by Dr. Julian Zarb
A fifth of the world’s population travelled for tourism purposes in 2019. That year, the United Nations World Trade Organisation estimated a record total international expenditure of $1.4 trillion in the sector.
Global tourism has been on an impressive upward trend for decades until the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the flow in one fell swoop. Last year, all regions around the world registered negative growth in tourism activities, falling sharply by a combined 63.5 per cent. The viral wave washed away established operators and put industries such as airlines and hotels on the brink. The knock-on effects on economies will take years to dissipate.
But economics is only one side of tourism. The activity is, in essence, a socio-cultural phenomenon and, although, it drives economic growth, creates jobs, and raises living standards in many countries, tourism cannot be reduced to a mere export.
Tourism is a meaningful exchange between visitors and a host community, an authentic experience of hospitality. As opportunities for financial gain broadened, tourism developed into a string of pre-packaged activities, often bypassing the local community. Towns and cities where residents live were recast into a parallel existence as sites and destinations inhabited by tourists.
The success of tourism is not measured by the dollars it leaves behind but by the authentic sense of place that it creates for both residents and visitors. Host communities are not just sitting tenants: the destination is theirs and they are an integral part of the visitor experience. At the same time, inbound tourism can also be directly beneficial to the quality of life of residents, not only to businesses in the sector.
Concerns about the multiple impacts of mass tourism in the last years gave rise to a worldwide movement for responsible tourism, but large volumes of visitors appeared too great a temptation for decision-makers to apply more sustainable models. The shock of the pandemic, which tourism ironically helped to spread, finally provided the right opportunity for relevant stakeholders to re-imagine this crucial activity and design a more inclusive future for it.
An integrative approach to tourism makes room for local communities alongside authorities and businesses. Policymakers are, by nature, more interested in short-term results and strategies related to the sector rarely consider deeper effects on local quality of life, the environment, and culture.
Sustainable tourism, on the contrary, requires a shift in mindset to incorporate the intangible elements of a destination and think about the host community first. Places that cultivate a sense of belonging among locals, in their turn, enrich the visitor experience, so tourism strategies should seek to upgrade the life of locals before planning its touristic projects.
This change in approach means that destinations no longer need tourism managers but managers for tourism who can look beyond the framework set by purely commercial interests.
Community-based tourism is built on the relationship between a host community and visitors, and initial attempts at recovery post-pandemic indicate a growing appetite for genuine experiences of local life. A new era of sustainability is transforming tourism into the discovery of a place through its people.
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