Doughnut economics applied to overtourism

The ideas about doughnut economics and sustainability from economist Kate Raworth have been around for a while now, advocating that the economic models we use are outdated and we need a new doughnut-shaped one if we want a more sustainable future. This model takes into account the boundaries of our world and thus puts a limit to endless economic growth. In this blog post,  ideas about doughnut economics are applied to problems related to overtourism in cities, it explains why tourism growth should not always be the goal for destinations and it shows how the ideas about doughnut economics can help us change our thinking when it comes to sustainable tourism planning and city marketing.

Doughnut economics explained
The ideas we have about growth and endless maximization of money is where we need to start thinking in a different way. If we want to make our world more sustainable we should stop considering economic growth as the main objective of everything we undertake. According to Kate Raworth, if we keep on following the old economic traditions, we will end up reaching the ecological ceiling of our planet. This means we will have to deal increasingly with issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and air pollution.  In doughnut economics, these aspects are represented in the outer side of the doughnut. At the same time, we lose sight of the inner part of the doughnut, the place where essential living requirements such as housing, health, and social equality are located: the social foundation.

Doughnut economics applied to urban tourism
If we apply this theory to tourism, we can see that this unbridled growth in urban tourism causes problems that can be easily placed in the doughnut model as well.  Many cities aim at growing tourism because of the economic benefits it can bring to both the city and its residents. But at some point, the positive (economic) benefits are being outweighed by the negative ones. Due to overcrowding of the city, problems such as congestion, pressure on cultural heritage, conflicts over land use, and air pollution start to arise. This is what we can position in the outer part of the doughnut, the ecological ceiling that is being crossed. Simultaneously, aspects of the inner part of the doughnut are overlooked because residential living and affordable housing, for example, are at stake. The city falls short in the social foundation. Local governments across European cities are currently struggling with these problems and residents are more and more rising up against the ever-increasing influx of tourists.

From overtourism to a sustainable tourist destination
Despite the fact that many cities are being faced with the challenges of overtourism, most of them cannot seem to let go of the idea of continuous growth. For example, Copenhagen now has a tourism strategy to change tourism as it is, called ‘The end of tourism as we know it’. The aim is to attract a type of tourist that is good for the city and fits better with the identity of the city and local life. However, one of their main targets by which they measure success is still growth. The same goes for Barcelona, a city which has definitely been suffering under the pressure of tourism and therefore now has a strategy focused on becoming a sustainable destination. This means amongst other things that residential living is preserved by attracting the ‘good’ tourist. However, despite that the city wants to mitigate issues related to overtourism, growth is still pursued in the strategy as well.

Both cities have ambitious plans to create a more sustainable form of tourism and what both strategies furthermore have in common is that they focus on growth of ‘better’ tourism. In Copenhagen’s strategy, this is specifically described as people-based growth and sustainable growth. This, however, is still the wrong way of thinking, Kate Raworth argues, because calling something, for example, green growth or responsible growth is not the solution to a more sustainable future.  To truly become more sustainable, we should let go of the idea of growth altogether as a goal, and find alternative ways to measure success. Likewise, urban tourism can only be truly more sustainable when we shift our focus to other factors than economic growth.

Changing our way of thinking about growth
We cannot grow forever, not as humans, not as the world and not as a touristic destination. Sure, at first some growth is good, like all things in life grow. But, as Kate Raworth explains, at some point a flower flourishes and then it stops growing. This should also be the case with tourism. When a destination is emerging, growth can be good, but there should be a point when we realize a destination has flourished and at that point, the focus should not be to keep on growing. The key to a more sustainable and successful destination should then be sought in other parameters than tourist numbers and the amount of money they bring along with them.

Read more?
Kate Raworth (2017) – Doughnut Economics

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5 Replies to “Doughnut economics applied to overtourism”

  1. I am very interested in your ideas on alternative metrics we should measure for success? Perhaps a follow-up article on those ideas? I work for an agency that helps destinations and tour operators market their stories and you’re right, they all still have the goal of more visitors year over year. We would love to hear ideas from the academic standpoint on alternatives, that way we can help educate our clients as well. Thank you!

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear that you are interested in working on topics like these with your clients, this way the travel industry can really start/continue to make a change from within. Alternative metrics is something that I’m still developping my thoughts about but there will definitely be a follow-up article in the future! If you have any suggestions or insights from your experience, please let me know, I think practical and academic knowledge can make a great combination.

  2. Thank you very much for your article. I have also come to the same conclusions about our assumptions around growth in tourism. In Canada, as in many other parts of the world, tourism has been very much about “marketing” to achieve growth in numbers and increase revenues. Very few agencies or destinations have taken time to ask “What” and “Why” they are marketing. Their mandates are all about growth. It’s deeply entrenched in government policy at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. And, it’s how large players in tourism try to capture governments (accessing taxpayer funding, false narratives about jobs and larger benefits when the real benefits are primarily increased profits for a developer).

    I have owned and operated a small experiential tourism company for 23 years. I also facilitate experiential tourism development in various communities across Canada. I am starting to use the doughnut economics framework in my work with communities across Canada, where we are introducing experiential tourism development to enable increased collaboration, community ownership of tourism and their tourism offerings, presenting stories of the neighbourhood through storytellers who are local, and attracting the right visitors for the right reasons.

    What I am intrigued by is that when I present the doughnut as a way of thriving economically between the social foundation and our ecological capacities, everyone gets it immediately. There is really no push-back. We are then able to use this framework to start discussions and actions in tourism that reflect doughnut economics. And, most importantly, shaping new metrics about tourism that we can use with elected officials and others in business who have only seen growth as the end…, or what we have all heard so often, “the bottom line”. Well, now we know that the bottom line is integrating all three. Profits will demonstrate our ability to thrive within that integrated framework.

    I am also realizing that using the phrase “sustainable tourism” may be part of the problem. I am starting to explore what regenerative or restorative tourism may offer as bigger outcomes. For example, what if tourism actually left our communities better as a result of people’s visits? What would that look like? Could tourism be a fuel for improving the way we conserve heritage, for improving agricultural methods and how we grow food regionally to feed tourists, or drive more renewable energy solutions as part of the tourism delivery process?

  3. I agree with your thoughts and perspectives.

    I have found in working with communities across Canada that there when I present the Doughnut Economics framework applied to tourism, that tourism businesses immediately get the soundness of the outcomes – that thriving is possible. It helps us to drive the conversation away from just growth of revenues and visitor numbers to discussing other metrics and strategies for dealing within our existing organizations, business organizations, marketing agencies or with our elected officials who see tourism marketing as the way for increased growth. Nobody is spending time developing other metrics.

    There is a conference taking place in January, 2020 in Victoria, where a major topic is about shifting metrics in tourism.

  4. Hi Celes,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! And I agree with you that often the promised benefits of tourism most of the times do not end up with the majority of the people living in the destination.

    It’s great to hear that you are using the model of the Doughnut Economics when working with communities and to hear that people are mostly open to the ideas attached to it. Indeed community ownership is a very important part of tourism. I’m curious to hear what other metrics for measuring tourism you have been discussing so far? I think many destinations are currently struggling to come up with alternatives. I’m definitely going to keep on eye on that conference!

    Your ideas about restorative or regenerative tourism are interesting as well, I think there is definitely something to it, but again something that is underdeveloped as an idea and definitely as something destinations are ready to integrate into their policies in a practical way. I’m curious to see how this will develop in the future.

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