Tourism revenue doesn’t always benefit the local people and economy. It’s time to change that.
Tourism looks to be back with a vengeance this year. International arrivals will reach about 70 percent of the pre-pandemic level and some places are even struggling with the increased demands. But it wasn’t long ago global organisations advocated for financial support and suggested the crisis was an opportunity to rethink tourism — to make the industry stronger, more sustainable and more resilient in the aftermath.
As tourism emerges out of the pandemic, we should reconsider how to make the sector more responsible toward the people it affects. Unchecked tourism development and overtourism are likely to return to pre-pandemic levels unless regulations are put in place.
If tourism wants to develop in a manner that pays back to the community, lessons are already available from many places around the world. Applying a tourist tax is just one of several ways to rebuild the industry for the better.
For example, Bhutan’s “High value, low volume” tourism development strategy required tourists to fork out at least US$200 a day through its Minimum Daily Package Rate before the pandemic. Of that sum, $US65 was for a sustainable development fee, while the rest was for services provided by the tour operator, including accommodation and meals.
The industry is now going through a “reset” as it emerges from the pandemic. The sustainable development fee is now US$200 and the daily package rate has been abolished. Visitors will still need to use the services of a tour operator to enter the country but now these operators can decide on what to charge for their services, on top of accommodation, meals and administration. Revenue from the fees will be used to care for the environment, improve infrastructure, provide training to employees in the industry and improve services.
In Singapore, the tourism board receives government support, but its main source of funding is through a 3 percent tax charged directly to guests staying at hotels. Being well-funded, the tourism board not only works on attracting visitors, but also oversees the development of attractions, infrastructure and amenities. All of which also serve the community and not just tourists. These include festive lighting in popular tourist spots as well as rebranding and marketing local neighbourhoods.
Many tourist products often support nation-building messages, contribute to local cultural development and engage with community groups. For instance, the tourism board was central in the renewal of Singapore’s ethnic enclaves — Chinatown, Little India and Geylang Serai. These places became accepted as authentically Singaporean by residents as a result, in line with the government’s multicultural social engineering program. While there are criticisms of the touristification of Singapore — in terms of its culture and heritage — tourism itself has now become a part of Singaporean culture.
In many countries, the attempt at finding balanced tourism development for residents and travellers is thwarted by different stakeholders and their vested interests.
For instance, a city and a village should have different tourism development strategies due to their different demographics and interests. Developments that attract a larger pool of interest can destroy the character and fabric of the destination. You can see this in ‘over developed’ spots such as Bali’s Kuta Beach, Indonesia, or Las Vegas, United States where local members of the community are not often consulted.
Many residents who are not working in the industry may not feel they benefit from the visitor economy. They may also experience the inconveniences, and become an unwilling part of the tourism destination product as they suffer from overcrowding, inflation and less affordable housing. For instance, in Lombok Island, Indonesia, many residents have less access to water, sanitation and hygiene than tourists.
Tourism development plans should evaluate new attractions and consider whether they are something the community needs first. The community is the host to visitors, they are part of the tourist experience. Which is why it’s crucial to consult them and gain their support for the industry to become socially sustainable. Currently, it’s more common for community groups to approach tourism businesses for support. This can lead to local groups lacking bargaining power and becoming disenfranchised. Protesting residents will not make visitors feel welcome, for example.
Many big hotels, as part of their corporate social responsibility, voluntarily give back to community projects such as sponsoring events at a local sports club. The challenge is corporate social responsibility-washing — good deeds that are used to improve reputation for marketing purposes rather than altruistically serving the community.
But community-serving demands can be placed on major tourism projects when there is political will. For the Olympic games, for instance, bidding cities must show that their games will bring a lasting legacy to the community. The games should not just be a vanity, profit-driven project.
Tourist developments, like mega shopping centres and big resorts, can be required to provide permanent art spaces for local artists, take on the responsibility of maintaining a natural park or support the running of a cultural institution. In this way, these tourism businesses can be shown to be contributing directly to the community. Bigger developments should not only consider the community, they will contribute directly to society, despite the added costs that could incur.
At the height of the pandemic, tourism-dependent communities rallied around local tourism and hospitality businesses. But such strong community support for the industry is not limitless. Which is why post-pandemic tourism should aim to be sustainable for host communities. As society changes, so can an industry. And there’s no better time to start.
Can-Seng Ooi is a sociologist and Professor of Cultural and Heritage Tourism at the School of Social Sciences, University of Tasmania. He lived and worked as an academic and researcher in Denmark, Singapore and Scotland before moving to Australia in 2017.
He declares no conflict of interest.