Why sustainable tourism is not happening

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.

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