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Can tourism be an effective tool for sustainable development?

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Until recently tourism was not considered to be a viable means of promoting economic development and thus unworthy of serious academic study: it was seen as subordinate to the study of more ‘serious’ areas of research such as manufacturing or producer services, due its often seasonal and insecure nature. I have found that this idea requires rethinking: tourism is increasingly popular and often viewed as more of a necessity rather than a luxury.

Tourism has become a key feature of mass consumer culture and life: it is now responsible for one in every twelve jobs worldwide, whilst in some developing countries can account for 25% of their GDP (UNWTO, 2011). Increasingly, tourism involves international travel, so can be an important means of economic growth and employment for many people and countries on both the global and local scales. Picture of Laig Beach, Isle of EiggCoinciding with the increased popularity of mass tourism and increases in international travel, there has also been increased concern about its impacts on the host societies in economic, environmental and/or socio-cultural terms. These are considered the ‘three dimensions of sustainability’ and in my 2013 Master’s thesis I used this framing to explore the relationship between tourism and sustainable development (using the Isle of Eigg, Scotland as a case study). Can global tourism ever really be considered sustainable, or even a tool for sustainable development?

As an example, let’s consider some potential economic impacts of tourism.  Negative impacts may include the creation of economies that are overly dependent and vulnerable on external actors (the tourists themselves or funding organisations).  However more positively, tourism can bring new employment and extra revenue to the host destination. In socio-cultural terms the negative impacts could include loss of cultures or traditions, or an increase of illegal practices. An image of Las Vegas - an area where tourism has had many impactsHowever, more positive socio-cultural impacts could include strengthening of the host community cohesion or the reintroduction /appreciation of traditions. It is also important to consider the interactions, or trade-offs, between different types of impacts.  For example, negative environmental impacts are often inevitable and can include a loss of habitats, biodiversity or various forms of pollution. But is it acceptable for the environment to be impacted in these ways for more positive economic gains? And what would happen if the destination becomes more or less popular? Examples of other issues are explained on websites such as this teaching module by UNESCO or this site "Sustaining Tourism", run by a consultancy to the travel industry .  There have been attempts to improve the environmental sustainability of tourism with nature-based tourism and eco-tourism but these have generally been on a smaller scale.

I found that tourism can be a useful tool for development if it used in conjunction with other ‘tools’ such as the diversification of the economy into other additional sectors and areas.   However, questions remain: for example, what sorts of employment could fill the employment gap that may emerge in dwindling tourist destinations, or exist alongside a popular tourist destination?  I hope to publish aspects of this work soon: please contact me if you’d like to discuss more.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



Dear Alison,
Thank you for your comment. I looked a little at the effect tourism had on housing but only with regards to Eigg. As Eigg is a community owned island the community trust (who purchased the island in 1997 through donations) have been able to fix up and rent out some houses to the local population at more affordable rates. Eigg is perhaps different to Applecross or parts of Skye for instance as the majority of its population are year-round residents. In addition, although it is an important part of their economy are not fully reliant on tourism- they also have many creative businesses and more than one source of employment. Eigg's population has been growing since the community buyout, and there are now a number of young people and young families living on the island (both newcomers and returnees), and currently stands at about 100. I believe tourism can be an aid to sustainability but every destination has a limit (its carrying capacity), but in the long-term it cannot be the only means of development or employment as then, as you say, a housing crisis may occur, as every destination has a lifespan in terms of its popularity (see Butler's work on the tourist life cycle). Other forms of employment and self-employment, i.e. a diversified economy, are also key. In addition the fact that Eigg is a community owned island has also proved to be very useful in terms of a more sustainable living.

Did you look at the effect tourism had on housing? In Applecross, a very popular tourism destination, we now have an housing crisis because about 50% of the housing stock is holiday homes and prices are way beyond what locals can look at, reliant as they are on seasonal, low paid tourist based work. Result is our younger generations cannot look to stay here, and younger people looking to move here from elsewhere can't either as they would also have lower paid work. We now have a population of 200 with about 120 over the age of 50 and tourist based businesses have trouble recruiting and retaining sufficient employees to keep businesses going. Not sustainable.

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Printed from /blogs/can-tourism-be-effective-tool-sustainable-development on 28/02/24 03:22:09 PM

The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.