Mass tourism is doing more than ever to clean up its act and ensure it is benefiting the local communities in which it operates, a World Travel Market debate on who profits from the sector was told.

Noel Josephides, managing director of Greek specialist operator Sunvil and an Abta director, said he agreed to take part in the debate fearing travel would come in for some “nasty” criticism.

Despite being set up as a clash between opposing views, many of the panellists, including some representing vulnerable destinations, largely agreed that many benefits came from tourism.

Josephides said: “The way we are working now is very, very different. I do not think you could have found anyone more critical of large mass market companies than I have been in the past, but if you look at what Tui and Thomas Cook are doing now the difference is enormous.

“Small companies are often very critical of large companies but without the large companies none of us would be able to fly to the countries we are helping develop.”

Josephides recalled a debate held by Aito with Harry Goodman on his return to the industry after the collapse of his firm Intasun during the first Gulf War.

He was asked why he had “destroyed Turkey” in the 1908’s and 1990’s putting people in accommodation “that some of us would not put our dogs in”, Josephides said.

“Harry’s answer was no one told me to stop,” said Josephides. “If you look at some of the ‘ghettos’ that have been created… all these areas where we can be critical of the image that has been developed, the fact is that it’s the people who live there that often are the biggest supporters of this kind of tourism.

“I cannot understand how you can turn around and say that they are not benefitting. If they did not like it why are they continuing with it? The outbound industry is far more critical of our own actions than a lot of the people who are benefitting.

“Really, what we need are examples of where we have trashed [a destination], really made a mess of it. The fact is we are not doing that anymore.”

Also putting the travel sector’s case Luke Pollard, Abta head of public affairs, said: “Tourism is a force for good when it’s done well, but equally when it’s done badly it can have the opposite consequences. We need to look at where profitability and sustainability work together.

“Actually, in the twenty first century profitable businesses must be sustainable businesses. Fundamental to the tourism industry is that for tourism to work there must be thriving destinations, that is absolutely key as to where Abta has been for the last few years.

“Sustainability is not an optional extra, it has become baked in. How many people want to exploit a resource to the point where it disappears and ceases to exist?”

Pollard added: “It needs to be much more than the CSR halo saying we are being green because consumers want us to be green. In the past the industry has not always learned the lessons from the developments that are not sustainable – those business models that do not deliver a shared benefit.

“But I would argue there are people who have learned the lessons, there are great pathfinders, but there is more to be done. We have to try and fail and improve, and then try, and fail and improve.”

The actual value of tourism for a destination is often undermined by lack of appropriate local governance, said Richard Sharpley, professor of tourism and development at the university of central Lancashire, who was arguing local communities benefit less from tourism than tourists and travel companies.

He said the discussion was a microcosm of the larger debate about capitalism in general and the tourism industry should be considered in its entirety due to the fact that related sectors like publishing and financial services benefitting from it albeit indirectly and most tourism globally is domestic.

“I suggest what we need to do is not take quite such a narrow view of tourism in general. Governmental bodies do benefit in many ways from tourism but, in my view, all too often there is a failure on the part of those bodies to act effectively.

“The only ways benefits can be enhanced is through the appropriate regulation and governance. It is primarily in the area of governance, regulation and policy development that both the solution and problem in terms of limited benefits to local communities lies.”

Adama Bah, The Gambia Travel Foundation, project manager, said great strides had been taken in the last 20 years to put the issue of sustainability on the agenda.

“There is more to be done but we should recognise the things that are being done. I think we have got something great and we should celebrate it. It’s heartening a lot of companies are starting to talk about sustainability. Those companies that are not onboard are crazy, they are not going to make it. We have a consumer that is more aware – they want an ethical product.”