Why is Tourism Inequitable?

Concept of choice: save nature or continue to use disposable plastic

Why is tourism such a mixed blessing? Why are Destination Marketing Organisations (DMOs) becoming Destination Management Organisations? Tourism is a mainstay of many economies, and until recently the emphasis has been on attracting as many international arrivals as possible. Now destinations are becoming more aware of the way in which tourism benefits some and disadvantages others. To use two well-publicised examples:

While some types of cruise tourism, such as river cruising, can be beneficial to a destination, larger cruise ships may bring tourists ashore who visit cultural sites and use local infrastructure without contributing to the hotel or restaurant economy. They return to the ship for their evening meal and accommodation.

Research has shown that guests staying at all-inclusive hotels tend not to venture far from their accommodation, which can mean that their entire holiday spend goes on one business, often owned by an overseas corporation. Meanwhile guests use the local supplies of energy and water and create waste which the destination may not be able to recycle.

Tourism is inequitable partly because the economic benefits only reach a few individuals, whereas many people do not benefit at all from the industry. The Travel Foundation has worked on numerous projects over the years which aimed to mitigate this by connecting more local businesses to the tourism supply chain. These include Taste of Fethiye, Flavours from the Fields, Big Up Small Business, and Inclusive Tourism in the Med.

Meanwhile, residents often have to pick up the tab for the extra resources that tourism uses, or its wear and tear on a destination  – usually through their taxes. In Greece, for instance, propping up the expensive oil-dependent power generation system of Rhodes means that every tourist night costs citizens $1.35 (Fotiadou, 2013).

In 2019, we published a report about the Invisible Burden of tourism, highlighting that even when tourism is accounted for, there are invisible costs that rarely make it onto a balance sheet:


Invisible burden graphic


Even if tourism businesses pick up some of the expenses – if they contribute towards maintaining local beaches or monuments, for instance – the hidden costs of tourism still tend to be borne by locals. These may be monetary, or they may impact on quality of life.

One example is the island of Bali, where over-extraction of groundwater has led to saltwater intrusion so that the water extracted is not fit for human consumption in popular resort areas.

Bali invisible burden

The first step towards combating the inequalities that tourism currently brings is understanding the full list of its costs. This is what led us to undertake research into this area, and to share our findings widely with the industry (see Measuring Tourism’s Impact and Destinations at Risk)

The next step is to move forward with destination management, to work out where inequalities lie and develop collaborative solutions to fix them. We are currently working on several projects that bring together destination stakeholders with a view to making the tourist industry more sustainable, including Community Positive Tourism with easyJet holidays. This pioneering initiative will demonstrate that a tour operator’s relationship with a destination can go beyond just selling it, taking destination priorities as the starting point.

If tourism can be better integrated into destination economies, connecting more people to its benefits (and particularly if disadvantaged groups can benefit) it will become a driver of equality. This is the kind of tourism that the Travel Foundation is working towards.

What next?

People working at DMOs or in tourism can sign up for the online course we are developing with Cornell University to learn how to manage a destination more equitably and for the future.

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