All residents should benefit from sharing their places with visitors. But do DMOs know how?

By Ben Lynam, Head of Communications, The Travel Foundation

The role of the DMO has changed considerably from its promotional agency days, and whilst not every DMO can be said to have truly embraced the change, most will agree (and a few will insist) their role is to manage the visitor economy to better serve their whole community, not just those in the tourism and hospitality industry. The problem is, there is little understanding about how to actually do this, and DMOs are left with their existing box of tools and the hopes that spreading tourism more widely, or attracting high-spend visitors, will suffice.

It won’t. Media’s enduring fascination with overtourism – recently reawakened as international tourism bounces back, with record visitors expected in 2024 – brings the need to demonstrate added value for communities to the fore, even for those who avoid the spotlight. Whether or not residents are protesting, we see more regions, nations, and municipalities asking a simple but fundamental question: why do we want tourism?

The Netherlands has been at the vanguard in answering this question. Their Perspective 2030, published back in 2019, prioritises the common interest of visitors, businesses, and residents alike, ensuring that tourism contributes to the prosperity and wellbeing of all its residents. As Thijs de Groot from the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions (NBTC) explains, “before 2019, the position of residents had not been a key priority. Perspective 2030 approached things completely differently. We said sustainable development must accommodate the interests and needs of inhabitants whom we’re asking to share their places with visitors, and who also frequently access touristic experiences themselves. Respecting and acting upon residents’ needs and wishes is fundamental for any travel industry to have a long-term license to operate.”

Of course, the NBTC isn’t the only DMO placing residents’ needs at the centre. For example, Katrina Thorstensson at Göteborg & Co stresses that “everything we do as a DMO is ultimately for the Gothenburgians. It’s in our mission and ethos that everyone who lives and works here should be able to benefit from a thriving visitor economy.” And in Catalonia, the National Commitment for Responsible Tourism is, as Director General Marta Domènech Tomàs explains, “a vision for the tourism industry that transcends short-term economic gains, prioritising instead the collective well-being of our communities and a profound commitment to the common good”.

There is a reason why tourism, more so than other industries, is being called on to provide for the public good. It’s because the product sold to visitors is the destination in its entirety – not just the commercial offer of a hotel bed, but an experience involving people, culture, heritage, beauty, and biodiversity. Visitors access common resources such as public spaces, public transport, public amenities, and infrastructure, and given every resident feels the burdens of visitors in some way (see the Travel Foundation’s Invisible Burden report), it seems only fair that they should feel some benefits too.

This issue of fairness was the starting point for a global research project currently being undertaken by the CELTH* collective of Dutch universities in partnership with the Travel Foundation, NBTC, and Destination Think. The research examines how, in destinations, the (predominantly economic) gains are concentrated to a greater or lesser extent in the hands of a few. The team is exploring what makes a visitor economy more or less equitable, considering issues such as economic leakage, the costs and burdens of hosting visitors, employment diversity and the ownership models of tourism businesses, and access to amenities for both visitors and residents. Bernadett Papp, leading the project for the European Tourism Futures Institute, clarifies: “We’re looking at how the benefits of tourism can be more equitably distributed, but the answer isn’t to simply find ways to spread tourism. Depending on the destination, that might be part of it, but we are thinking more strategically about how tourism can contribute to the common good, and what practical mechanisms can be deployed by DMOs to deliver broader community goals.” Many DMOs have felt increasing urgency to demonstrate how they contribute to a broader community agenda. Recurring themes raised by participants in the research workshops included: urban regeneration and gentrification; housing and cost of living pressures; employment for disadvantaged groups; access to transport and public spaces; supporting small businesses; and building community resilience and sense of place.

Thijs from NBTC describes how “we’re playing catchup to understand the dynamics between residents, visitors, and the tourism industry”, trying to identify more precisely the positive (and negative) impact visitors have on our destinations, and to better understand how we can positively influence these relationships through sustainable policies, business services, and more inclusive forms of governance. “We need answers to these questions that get asked more frequently: how does travel add value to our communities' toughest challenges? What tourism policies can we put in place that incorporate and address these issues, while also providing a meaningful experience for valued visitors? In short, how can we create a more equitable travel industry?”

The research is seeking to provide some of those answers, analysing the evidence for tourism contributing to wider societal goals (economic, environmental, cultural, spatial etc) and bringing together real-world cases to demonstrate this in action. The mechanisms used to create these benefits are wide ranging – for example revenue sharing, business incubator programmes, new standards and regulations, and volunteering and charitable initiatives.

One example comes from Canada, where 4VI changed its name, business model, and governance structure and became a social enterprise, to better serve the interests of not just businesses but all of Vancouver Island's 870,000 residents. This has impacted on their investments, strategy, and decision-making, while also driving new approaches to communications and engagement. “The travel and tourism industry has the potential to be a powerful force for sustainable development” says Calum Matthews from 4VI. “The first step to realising this potential is to empower local communities to reclaim their rightful role as leaders in the tourism system and for the benefits of the industry to be more equitably distributed.”

An example from Vancouver Island is the Tribal Park Allies Program in the district of Tofino. Located on the ancestral and unceded territories of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation, the Indigenous community proposed to local tourism businesses that they collect a voluntary fee from visitors. As a result, over $1M has been collected and invested into community and environmental projects focused on ensuring that Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations territories are protected for generations to come. The Tribal Park Allies Program is an inspiring example of how local host communities can receive more benefits from tourism, while also playing a more active role in its management.

Gothenburg provides another example in its approach to using events. “Gothenburg is an events city, and events have been a crucial tool for us to serve and engage residents, to support local communities, and involve underserved groups” says Katrina. “One example is supporting events held in deprived or neglected neighbourhoods, to show positive forces at work, and to get more people to discover these areas. Another example is our ongoing partnership with a non-profit association which aims to both include young disabled people to be part of our events and also help organisers make their events accessible and more inclusive.”

The research, which is due out in September, will be a practical tool for DMOs to identify a new set of tools for their toolbox, and consider whether these could be applied in their own context. Armed with this knowledge, destination managers can secure a seat at the wider place-making table by demonstrating how the visitor economy can contribute to broader community goals and the common good. With greater influence among their placemaking colleagues, DMOs will discover even more tools are available in their toolbox.

If you would like to know more about the research, please get in touch with 

*CELTH = Centre for Expertise Leisure, Tourism and Hospitality, set up by Breda University of Applied Sciences, NHL Stenden University, and HZ University of Applied Sciences.

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