Thirty years on the front line –
the inside story of Tourism Concern
Following the groundbreaking organisation’s sad closure in 2018, and to mark the launch of Travindy’s archive of its online content, Tourism Concern’s Founder Alison Stancliffe tells the story of how a passion for justice helped to bring about positive change in the world’s biggest industry.
In 1988 I started a new British network, calling it Tourism Concern. Why the name? Well, tourism was the world’s newest growth industry. New destinations were filling the brochures to cater for ever rising tourist numbers. I’d come across mounting evidence from around the world that the industry could and did cause damage to the people whose homes and communities were in the path of expansion. Yet those people’s voices were being totally ignored in the scramble to develop, and tourism’s negative impacts were hardly on the radar.
You can’t challenge injustice until it’s in the open, so with a small band of likeminded people I began getting the word out to anyone who’d listen.
“Tourism Concern has been set up to change the one-way focus of our current perceptions of tourism. It starts from a simple premise: that the people living in the places where we take our holidays matter”
Our first recruitment leaflet
This photo rescued from an old album shows the steering group we formed to turn our mission into reality. Our first solidarity action was helping protestors in Goa raise their concerns with British package tour operators. It’s hard to believe now but, back then, the idea that a host’s rights in a destination could be as important as a guest’s was revolutionary! Someone early on labelled us ‘a bunch of militant academics’, but we were simply ‘telling uncomfortable truths’, as one of our critical friends in the industry put it some years later.Our network soon included tour operators and travel agents, global NGO workers and tourism consultants, teachers and university researchers, church and community leaders. We’d all been touched one way or another by experience of tourism’s harmful impact and we wanted to change tourism for the better.
It wasn’t just in the UK that critical voices were being raised. We’d been inspired by other groups in many European countries, in America and the Antipodes, in the Caribbean and India, in Africa and the Asia Pacific. As the world opened up to tourism, we banded together to support people at tourism’s sharp end, questioning and challenging decision makers, developers and managers, as well as tourists themselves.
“Tourism should contribute not merely to economic growth but to just, participatory and sustainable societies”
Third World Tourism European Network manifesto 1987
Ten years on, under the leadership of our formidable and visionary Director, Tricia Barnett, we were an established charity and veteran of numerous campaigns. We’d set up a library and a magazine. We’d published a raft of reports and education publications, all made possible by the precious resource of enthusiastic members and volunteers supporting our council and staff.
With partners around the world, we’d had some success getting tourism included in the sustainable development debate sparked by the 1992 UN Rio Conference. And we’d also pioneered a global fair trade tourism network. But most importantly, our message that local people mattered was getting through to the industry. Now came the harder bit – changing things for the better.
We explored many avenues in our second decade, seeking to turn awareness into positive action that would benefit local people. Displacement caused by tourism had been a major theme of our early work. It was still glaringly obvious that injustice and a lack of respect for people’s human rights was the root cause of much local discontent with tourism, witnessed over and again by shocking tales that came through our door and postbag. So although we never ignored the disastrous impact that badly managed tourism had on the natural environment – impossible anyway, as they’re usually intertwined – we relied on the well funded wildlife lobby to address this and we kept people tourism’s impact on people at the forefront of our campaigning.
So for example, in the wake of the 2004 tsunami, we grappled with how Indian coastal communities could protect themselves from rapacious developers eyeing their land for new resorts.
Working with international partners in five global locations we researched labour conditions among hotel workers and exposed how far they fell short of acceptable standards and practices.
We also developed codes of conduct with indigenous people’s movements to ensure their rights were respected and with trekking porters’ organisations to improve dangerous working conditions.
All these issues and many more were cited in our major report Putting Tourism to Rights. With practical recommendations for all stakeholders, it was launched at the House of Lords with the backing of Lord Joffe and Baroness Helena Kennedy and opened doors for us to work with the UN World Tourism Organisation.
And of course we tackled the tourists too. We challenged people to think about their role in tourism, at events ranging from Glastonbury to holiday shows. We ran a Talking Tourism programme around the country and produced videos for schools and tourists. We embraced the magic of the early internet to reach new audiences. In fact, long before the emergence of today’s online responsible tourism agencies and bloggers, we produced a web-based community tourism guide, the forerunner of our popular paperback Ethical Travel Guide that went to three editions!
