Why sustainable tourism is not happening

Shows the dissertation of Shirley Nieuwland titled: Live like a local revisited. A study on sustainable tourism development in cities.

Five years ago I started my PhD research, investigating in what ways cities could develop tourism more sustainably. Cities were then (and still are) struggling with the pressure of growing tourism and finding ways for it to be more sustainable. I ended up with three reasons why sustainable tourism is not happening yet and recommendations on how to overcome this. 

When I talk about sustainable tourism, in the first place I mean social sustainability. How does the city remain a nice place to live in for its residents? How can we make sure the city remains affordable for the people that live there? How to make sure it is not all waffle places and souvenir shops? Later on in my research, I also included ecological sustainability considering things like green in the city and sustainable transportation in the city, as for example air quality just as much contributes to the liveability of the city.

My research specifically focused on recent forms of tourism in cities where local governments increasingly want to attract tourists that are looking for the local and off-the-beaten-track experience. This form of tourism is less about visiting the city’s highlights and more about local initiatives. It would benefit the city and its residents as tourism and local life are more intertwined. For that reason, it could be a more sustainable form of tourism for urban destinations as this form of tourism would not disrupt local life in the city. In my research, I have investigated if this is really the case and if this form of tourism could indeed lead to more sustainable forms of tourism. Here are the three main conclusions and recommendations for the future.

Connection between urban- and tourism development
During my research, I found that many urban- and tourism development processes are strongly connected. For example, tourism and the presence of STRs add up to existing housing issues in the city or neighbourhood. Tourism also has the potential to reinforce gentrification in the city. Especially because the tourists that seek the local experience are most often visiting those neighbourhoods that already experience high levels of gentrification. I have therefore concluded that while there may be benefits to this type of tourism, there are also negative sides. We can for example not say that tourism is sustainable if half of the people in the city cannot afford to live there anymore because of the increased popularity of the city and rising housing prices.

Because of this strong connection, we cannot separate the two fields in practice because tourism spans many fields of policy making including housing, retail, infrastructure, and clean energy, especially when it comes to sustainability. At the same time, it has become clear throughout the research that policymakers and other stakeholders do not often address this connection. Processes of gentrification are, for example, hardly ever mentioned in a tourism context. My first recommendation for urban tourism to develop more sustainably, is thus that destinations pay more attention to the relationship between urban- and tourism development and the role it plays in sustainable development. A more holistic approach that includes all the facets that tourism touches upon is needed.

Importance of perceived tourism impact
I have also stressed the importance of perceived impact when studying sustainable development of tourism. This can differ greatly based on the specific context. Often tourism is still measured in numbers (e.g. number of tourists, number of Airbnb’s, number of souvenir shops) but this does not always give a good impression of what the impact is like in reality. For example, a case study on the presence of Airbnb in Denver, showed that the negative impact was perceived the most in the neighbourhood with the least Airbnb apartments precisely because it is a residential neighbourhood where people are not used to tourists as much as in the city centre. Based on these and other findings I recommend that it would be useful to complement the quantitative metrics with more qualitative elements, including the lived experience of residents. This is important in understanding and developing urban tourism more sustainably and will also help destinations to set goals for developing tourism in a more sustainable way.

Neoliberal thinking underpinning the unsustainability of tourism development
One of the most important reasons I found in my research as to why sustainable development of urban tourism is not truly happening yet, is the prevalence of neoliberal thinking amongst different people involved with tourism. Policymakers and city marketeers have the aim of attracting more tourists and generating more profit for the city. Entrepreneurs want to make more money with their businesses, and tourists want to get the cheapest deals when booking accommodation and transportation. This way of thinking prevents sustainability in tourism as ‘making a profit’ or ‘increasing profit’ are almost always (unconsciously) put above other sustainable values. As long as strategies that aim at attracting any type of tourist are underpinned by a neoliberal ideology and motivated by making a profit, no form of tourism will in fact be sustainable. To develop tourism more sustainably, it is important that this way of thinking is countered with new ideas about the tourism industry and the value it has. Ideas about degrowth, alternative economic models such as doughnut economics, and regenerative tourism could help in making that transition. My final recommendation is thus to become familiar with those ideas and integrate them into daily processes, decision- and policymaking.

Are you working for a tourism organisation or destination and want to exchange thoughts on how to start working on this sustainable transition? Shoot me an e-mail at shirley@paradisefound.nl.

Do creative strategies lead to more sustainble urban tourism?

Many cities want to develop sustainable tourism using creative strategies. One way to do this is by attracting tourists that explore the city beyond its most touristic places, for example by visiting more local and creative areas. This blog post based on the research paper The consequences of being ‘the Capital of Cool’. Creative entrepreneurs and the sustainable development of creative tourism in the urban context of Rotterdam’ investigates if these strategies can truly lead to more sustainable forms of tourism.

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We’re all in it together: sustainable tourism post covid-19

By now we have all seen the discussions online about rethinking the future and moving towards a ‘new normal’. How can our world become fairer, more sustainable, slower? What do we want the world to look like after COVID-19? The tourism sector is no exception to this where issues such as overtourism and pollution are often mentioned. Can we do things differently and develop sustainable tourism now that we have hit the reset button? And who are involved with this?

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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

Regulating Airbnb: the struggle of cities

Regulations Airbnb

Cities around the globe are breaking their heads on how to respond to Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms. And even though this player has been in the field for over a decade now, cities are still struggling with the question: what to do with Airbnb and how to regulate? But what is it that they are struggling with exactly? And why is regulating so hard? These and other questions will be answered in this article that is a short version of my earlier published article in Current Issues in Tourism.

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Gentrifiying neighbourhood Monti and tourism development

Right behind the Colosseum lies Monti, a small neighbourhood in Rome that for years was neglected by tourists. Why? It used to be an infamous red-light district with a lot of poverty and there was no reason to set foot in this area of Rome. This has now all changed since it started to gentrify. These days Monti is considered one of the ‘hippest hoods’ of Rome and draws in many tourists that come for its livelihood, quirky cafes and picturesque streets. Not everyone is happy though. Tourists might have found the next hidden gem of the city by going off-the-beaten-path, for some people living in Monti these changes affect them more than tourists might realize during their short visit. Continue reading “Gentrifiying neighbourhood Monti and tourism development”