourism was in deep trouble pre-Covid.

With Covid, we were reminded just how important our community connections and our social supports are to our continued prosperity and well-being. Such reinvigoration of the social invites us to imagine the possibilities for socialising tourism. Such initiatives would place the local community at the centre of the tourism phenomenon and establish more solid foundations for a sustainable future.

If you would like to know more, please join me on 10 September as I will participating in a debate about the rethinking of tourism and its future organised by Victoria University of Wellington. See here for further details.

Further reading:

Socialising tourism for social and ecological justice
The end of global travel as we know it
Rethinking tourism so the locals actually benefit

Twitter: @freyahd


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