Entering our third decade we turned our attention to the global issue of water scarcity, running a Water Equity and Tourism(WET) campaign with large scale funding and international partners. Some years earlier Sun, Sand and Sweatshops, our campaign on corporate and social responsibility, had caught the mood of that era. The WET campaign similarly encouraged government and industry leaders to address systemic problems affecting local people’s rights. Public awareness and education activities included an online teaching package for schools whose title neatly summed up our aim – Water for All.
Meanwhile, new tourism trends were emerging. We’d sounded warning bells in the ’90s about the damaging impact of what are today’s boom businesses – all-inclusives and cruising. Our Director, Mark Watson, appointed to succeed Tricia in 2012, commissioned reports to reignite public and industry concern about the potentially malign impacts of these products. We were able to highlight other disturbing issues through our website, from orphanage tourism to the working conditions of London hotel workers. We also made concerted efforts to get people questioning the merits of commercialised and short term volunteering abroad, while supporting best practice.
With external funding increasingly hard to come by, Mark’s small team worked hard to bring more supporting members into our existing Ethical Tour Operators Group alongside a subscribing Academic Network and Ethical Volunteering Group. They developed an ambitious online Ethical Travel Guide, hoping that would bring us new financial support from the growing number of people who saw themselves as ethical tourists.
But promoting and servicing these activities left little time and money for working directly with local communities to raise issues. Although local activists were involved in a consultation on a much needed houseboat code for the Keralan Backwaters, maintaining contact with campaigning groups was taking a back seat. In 2017, Mark did sign Tourism Concern up to one important global network initiative – a joint response to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Berlin Declaration: Transforming Tourism.
‘Sustainable tourism is mentioned in the 2030 Agenda four times; however, the term is strongly contested by civil society organisations for its lack of a people-centred approach. Only tourism that contributes to the improvement of the well-being of local people, dignity of workers, environmental integrity as well as the elimination of exploitation, inequalities and poverty, is a meaningful option for sustainable development. lf it ignores this responsibility it is a threat to development, rather than a tool. Therefore, the development of tourism per se is not an end-goal in itself – all efforts should concentrate on the transformation of tourism.’
Excerpt from Berlin Declaration on Transforming Tourism, 2017.
Frustratingly, there was no capacity in Tourism Concern to support the initiative beyond promoting it on the website. In fact, the writing was already on the wall for us. In the British economic and political climate of the late 2010s, changing tourism for the better was not an issue that attracted much public attention or donor interest. We’d also arguably become victims of our own success, inspiring new interest and action inside the tourist industry where previously we’d been a lone voice. Journalists and a mushrooming number of responsible tourism advocates were making the running as much as we were, raising issues and helping community entrepreneurs to find markets.
Underfunded and overstretched and no longer enjoying an active membership to turn to for support, it was a losing battle to live up to our current strapline, Action for Ethical Tourism, and the trustees were increasingly realising this. Tourism Concern had always swum against the tide, but our ability to keep afloat in rough seas was deserting us.
After Mark resigned in 2018, the final staff member, Lidia Hejja valiantly tried to keep the show on the road. But that was not to be. The trustees decided that the best option in the circumstances was to close.
While causing few ripples beyond the tourism sector, the shock announcement that appeared on our website in September left many in the industry expressing dismay that no independent critical voice was left in the UK. I felt the same myself. I’d been with Tourism Concern through good times and bad, as a volunteer, a paid worker and an active member. Now who was left to tell the uncomfortable truths, I wondered.
It’s certainly easier in this era of online blogs and social media for people badly affected by tourism to tell their story, getting the exposure it used to take us years to bring about. Sometimes specific issues may even get resolved. So you could say ‘job done’.
But what about the deeper causes of the continuing injustice and unsustainable practices that have always accompanied tourism development, alongside its much trumpeted economic success? Who will now dare, or even care, to hold the people further up the chain of power, in government and industry, to account? And who will now challenge us, the tourists, the consumers who ultimately play the tunes that the industry dances to?
