Is the invisible burden of tourism relevant now there isn’t any travel? Yes, says The Travel Foundation’s Jeremy Sampson

In 2019, international tourism arrivals were breaking all records and expected to continue on the same trajectory for at least a decade.

In this context, in March last year, the Travel Foundation released a ground-breaking report: ‘Destinations at Risk: the Invisible Burden of Tourism’.

The report, authored by Cornell University and EplerWood International, helped us reframe key sustainability issues for destinations and businesses.

It described in detail how tourism suffers from too many ‘externalities’ – unpaid costs placed on communities and the environment (the ‘invisible burden’) – and the ways in which visitor demand placed undue stress on shared assets like beaches and green spaces as well as infrastructure.

More important, the report also sought to explain why this had occurred in so many destinations – which leads us to the root issues, namely that most destination management authorities don’t have a fighting chance to manage growth.

They lack the mandate, the resources, the data, and the know-how to account for and deal with tourism’s full range of impacts.

The report concluded we must come together to find a way to resource destination management adequately or else our world’s most-treasured places risk being spoiled or lost forever.

Most destinations ill-equipped

However, most of the world is closed to tourists right now. There is no growth and certainly no over-tourism. What relevance does the report have now?

The ‘invisible burden’ was never just about too many tourists. It was about what happens when you allow rapid and largely unmanaged growth.

It shone a light on the fact that most destinations are ill-equipped to deal with what happens to them and the often devastating impacts on communities.

Over-tourism might not return anytime soon and under-tourism now threatens widespread challenges, putting many livelihoods at risk.

Economies most-dependent on international travellers have been hit hardest and, where governments are unable to offer hefty support packages to bailout businesses and save jobs, the fallout will be severe and far-reaching.

But the underlying problems with destination management have not gone away and, as growth starts anew, there is an unexpected opportunity to correct course.

What do we want from tourism?

As destinations and businesses around the world develop plans to rebuild and recover, here are two ideas based on the Invisible Burden report that would help tackle those root issues.

First, every destination should be asking a simple question: “What do we want from tourism?”

This is particularly resonant now as communities identify what they miss about tourism and what aspects they would rather not welcome back.

Graham Harper, director of sustainability and social responsibility at the Pacific-Asia Travel Association (PATA), says: “The industry is reacting to the unfolding crisis with survival instinct. However, in the coming weeks and months there will be a shift away from reaction to recovery, and with recovery will be the strong need to rethink what, and how, tourism is to become.”

This discussion needs smarter data to show how different types of tourism impact on a destination and what destination management responses will be needed as growth comes to life.

The Travel Foundation recently completed a study with Tenerife to help identify an “optimal tourism mix” which focused on these questions.

The answers can help destination stakeholders collectively rethink their measures of success beyond the traditional economic ones and ultimately support a shift in the destination-management mandate and shape governance and strategy around evolved key-performance indicators.

Destination infrastructure investment

Second, there is an opportunity to use recovery packages to invest in destination infrastructure and tourism product development that focus on strengthening the local supply chain, to stimulate the economy while protecting valuable resources.

For example, Europe is building a recovery fund, dubbed a new ‘Marshall Plan’, which may pay out as much as €375 billion to the tourism sector.

This huge investment could be used to target green infrastructure and smart technology upgrades and place social and environmental conditions on business loans. There is already discussion about how this might be realised.

Megan Epler Wood, principle author of the Invisible Burden report, says: “The idea of a Marshall Plan is excellent and could be extended outward to the need for a global focus on financing the recovery.

“But to do this successfully will require the correct governance and understanding of the real costs of managing tourism.

“At present, governance and measures of success that go beyond branding, demand and gross economic impact are lacking.

“These decisions require a full accounting of the holistic costs of managing tourism at the destination level.”

The kind of information that will be useful includes the cost of visitor demand on natural resources, municipal services and infrastructure, and a better understanding of the risks to cultural, environmental and social assets that come with growth.

A new kind of destination management

At the Travel Foundation, we have developed a ‘sustainability risk profiling’ methodology which companies such as Tui have used to help identify and mitigate current and future risks when investing in destinations.

These significant opportunities require a new kind of destination management model that will depend on new skills and resources.

This is why addressing the skills gap is a main focus of the next phase of our Invisible Burden partnership with Cornell University, EplerWood International and PATA.

We will be developing training and other resources to support destination managers to meet the challenges of recovery and the decade to follow.

Graham Harper says: “Industry leaders and the far-sighted are already thinking ahead. But for the opportunity to be realised there will need to be strong commitment to investment in sustainability and management skills.

“Without dedicated advocates pushing to take advantage of the current opportunity, we will find ourselves in another crisis with fewer and fewer resources to recover.”

Jeremy Sampson is chief executive of The Travel Foundation

The Travel Foundation, EplerWood International and Cornell University’s Centre for Sustainable Global Enterprise joined forces early in 2020 after publication of their landmark report Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism in 2019.  The partnership now includes the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA).

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