In response to the spectre of overtourism, it was encouraging to see Megan Epler Wood begin her essay on Saving the Heart and Soul of Tourism Destinations with the most important question of all – WHY? She asks “why are tourism destinations becoming so crowded and what is being done about it?” Apparently, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has outsourced this crucial query to McKinsey & Co and their findings will be released shortly. In the meantime here are my thoughts.
If you ask the question WHY enough times, you get to root cause of an issue and can determine whether the solution will simply ameliorate a problem, supress the painful symptoms or has the potential to affect a lasting cure. This journey of discovery will take you down through an analysis of symptoms, to the identification of contributing factors and the “root cause” from which they arise.
Ten Factors Contributing to Overtourism
As the travel and mainstream press has literally swamped the digital airwaves describing outbreaks of overtourism symptoms, we’ll press on and identify 10 utterly interwoven contributing factors which are worthy of serious investigation:
1. Growing populations and rising consumption – international tourism has barely scratched the surface of potential demand;
2. Globalisation that has created unprecedented connectivity and accessibility (routes & affordability);
3. Market fragmentation and diversification – the proliferation in reasons to travel;
4. Minimal barriers to entry and very limited controls – tourism is a vast network of self organizing, highly competitive, self-interested providers with limited allegiance to the destination;
5. Industry & governments have spent fifty years promoting the benefits of travel while not insisting all external costs be covered – the rights of travellers to travel have been over emphasized and the rights of residents to determine who to welcome and how have been virtually ignored;
6. The perishability of the product (a time specific experience) that encourages price competition, discounting and the prevailing myth of cheap travel;
7. Digital search engines and algorithms have both concentrated demand for popular destinations and placed further downward pressure on prices.
8. The system comprises numerous “built in” positive feedback loops affecting different parts of the supply chain which reduce margins and necessitate dependence on volume growth;
9. Artificial bottlenecks periodically concentrate demand (school holidays, seasonal weather patterns; cultural events, festivals; work week; natural disasters, political instability)
10. Governments (and politicians) are attracted to growth figures that associate them with success; enjoyed the tax revenues but have under-estimated the collective costs associated with infrastructure and “externalities.”
These factors are woven into a veritable tapestry of threads – tug on one and others will shift. Tug too hard on several at once and the whole cloth can unravel.
The Root Cause of Overtourism
If you ask WHY often enough, you come to an understanding that the system of values, beliefs and assumptions on which tourism is based are fundamentally flawed and no amount of tinkering will solve the problems that are only now becoming so apparent.
Tourism has adopted an extractive production and consumption model developed by a manufacturing sector in an Industrial Age when the planet was still, for all intents and purposes, “empty.” The core flaws of that model include a dependency on growth, the primacy of capital and property, the creation of artificial scarcity, and the necessity for debt and competition all based on a worldview that assumes humans are separate from each other and their biospheric support system, and are always rational, inherently selfish, utility/profit-maximizing beings. The fundamental game of survival is one of competition for scarce resources that, once acquired, can be accumulated and traded as proxies for power and influence thus creating a positive feedback loop that ensures wealth will be concentrated in fewer hands over time.
Here’s the rub – the industrial model, shaped and informed by a scientific tradition based on linear thinking – chains of cause and effect – simply doesn’t apply to a living system and tourism is, most definitely, a living, human system. It’s not a machine or an assembly line either where the focus is on the efficiency of parts.
In linear thinking, when something works, more of the same will always be better. That’s why an economy that shows perpetual economic growth could become a definition of health and success. BUT:
Successful living systems are highly non-linear. They don’t maximize their variables; they optimize them. When something is good, more of the same will not necessarily be better, because things go in cycles, not along straight lines.Fritjof Capra
For several years I have been trying to explain why tourism in general will follow the same path as tourism to a specific destination. In other words, the Tourism Area Life Cycle Model so successfully expounded by Dr. Butler also applies to the global growth of international tourism as a whole. The hockey stick growth curve favoured and promoted by our global tourism institutions illustrates only part of our journey. It applies to an adolescent stage in a system’s development. If we had not lost touch with Nature and learned what evolution had perfected over 4 billion years, we would be aware of the Panarchy Principle.