Over thirty years, our tiny ambitious organisation was not afraid to tell the big truths as well as the smaller ones, finding allies wherever we could in Britain and around the world to fight injustice. We offered precious solidarity to communities confronting the arrogance and greed of powerful outside forces and supported countless others struggling for a slice of their local tourism cake. And we did along the way provoke changes for the better, inspiring a generation of hosts, guests and go-betweens to challenge the view that tourism is a mere money making machine.
If our story can inspire others with a similar passion to take on the new challenges of tourism in the unfolding century, that will be a legacy worth leaving.
Take a look at this special 2010 edition of In Focus magazine for more about our history and the global movement we sprang from:
A timeline of activism
1988 Tourism Concern is conceived by Alison Stancliffe, a global education worker in Gateshead, after contact with campaigners in Europe flagging up serious concerns about this rapidly expanding industry’s social, economic and environmental impacts. Alison forms a network to partner European and global groups, bringing together likeminded people drawn mainly from the church and education sectors.
1989 Tourism Concern is officially founded as a membership organisation. With seed funding from Christian Aid and Cafod, a newsletter and advocacy work begin, including a campaign to challenge tourism impacts in Goa, India.
1990 Members set about raising awareness in earnest, running exhibition stands, selling publications, speaking at events, lobbying key industry figures. Tourism Concern begins to attract mainstream media interest.
1991 Tourism Concern is relocated to London and Tricia Barnett takes over co-ordinating the organisation. In Focus replaces the newsletter, reaching beyond the membership.
The Himalayan Trekking Code – the first multi- stakeholder code of its kind – is devised with UK and Nepalese trekking companies and NGOs. Used for over 15 years, it formed the basis for its successor, The Trekking Porters’ Code,.
1992 Tourism Concern, now a charity, publishes its first teaching pack for schools, Be My Guest. Hot on its heels is our first groundbreaking report, Beyond the Green Horizon: Principles of Sustainable Tourism, produced with WWF, which sets out key guidelines and principles of sustainable tourism for the first time. It is reprinted twice and translated into Spanish and French.
Tourism Concern’s global network of local partners begins to grow, prompting us to campaign on their behalves on a range of tourism issues, including golf tourism, backpacking, child sex tourism and water.1995 The first major campaign is launched: Our Holidays, their Homes, focusing on people displaced by tourism, particularly tribal peoples in East Africa and the people of Burma/Myanmar. A public postcard campaign that challenges tour operators on their policies is met with anger, followed soon after by a willingness to
collaborate with Tourism Concern to improve industry practices. 1997 To mark the historic Kyoto Convention on Climate Change, Tourism Concern devotes its autumn ‘In Focus’ magazine to the issue of climate change and transport – ‘a debate we should not shy away from’ according to its editorial.
1998 Tourism Concern publishes Tourism and Human Rights to mark the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This paves the way for work to begin with the UK Government to improve industry practices, culminating in the creation of the Travel Foundation in 2003.
1999 Looking Beyond the Brochure, a teaching video featuring tourism in The Gambia, is distributed to 5,000 teachers, schools and colleges. In-flight videos promoting ethical tourism are produced and screened on First Choice and KLM flights, as well as being available to download on ABTA’s website.
Tourism Concern teams up with Gambia Tourism Concern to campaign against the negative impacts of all-inclusive hotels; as a result, they are banned for some years by the Gambian Government.
Plans for a proposed mega-development on Nungwi peninsular, Zanzibar, that would displace 20,000 people are scrapped following campaigning by Tourism Concern.
Tourism Concern establishes The International Fair Trade in Tourism Network, which includes NGOs, tourism consultancies and tour operators from around the world. Its foundation leads to the publication of Corporate Futures – the first-ever report on corporate social responsibility in the tourism industry.
2000 Tourism Concern publishes the first listing of community tourism projects worldwide, The Community Tourism Guide. Republished as The Good Alternative Travel Guide in 2002, this is reincarnated again as The Ethical Travel Guide in 2006 and 2009. It becomes the publisher’s best-selling title.
2001 Concerned about the impacts of the burgeoning gap-year industry, Tourism Concern convenes a conference for travellers, the travel industry and the media. This culminates in the Travellers’ Code, 250,000 copies of which are distributed by gap-year companies, plus the production of our award-winning film, Your Place or Mine, to raise awareness of the issues.
