Communities belong at the center of tourism

Now, we can make a choice to put them at the heart of recovery planning

My favorite thing about working in travel is that us “travel people” absolutely love our jobs: in particular, the deep and meaningful connections we get to make around the world. That’s what makes it such a special industry to work in, and what gets me out of bed in the morning (along with the coffee and a new-born). So I have been utterly devastated to see tourism abruptly shut down, to hear of friends and colleagues in our global community who have lost their livelihoods or, tragically, their lives. Yet I have also been heartened by the way we have come together in support of each other, and in search of a better future.

There has been plenty of speculation about that future. More and more attention is being given to how best to engineer a recovery, against the likely backdrop of an imminent worldwide recession. I don’t think anyone really knows exactly what recovery will look like, but I am confident that travel will have a leading role.

All of us desperately want things to get back to “normal” when this crisis finally ends, and there will be a rush to do that, once restrictions are lifted. But do we really want to go back to business-as-usual? That old reality – continuous growth, high volumes and small margins, poor investment in infrastructure, with scant regard for the needs of residents and the environment – is even less compelling given the risks that will remain present long after the current situation is behind us: future pandemics, geo-political uncertainty, dwindling resources and, of course, climate change.

Our report last year with Cornell University and EplerWood International, Destinations at Risk: The Invisible Burden of Tourism, describes in some detail how tourism is built “on a shaky foundation, that could crack under its own weight”. While issues of overtourism and unchecked growth may now seem a distant memory, the “weight” of tourism will return, and with it, renewed pressure on destinations struggling to cope or trying to figure out what their own growth trajectory may look like.

The task of rebuilding tourism gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebalance it. It doesn’t make sense to go backwards to the previous paradigm, with a focus on ever-growing visitor numbers and tourism receipts, while the needs of local communities were poorly served. Now, we can make a choice to put those communities and the resources they depend on at the heart of recovery planning. This will help to revive local economies quickly, which has to be the priority before visitors can return in any number, and is the only way to create more resilient supply chains and more diverse and inclusive products and services. Adding community representation to decisions also offers protection for our industry against itself, by providing an important check against businesses seeking competitive advantage at the expense of the shared destination “product”.

What does this mean in practice? The conclusions of our Invisible Burden report hold firm: we need stronger destination management which serves, first and foremost, the needs of residents and enables real collaboration with companies and other stakeholders on a shared agenda. To do this will require significant behaviour changes. Stronger destination management will need a new mandate based on community engagement; new skills and data to understand tourism’s full impact; new tools to develop local SME capacities and inclusive procurement practices; new ideas and levers to manage how the visitor economy grows. And most importantly, new finance mechanisms will be required to protect destination assets and invest in new products as well as sustainable infrastructure.

Our focus at the Travel Foundation will be to support that effort all the way. We already have a wealth of experience, knowledge, and resources to offer, and over the coming weeks and months we’ll be announcing several new initiatives to build on this. We are already underway with the next phase of the “Invisible Burden” partnership with Cornell, EplerWood International, and PATA to address the destination management skills gaps with a new online training course and other activities. We are forging further partnerships and collaboration across the public, private and third sectors to support destinations in their recovery and to share knowledge and tools for the common good.

The incredible dialogue and emergence of new alliances that has taken place within the travel sector over the past weeks has been a bright spot in a very challenging time. There’s a lot of work to do and much uncertainty remains. But this crisis has also made me hopeful that, together, we’ll be on the path to making a better future for tourism a reality.

Please keep the dialogue going,



Jeremy Sampson


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