Images of the deserted streets of Venice and Rome, taken after Italy entered Europe’s first lockdown, were both eerie and beautiful – our first glimpses of a world of tourist-free city centres. Venetians, whose numbers have dwindled to just 53,000 in recent years, were unsurprisingly conflicted: for the first time, they had the city to themselves, but none of the revenue on which many of their livelihoods depend. By and large, of course, the people of Venice will be desperate for visitors to return, while also hoping that this pause can usher in a new kind of tourism in a city that has long struggled with overcrowding.
How these eternally popular destinations manage demand is a complicated but increasingly posed question; the phrase ‘overtourism’ has entered popular parlance, but remains insufficient in addressing the complexity of the issue. As ABTA notes in its Tourism for Good report, destination authorities are increasingly investing in tourism management and marketing methods to sustainably balance the benefits of tourism with protecting natural and cultural assets, safeguarding local traditions and delivering visitor satisfaction. In essence: we need to make sure tourism works for all of us.
Taking to time to reflect
Covid-19 has clearly wrought havoc on communities and the travel industry, but it has provided an opportunity to reflect and plan, both in terms of tourism strategy and wider regional and national projects. A striking example of time well spent is in Barcelona, which is now beginning to imagine a radical, greener future. A ten-year plan for the restructuring of the city will prioritise pedestrians and cyclists over drivers, creating so-called ‘superblocks’, or superilles, with more cycle lanes and 10km speed limits. The logic behind it is clear: as it stands, Barcelona has the EU’s highest density of cars, with 6,000 per square kilometre, according to The Guardian – with many of the journeys made in the city taken by day-trippers. Plans to overhaul the city’s transport systems had long been muted, but the dark days of Covid have provided impetus to actually do it.
In the Czech Republic, in addition to a new promotional focus on the city’s green experiences, Prague is looking to create what it calls “harmonious and stable balance [among] tourists, locals and the city itself”. The city’s mayor has become the latest to announce the intent to limit Airbnb’s presence, as well as regulations for cafés to move to the side streets of the Royal Route and more promotion of events held outside the city centre or in the off-season.
Serving the community
Undeniably, there are negative effects of tourism that need to be managed, but it remains in many respects a force for good, contributing more than ten per cent of global GDP and supporting an estimated one in every ten jobs worldwide. Criticisms of tourism too often fail to consider the cultural exchange that takes place between the traveller and those living and working in the destination. Mark Twain’s words, written more than 150 years ago, still ring true: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” But that doesn’t mean that we, as an industry, should rest on our laurels: we must constantly ask, who is benefiting from travel and are the communities we visit properly served by it? As ABTA sets out in Tourism for Good report, this can be achieved by local sourcing; tourism infrastructure planning and management; and safeguarding local culture and the natural environment.
In its most successful iterations, it involves collaboration. One recent example is the PACT partnership among the Panama government, the Panamanian Foundation for Sustainable Tourism (APTSO), Fundación Natura and Planeterra, a non-profit organisation that works with G Adventures. “The aim of PACT is to significantly increase the amount of communities directly benefiting from tourism in Panama,” says Jamie Sweeting, president of Planeterra. “The country is pioneering a new national strategy, designed to increase the number of jobs and revenue opportunities for communities through community tourism enterprises. As travel returns, Panama is seeking to demonstrate how this form of tourism can support rural community development, celebrate its diverse culture and history and support the conservation of its rich biodiversity.”
In essence it means that travellers see a more authentic side of the country they visit, and that money is kept in the destination. “We envisage that experiences will range from community homestay programmes to having a lunch hosted by local women’s cooperatives; tours of the local ecosystem led by indigenous guides and youth-led cultural activities. Essentially, travellers will be better able to see Panama through the eyes and experiences of local people, increasing their enjoyment and knowledge of what makes Panama so special,” says Sweeting.
We live in unequal societies in an unequal world, and it is true that much tourism involves comparatively wealthy travellers visiting destinations in poorer parts of the world – but we must not see community tourism as something that should only exist in developing parts of the world. There are many fine European examples – from the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership in Scotland to the many community-led eco trails in Slovenia, a pioneer of green travel. A new product in the small southern European country, for example, offers travellers a map and a list of suggested accommodations, restaurants and activities, with the route only stopping in cities, towns and villages certified through the Slovenia Green brand and tourism strategy.
In Ireland, the Burren Ecotourism Network in County Clare has been highlighted by Lonely Planet as one of the best community tourism projects in the world, described as “an impressive community collaboration of local enterprises which has transformed Ireland’s Burren and Cliffs of Moher Geopark into a global leader for sustainable tourism”. The network includes a code of practice with ten key areas of good practice that must be achieved by each member, with a training programme providing enterprises with the tools to establish baseline information and benchmark standards in the areas of energy, water, waste water and waste management.
Travelife, a Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC)-recognised label, which is owned by ABTA, has specific requirements around community support and engagement when it comes to accommodation. These include ensuring that information is provided to guests about the local culture and how to experience it respectfully, consultation with community groups on any developments, and protecting and respecting heritage, culture and natural areas of importance that could be affected by their operations. Claims are verified through an onsite audit every two years, and have included examples ranging from joining together hotel guests and locals on voluntary beach cleans to setting up programmes to provide food to local people in need.
Tourism doesn’t have to be badged as community tourism to provide great benefit. One great example is that of the Balearic Islands. It is now five years since the sustainable tourism tax was launched, which applies to all stays in tourist accommodation. In that time, 170 sustainable tourism projects have been initiated to promote ecotourism, protect the environment and restore cultural heritage sites in Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera. These are far-reaching and hugely impressive – recent projects include a new app to help protect the marine biology of the islands and a new eco hut in Mallorca’s Serra De Tramuntana, which will offer hikers 52 beds divided among 12 rooms.
“The tourism industry accounts for around 35 per cent of our islands’ GDP and it is essential that we bring visitors back,” says Iago Negueruela, the minister of tourism. “However, our ambition is that we do so in a sustainable way, continuing to roll out sustainable initiatives to counteract any negative environmental impacts. Our visitors have directly helped us fund a huge number of initiatives to promote ecotourism, help preserve the environment and restore our cultural heritage. Behind the scenes, we continue to work intensely with the private sector, including businesses and trade unions, to restart the tourism season and its activities as soon as restrictions are relaxed.”
At a time when holidaymakers are unable to visit destinations, Tui Group has set up the Corona Relief Fund through its Care Foundation. Its focus is on two key areas: a food-security initiative supports local people in holiday destinations such as Mexico, Jamaica and the Cape Verde islands and distributes food and hygiene packages to local communities; and the 100 Helping Hands initiative, which works with local aid organisations on the ground in holiday regions to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic and provide disadvantaged communities with emergency support.
These examples are proof that sustainable or community-led tourism doesn’t simply mean luxury eco-lodges or high-end holidays – they’re evidence that all tourism can benefit communities in the host destination. “Travelling responsibly doesn’t have to mean it’s less affordable,” says Dr Susanne Etti of Intrepid Travel. “Sustainable travel can often be linked to high-end eco-travel [and] people think it means far-flung, expensive holidays, but the reality is that travelling responsibly does not mean breaking the bank. A lot of responsible options are actually more affordable, such as taking public transport, eating local or staying in locally owned accommodation.”