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28 October 2019

The past few years have seen a major schism emerge in attitudes to tourism.

On one hand, the new wealth of a burgeoning global middle class and shrinking cost of high-quality tourist experiences have allowed an unprecedented number of people to travel, often resulting in enlightening and inspiring experiences.

On the other hand, many parts of the world have groaned under the weight of wanderlust, with popular destinations swamped by masses lured through cheap flights, package deals and clever marketing.

The fall out, from the beaches of Thailand to the slopes of Everest, has been cries of “over-tourism”, and in areas like Barcelona and Venice, the deluge of visitors has led to outright anti-tourist activism.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles from the University of South Australia has studied this tension for more than 10 years, and her most recent research, published in Journal of Sustainable Tourism, suggests, if we want to preserve the positives of travel, we must urgently rethink our approach to it – as a planet.

“I grew up in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, and I knew at a young age I had to get out of there,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says. “My mother took me to Russia when I was about 14, and while I still don’t understand why she did, if it wasn’t for that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

“So, we need to ensure these sorts of experiences are available to future generations because they are so important – and that means we have to heed the current warning signs about tourism.”

For Dr Higgins-Desbiolles, the growing animosity towards tourism in many parts of the world is not a sign we shouldn’t be travelling, but rather a sign we should be actively changing the way we travel.

“We need to ensure those impacted by tourism are also those benefited, not just in a short-term financial sense, but in an ongoing social and cultural dimension as well,” she says. “Then they, in turn, will have good, enduring reasons to welcome visitors into their communities.”

Likening the required shift in thinking to the emergence of the environmental movement last century – “the greenies have been talking like this for years, and the rest of us are just catching up” – Dr Higgins-Desbiolles suggests the tourism industry needs to buck its addiction to endless growth, recognising the finite limits of the planet and learning to work within them.

“We’re not suggesting everything has to grind to a halt,” she says, “but, just as other areas of industry have had to recognise the importance of sustainability, both socially and environmentally, tourism must stop sacrificing a long-term future for short term gains.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles’s study highlights mechanisms to drive this change, the key being a shift from corporate, often international operators, to local, socially-embedded custodians of tourist destinations, with strong evidence that such a transformation dramatically improves outcomes for people and planet.

“Obviously, we need to preserve the livelihoods tourism provides, but if that is focused on the local community, then they intrinsically limit things to what is sustainable, both for the population and the environment,” she says.

Pointing to the success of initiatives such as that in Guna Yala, an Indigenous province of Panama with a Statute on Tourism protecting the local customs and ecosystem, and the Tourism Optimisation Management Model developed by the community of Kangaroo Island to ensure mass tourism developments did not diminish their quality of life, Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about more sustainable models of tourism.

“This will be a big challenge for the tourism industry in coming years, but it is a challenge the industry needs to face, and I believe it is one it can rise up to,” she says.

“I think there is a change going on around the world, when you look at things like New Zealand’s ‘Wellbeing Budget’ and the Buen Vivir (‘living well’) movement in South America, through which measures of prosperity are based on more than gross domestic product.

“If tourism can embrace that change, it will not only ensure the future of the industry, it will improve the experience for everyone involved.”
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Media: Dan Lander office (08) 8302 0578 | mobile: 0408 882 809 | email: dan.lander@unisa.edu.au

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