When a system is managed to optimize a single variable (versus several ) it may produce the desired result for a time. But that result will be compromised over the longer term as the greater complexity of the system is revealed. Single-variable optimisation eventually destabilises the whole system, introducing entropy (disorder, chaos). The system, no longer resilient, degrades (often with shocking speed) into a radically new state. From such disorder, new forms arise. See For Goodness Sake by Chris Houston, former senior executive with Ogilvy.
Panarchy is baked into the way our world works. Until very recently, the primary aim of most companies has been to maximise profits and shareholder returns and the dominant objective of our economy is to grow GDP. Tourism has adhered to those maxims slavishly with virtually every destination on the planet committed to expansion in visitor numbers, spending, jobs and contribution to GDP. How long will it take McKinsey to figure that as an answer to Megan Epler Wood’s question?
The source of our problem is not lack of management – especially as I haven’t found any comprehensive set of management practices and processes that would come close to managing tourism without potential negative consequences for some of its stakeholders. The source is an inaccurate, obsolete perception of how the world actually works that is impeding our ability to imagine and create a better form of tourism that works for the many not the few.
Once you see our world as a living, organic system in which all the seemingly separate parts are actually inter-connected and interdependent, it’s inevitable that the inadequacy – nay, the folly – of simply doing less harm (reducing consumption of resources and production of waste per unit) while continuing to expand the number of units becomes obvious. Even if every airline flew on a new fuel that didn’t produce carbon emissions, and every hotel or ground transportation company had reduced its footprint to zero, the problems of congestion and residents’ sense of being overwhelmed, displaced or disenfranchised would still be threatening our licence to operate if we tried to expand forever. Tourism is an extractive system that consumes physical space and human patience. Both are finite – albeit subjectively so. Easy to sense if you use your heart and soul; fiendishly difficult to quantify!
As Paul Hawken describes it (see a previous post), we are currently adopting a Thelma and Louise solution in slow motion – we’re still going over the cliff but we have decided to go slower! Sustainability practices are essential – don’t get me wrong – but we have to be honest. For many they are largely business as usual with a green or philanthropic coating. We – humanity, the travel and hospitality – are bigger and better than that.
Enlightened companies who are leading the pack are moving now from sustainability and doing less harm to becoming a vital force for good. As William McDonough, leading thinker and designer in the Circular Economy suggests, doing less bad, as in less unsafe, less, unhealthy, less unjust is not being good because you are bad by definition only less so. We must aim not for less impact, not even zero impact but for generative impact i.e. creating positive net benefit for all stakeholders. This is why you will see the term “regenerative and regeneration” start to appear in the mainstream press because there is also a recognition that some healing and restoration is needed first before natural systems can operate as evolution designed them to do. Furthermore, we have a maturing, developing population yearning for meaning and purpose that comes from a desire to do more than simply survive.
The true heart and soul of the matter
This is NOT about semantics or peripheral definitions such as the difference between responsible and sustainable tourism. This progression from sustaining to flourishing, from surviving to thriving IS the heart of the matter. It’s also the pointy end of the sustainability movement that is rapidly growing up and is the output of personal and collective transformation that involves new meaning and purpose – the soul of the matter. It is all about inspiring People and regenerating Places so that both flourish. It’s about giving the communities they call home the Power to heal, bounce back from crisis and co-create a better world for all that will occur naturally when we change our Perspective and Purpose as individuals, companies or destinations.
Conscious.Travel describes a journey to a different destination – not so much of a hero heading out to discover and conquer but more as a prodigal son returning back home – back to a healthier, right relationship with nature that integrates heart and brain and feeds the soul. We don’t offer a blueprint, check lists or even “how to manuals” but a compass with each point designed to encourage new ways of seeing, thinking and being. Only then can we harness the innate creativity and goodness that exists in our communities.
In Part 2, we’ll introduce a compass that can be used to navigate back to the heart and soul of tourism and thereby contribute to the greatest transformation of a human species in the history of life on Earth. What’s really exciting about this approach is that, as Rumi says in the poem, each of us contribute to the pulsating heart and soul of a place and can start this journey towards home and a more inspiring future.