Lessons from Community-Serving Tourism Economies, Hospitality News, ET HospitalityWorld

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Revenues from tourism do not always benefit the local population and economy. It’s time to change that.

Tourism seems to be back in force this year. International arrivals will reach around 70% of the pre-pandemic level and some places are even struggling with the increase in demand. But not too long ago, global organizations pleaded for financial support and suggested the crisis was an opportunity to rethink tourism – to make the industry stronger, more sustainable and more resilient going forward.

As tourism emerges from the pandemic, we should reconsider how to make the sector more accountable to the people it affects. Uncontrolled tourism development and over-tourism are likely to return to pre-pandemic levels unless regulations are put in place.

If tourism is to grow in a way that pays back to the community, lessons are already available in many places around the world. Applying a tourist tax is just one of many ways to rebuild the industry for the better.

For example, Bhutan’s “high-value, low-volume” tourism development strategy required tourists to shell out at least US$200 per day through its pre-pandemic minimum day pass. Of this, US$65 was for a sustainability fee, while the rest was for services provided by the tour operator, including accommodation and meals.

The industry is currently going through a “reset” coming out of the pandemic. The sustainable development fee is now 200 USD and the daily rate has been abolished. Visitors will still need to use the services of a tour operator to enter the country, but these operators can now decide what they charge for their services, in addition to accommodation, meals and administration. The revenue from the fees will be used to take care of the environment, improve infrastructure, provide training for industry employees and improve services.

In Singapore, the tourism board receives support from the government, but its main source of funding comes from a 3% levy charged directly to guests staying in hotels. Well-funded, the tourist board not only works to attract visitors, but also oversees the development of attractions, infrastructure and amenities. All of these services also serve the community and not just tourists. These include festive lighting in popular tourist locations as well as the rebranding and marketing of local neighborhoods.

Many tourism products often support nation-building messages, contribute to local cultural development, and engage with community groups. For example, the tourist board has played a central role in the renewal of Singapore’s ethnic enclaves – Chinatown, Little India and Geylang Serai. As a result, these places have been accepted as authentically Singaporean by residents, in line with the government’s multicultural social engineering programme. While there are criticisms of the touristification of Singapore – in terms of culture and heritage – tourism itself is now part of Singaporean culture.

In many countries, the attempt to find a balanced tourism development for residents and travelers is thwarted by the various stakeholders and their vested interests.

For example, a city and a town 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 it in “overdeveloped” places such as Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia, or Las Vegas, USA, where local community members are not often consulted.

Many residents who do not work in industry may not feel they benefit from the visitor economy. They can also suffer the inconvenience and become an unintended part of the tourist destination’s product as they suffer from overcrowding, inflation and less affordable housing. For example, on the island of Lombok, Indonesia, many locals have less access to water, sanitation and hygiene than tourists.

Tourism development plans should assess new attractions and determine if it is something the community needs first. The community hosts the visitors, they are part of the tourism experience. This is why it is crucial to consult them and gain their support for the industry to become socially sustainable. Currently, it is more common for community groups to approach tourism businesses for assistance. This can cause local groups to lack bargaining power and be disenfranchised. Residents who protest will make visitors feel unwelcome, for example.

Many large 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 the washing away of corporate social responsibility – good deeds that are used to enhance reputation for marketing purposes rather than serving the community altruistically.

But community service demands can be placed on large tourism projects when there is political will. For the Olympics, for example, candidate cities must show that their games will bring a lasting legacy to the community. Games shouldn’t just be a vain, profit-driven project.

Tourism developments, such as mega malls and large resorts, may be required to provide permanent art spaces for local artists, take responsibility for the maintenance of a natural park or support the operation of a cultural institution. In this way, it can be demonstrated that these tourism businesses contribute directly to the community. Major developments should not only take into account the community, they will contribute directly to society, despite the additional costs that may result.

At the height of the pandemic, tourism-dependent communities rallied around local tourism and hospitality businesses. But such community support for the industry is not unlimited. This is why post-pandemic tourism should aim to be sustainable for host communities. As society changes, an industry can change too. And there’s no better time to start.

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