Want to boost tourism? Forget the tourists, look after the locals

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Locals are key to sustainable and successful tourism policy. Source: Witsawat/Shutterstock

TODAY, tourism generates 10 percent of the world’s GDP, one in every 10 jobs and 30 percent of world trade in services, and can be a huge force for good in both developed and developing nations alike.

This only looks set to grow as 2017 is on track to be a record breaking year for international tourism, according to the UN World Tourism Barometer.

Between January and August 2017, destinations worldwide welcomed 901 million international tourist arrivals – 56 million more than in the same period of 2016. That’s a significant 7 percent increase, well above the growth of previous years, making 2017 the eighth consecutive year of continued solid growth for international tourism.

But growth of this extreme scale, while good for business, does come with its downside.

Overtourism has been at the forefront of industry players’ minds this year as protests in Europe have sparked the conversation on overcrowding and a drop in living standards for those residing in tourist hot spots. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has labelled 2017 the year for sustainable development in a bid to shine a light on this growing scourge of the industry.

To harness the power of tourism, we need to understand its transformative nature on the communities it interacts with, Marcio Favilla, Executive Director for Operational Programmes at UNWTO, said, speaking at the 6th Global Summit on Urban Tourism in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Venice, Italy, saw protests in August due to overcrowding and overtourism. Source: Shutterstock

The event, the first of its kind in Asia, is organised by the UNWTO and the Malaysian Tourism board. It aims to tackle the problems that are inherent with burgeoning tourism in restricted urban settings and seeks to pose solutions and preventative measures to tackle the problems before they arise.

There are many factors that must be considered when developing tourism strategies, particularly for urban tourism development. But if a city really wants sustainable tourism growth, the number one group you need to look after isn’t the tourists, it’s the locals.

Stakeholder engagement that includes the public and civil society, is absolutely key when looking to expand your appeal to a broader range of tourists, says Ko Koen, Associate Professor at the Academy of Hotel and Facility Management, Breda University.

Using the example of Barcelona, Koens explains that when opening up new areas to tourists, the local people should be the first to be consulted.

“Barcelona is taking this as an opportunity and discussing with residents, asking ‘what do you think are the interesting bits in your city?’ If that’s what they find interesting, then that’s what they focus on. This creates a massive buy-in and sense of ownership,” he said. “It’s a great way of moving ahead with your expansion of tourism with an interdependency with the community.”

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Combining tourism planning with urban planning, and involving the local people in the decision-making process, can prove to be a win-win for both tourist and local alike. The local people have a sense of ownership over how their local area is developed and the local charm is not lost for tourists coming to town to get a taste of the local flavour, Koens said.

In this way, locals share in the benefits of tourism rather than being sidelined by unwanted developments and not seeing the financial benefits that well-managed tourism can bring to an area.

“What is good for the locals, will attract the tourists,” says Favilla. “The key lies in putting long term vision together with involving the local citizens in the planning process, and also having them sharing in the benefits of that process. It cannot happen only to the benefit of others, it has to happen to the benefit of the locals.”

The cities that draw the most appeal for tourists are those in which the residents are happy and it’s a pleasant community to live in. It seems obvious, but many places have struggled to implement the concept, instead letting tourism overrun otherwise local communities.

“A nice place to live is a nice place to visit,” says professor of Hospitality and Tourism at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Jafar Jafari. “We need tourism to work for the guest and for the host at the same time.”

“We have to go back to the community. Tourism is about community development, it’s about socio-economic development, and it has to be in harmony,” says Jafari.

“Tourism succeeds when the host community succeeds.”