Whose destination is it?

At WTM London this year we ran 25 events over the three days. It was the 10th anniversary of World Responsible Tourism Day and there were two brief films for the opening. The first looked back over the 10 years and the second looking forward at the major challenges. 

The challenge of overtourism came up in many of the sessions, there is increasing concern that in a significant number  of destinations we are running up against the environmental and socio-economic limits to growth – there will be several panels on this at WTM London in 2017. One of the outcomes of the conversations on the Responsible Tourism Stand this year was an agreement amongst a number of destinations in Europe and Asia to work together and share ideas about how to tackle the challenge.

The word “respect” came up repeatedly in the panels and during the conversations on the Responsible Tourism Stand. Central to the concept of Responsible Tourism is the aspiration to use tourism to make better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit – in that order. Great places to live are great places to visit. There were three sessions discussing how to make the interactions between local people and tourists better. Better experiences for the hosts and guests and  respect, mutual respect, came up frequently.

The key policy question for government is whether the place and its residents will use tourism or whether the tourism industry will use the place. Sir Colin Marshall, when Chair of British Airways launching the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards in 1994 pointed out that tourism and travel industry is “…essentially the renting out for short-term lets of other people’s environments, whether this is a coastline, a city, a mountain range, or a rainforest”. The industry collects the rent whilst rarely contributing to maintaining the asset.

The travel and tourism sector is 11% of global GDP and yet it looks to government, national and local, to fund a proportion, often a large proportion, of the marketing costs. Although there are places where the contribution from the public purse is small, for example, the budget for Barcelona’s destination marketing includes only 5% from the public purse. This is rare, too rare

Despite the scale of the sector and its profitability, destination marketing is largely funded by local taxpayers many, most, of whom will not benefit from tourism and may regard the use of their public space by tourists and day visitors to be an inconvenience and an irritation. The maintenance of public space for tourism, whether that is Trafalgar Square or St James’s Park in London or the market square and streets of vernacular architecture in “chocolate box” towns and villages, has to be funded – and tourism businesses contribute no more than the businesses which do not benefit from tourism. Similarly rarely does even half of the local population benefit directly from the tourism they subsidise. The local authorities have to clean and maintain the historic core of Venice which benefits tourism businesses as far away as Bologna and Innsbruck. The tourists take their trophy photos and enjoy the public spaces for free – at the expense of residents and the non-tourism businesses. Only 10% of visitors to Venice pay to enter the Doge’s Palace, and that is the most popular paid for attraction, Venice is free.

Where the funded attractions are outside the centres of cities, towns and villages, there may be little or no benefit to the local economy from the public expenditure. It is rare for an attraction to forego the revenue that can be captured from the sale of souvenirs and food and beverage, denying other local businesses any opportunity to benefit from the tourism that public funding has helped attract. Match funding is increasingly popular but this can exacerbate the problem, distorting the way a place is marketed – and the place does not “belong” to tourism. It is not for tourism to shape and communicate the identity of a place.

When I was handling incoming groups I arranged a tour of Kent apple farms for a group of Polish apple growers. They wanted to visit London for one day – I was shocked by their choice of the itinerary for their experience of London: Buddy Holly at the theatre, lunch in Chinatown and a visit to the Trocadero Centre at Piccadilly Circus, souvenir shops and amusement arcades – few Londoners ever went there. Such a limited view of London – with considerable effort I did persuade then to take a ride on the open top bus tour and see some of the sights. Their image of London was impoverished by the marketing messages they had received from popular media and the London marketers.

The content and funding of destination marketing matters – the destinations belong to those who live there and fund their maintenance.



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