What tourism can learn from doughnut economics

In 2019, I was among the first to connect the doughnut economics model concretely with tourism. I wrote a blog post about the clear connections between the ideas about the doughnut and what is happening in tourism. The article received tons of reactions from people asking if I knew more about how it could translate to concrete projects? Or how it could aid in measuring sustainability in tourism?

At that time, I was halfway through my PhD project and started toying with the idea of investigating further how the model could be used in practice. In academic research, this usually means doing interviews or developing a survey. But as the doughnut model is designed to help foster change, I thought, why don’t I use it for exactly that? I designed a workshop in which I explored the potential of doughnut economics to help seven touristic destinations in the Netherlands become more sustainable. Here’s what tourism can learn from using doughnut economics in practice.

What is doughnut economics and how can it be used in tourism?
The doughnut economics model is an economic model developed by Kate Raworth which is shaped like a doughnut. The basic principle of doughnut economics is that it forms an alternative economic model that goes against the idea that we should always strive for growth in our society. Sustainability is represented in the model by 21 different aspects that are positioned in either the social foundation or the ecological ceiling. The inner ring of the doughnut represents the social foundation which consists of facilities that everyone should have access to, such as a fair income, a good living environment, and a safe environment. On the outer part of the doughnut, we find the ecological ceiling. The ecological ceiling consists of indicators such as air pollution and climate change and is often exceeded in our current society as a result of increasing prosperity. One of the most important principles of doughnut economics is to strive for a balance between prosperity and the climate as opposed to focusing primarily on wealth and economic growth. Growth of the economy, with this model, is only desired if it serves the purpose of maintaining this balance.

Credit: Kate Raworth and Christian Guthier. CC-BY-SA 4.0. Source: Raworth, 2017.

In tourism, the growth of destinations is also limited. No place can grow forever and host an unlimited amount of visitors. Doughnut economics challenges us to think about tourism in another way. Instead of focusing on growing visitor numbers or expenditure, the idea is to think about how tourism could contribute to social and ecological sustainability in the first place. With that, tourism is not a goal in itself, but a means to achieve other prioritized goals. The question then becomes: in what ways can tourism contribute to the social and ecological sustainability of a place? And are more or less visitors needed to achieve that?

How does applying doughnut economics to tourism work in practice?
During the workshops, the central question was how can tourism contribute to one or more aspects of the doughnut economics model. To know how tourism can contribute to the sustainability of a place, we should also know what is needed at the destination. The starting point is thus to investigate what the challenges of a given destination are and what is desired by its stakeholders, one of the most important ones being its residents. The next step is to think about in what ways tourism could be a response to these needs and challenges and to come up with specific projects or strategies that target them.

For example, if it is indicated that there are (too) little facilities like public transportation or shops, how can tourism contribute to that? If affordable living is at stake (partially) due to tourism, in what ways can tourism alleviate this pressure on the housing market? All of this belongs to the social foundation of doughnut economics in tourism. At the same time, looking at the ecological ceiling, we can include factors such as air pollution. How can tourism potentially add to improving air quality? Or play a part in reducing plastic pollution?

The strength of the doughnut model is that it holds to power to connect multiple aspects of the doughnut. One of the challenges is thus to look for ways to combine both social and ecological sustainability in projects. This could mean targeting at the same time air pollution and mobility (access to networks).  For example, at destination X, there is a lack of public transportation. This makes for a shortage in the social foundation because this causes reduced mobility for residents who cannot drive or do not have a car. By stimulating tourists to use public transportation more, the frequency of public transportation could be improved. Next to increasing mobility for its residents, this also contributes to reducing air pollution at the destination. In the first place because tourists are using public transportation, and second because the increased frequency might also stimulate residents to use this service more often.

What benefits are there in using doughnut economics in tourism?
The workshops aim at making destinations rethink their tourism strategies. The workshops give destinations a better idea of which aspects can be included when working on sustainable tourism development and how to link them to specific projects. As such, the doughnut economics model can serve DMOs, municipalities, and other industry players as a tool to envision sustainability in a more concrete and comprehensible way. 

The workshops enable destinations to develop concrete ideas that are aligned with multiple aspects of the doughnut model, combining both social and ecological sustainability. In previous workshops, there were, for example, plans that address sustainability in a broader sense where tourism is used as a means to achieve other goals. Examples of this are the restoration of nature through tourism or using tourism to improve infrastructure and facilities. At the same time, some plans focus mostly on industry-specific steps (for example, reducing plastic in hotels) or mitigating negative effects (such as compensating CO2). While these may be relevant, they should be seen as parts of the bigger picture, as in itself they do not necessarily address the destination-wide challenges related to sustainability.

For some destinations, the workshop serves as a first step into integrating more sustainability in their work on a day-to-day basis with smaller steps like adjusting website information about sustainable options or developing sustainable tours through the city. In other cases, the workshop forms the basis for a full sustainability plan or vision providing a concrete overview of all the steps to be taken by different stakeholders to achieve both social and ecological sustainability, based on the aspects of the doughnut economics model.

Interested in what doughnut economics can mean for your organisation? Contact me at shirley@paradisefound.nl

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