There are practical actions that the travel industry can take right now to mitigate any negative impact of the growing sector, says Salli Fenton of the Travel Foundation

We are all aware of the much‑publicised rise of the all‑inclusive and the unease felt 
by those who want local people and destinations to benefit fully from tourism.

The growth in demand for all-inclusives has brought with it concerns about issues such as whether they create enclaves that damage local businesses and affect the overall character of much-loved holiday destinations.

But while the debate continues, increasing numbers of customers are choosing to stay in all-inclusive hotels and this trend looks set to go on. So how can the debate be moved on and what actions can the industry take to ensure the destinations continue to thrive?

Although there is plenty of debate about the impact of all‑inclusives, there is little in the way of robust, recent data to help steer the industry and destination stakeholders towards positive action.

The Travel Foundation has worked with the industry for years implementing projects in destinations that promote local supply and procurement.

However, there has been very little work done on understanding how much customers spend locally when they are on holiday and what drives this spend.

We recently commissioned research to better understand this issue. It revealed that the debate around all‑inclusives and customer spend has been oversimplified and that there are, in fact, many opportunities for all tourism stakeholders to better support destination economies.

We have also just held a workshop with industry and academic experts to discuss what more can be done.

As would be expected, our research showed that all-inclusive customers do spend less on food and drink outside the hotel.

However, a key finding was that board basis is less important when it comes to how much tourists spend on other things.

There is a considerable range in the amount customers spend regardless of board basis and all‑inclusive customers turn out to be quite similar to other tourists.

When it comes to spending, it is clear that other factors come into play, such as the cost of the holiday (pre-departure), whether the customer has visited the destination before, and the quality and variety of what’s on offer both inside and outside the hotel.

About one-fifth of customers spent less than they expected, and this was because what was on offer outside the hotel did not meet their demands. This shows a clear sign of missed opportunities that local businesses could capitalise on.

The demand for all-inclusives seems set to continue, and will no doubt remain a contentious issue.

But don’t allow this to distract us from the practical actions that can be taken right now. No matter what the board basis, hotels can operate responsibly by sourcing locally, providing job opportunities and encouraging guests to venture beyond the hotel boundaries.

The task for travel agents is to spur hotels to take these sort of steps. By doing so, you’ll be providing a better experience for your customers who are likely to pay you back with repeat business.