2002 The Trekking Wrongs: Porters’ Rights campaign is launched. Following collaboration with porters’ groups in the Himalayas, Kilimanjaro and Macchu Picchu, as well as UK trekking operators, The Trekking Porters’ Code is launched and adopted by over half of UK operators.
The Talking Travel speaker programme kicks off. Over 70 volunteers are trained as speakers and visit schools, travel shows and exhibitions across the UK.
A glossy one-off women’s ethical travel magazine, Being There, is distributed in The Body Shop across the UK to great acclaim.
2003 Collaboration with London Metropolitan University to integrate sustainability into the tourism-related undergraduate curriculum leads to the publication of guidelines for universities.
A Foreign Office Advisories campaign on the damaging impacts of unnecessarily prolonged FCO advice against UK tourists visiting certain destinations culminates in the formation of a permanent multi-stakeholder panel to review advisories regularly.
2004 The Sun, Sand, Sea and Sweatshops campaign entails groundbreaking research into labour conditions in the tourism industry. Following a successful postcard campaign, the UK’s leading tour operators adopt policies on labour conditions for hotels they use.
2005 After the December 2004 Asian tsunami, Tourism Concern researches the land-grabs and mass displacements of coastal communities to make way for tourism. This work underpins a new two-year programme with local partners in Sri Lanka and India to empower coastal communities to defend their land and livelihood rights against tourism-government land-grabbers.
The Behind the Smile exhibition, focusing on workers’ experiences in Kenyan resorts, goes on show at the Oxo Gallery in London and travels the world.
2006 The first meeting of Tourism Concern’s Ethical Tour Operators’ Group establishes the viability of collaborating with tour operators to promote best practice.
Campaigning begins with Friends of Maldives to draw attention to that country’s state-perpetuated human rights abuses.
2007 Tourism Concern is invited to key UN meetings on tourism as an advocate of grassroots issues. Ongoing dialogues with the UN Environment Programme result in partnerships with both the Global Sustainability Tourism Council and the Global Tourism Partnership, which ensure that human rights issues are addressed.
2008 A pilot project to promote understanding of the social and economic impacts of tourism among community-based enterprises in Mexico is pioneered by Tourism Concern. The results are developed into a training manual for local NGOs.
2009 New research by Tourism Concern uncovers the links between luxurious resorts in Burma/Myanmar and members of its military regime. Renewed campaigning helps push the UK Government to update legislation, making it an offence to do business with members of the ruling junta.
Support for campaigners against a mega-resort development on the tiny island of Bimini in the Bahamas, contributes to the Bahamian Government decision to establish a marine-protected area.
Tourism Concern launches Putting Tourism to Rights at the House of Lords. The UN World Tourism Organisation and ABTA agree to work with Tourism Concern on the recommendations.
2010 Our photography exhibition, Destination Tsunami: Stories and Struggles from India’s Southern Coast, begins its UK tour. Work on empowering coastal communities in southern India to withstand the pressures of top-down tourism development continues.
Work begins on WET, the Water Equity in Tourism campaign. This involves research with partners in five destinations around the world.
Voluntourism is identified as problematic for local people and ripe for future work. Tricia Barnett resigns after twenty years at the helm.
2012 Mark Watson is appointed as Executive Director.
The WET campaign report is distributed report to global agencies and industry leaders. Ethical volunteering and the voluntourism industry become a strong focus of work.
2013 2013 Loss of donated office space and move to Croydon; operations from now on are managed online. Members are encouraged to support primarily through fundraising, though dedicated ‘virtual’ volunteers still provide vital help to Mark.
Reports continue to be published, based on desk research, linked to events and publication launches. Work on a code for houseboat owners in Allepey has some initial success but founders due to lack of money and changing political circumstances,
2015 Redesigned website and branding, supporting a strategy aimed at increasing a varied membership base through attracting ethical travellers, tour operators plus higher education bodies, but finances increasingly problematic, staff and membership continue to shrink.
2018 2018 Mark Watson leaves. Trustees decide human and financial resources are too limited to carry out the charity’s mission and opt for closure.