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Visit Scotland | Alba
Article published 22/06/2020

Our Senior Insight Manager, Chris Greenwood, looks at the community impact of tourism and points to some of the best practice coming from other countries.

Community impact of tourism

Since the start of the year we have witnessed neighbourhoods, cities, countries and continents close as we follow advice and protect ourselves and our families from the coronavirus.

After what has been a monumental example of global cooperation, for many regions of the world we're beginning to see the emergence of nations, at this halfway point of 2020, from the lockdown brought on by the global pandemic, COVID-19. 

While we all recognise the individual tragedy behind every victim the virus has taken, there's been noticeable observation of the wider effects that coronavirus has had on the economy, environment and society and the legacy that this event will leave.

Aberdeen Beach

The OECDrecognise the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is, first and foremost, a humanitarian crisis affecting people’s lives, and has triggered a global economic crisis. This has a very tangible impact on the tourism sector. A sector which is critical for many people, places and businesses, with the impact particularly felt in countries, cities and regions where tourism is an important part of the economy. Tourism generates foreign exchange, drives regional development, directly supports numerous types of jobs and businesses and underpins many local communities.

The sector directly contributes, on average, 4.4% of GDP, and 21.5% of service exports in OECD countries. For several OECD countries the role tourism plays is much greater. For example, tourism in Spain contributes 11.8% of GDP while travel represents 52.3% of total service exports, in Mexico these figures are 8.7% and 78.3%, in Iceland 8.6% and 47.7%, in Portugal 8.0% and 51.1%, and in France 7.4% and 22.2%.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government’s Sustainable Tourism Growth Sector represents 4.5% of the Scottish Economy. This figure is greater in the rural regions of Scotland with Highlands, East Lothian, Argyll & Bute, South Ayrshire, Stirling and Perth & Kinross seeing tourism represent between 8.5% and 9% of the local economy and similar, if not larger, shares of employment attributed to tourism.

We can see how recovery of tourism post COVID-19 is seen as critical to national and regional strategic thinking and recovery plans have been developed and implemented around the world. The desire for consumers to become travellers is central to these plans.

Sentiment towards travel has evolved throughout the past few months. Initially, lockdown brought a nostalgia about travel, a need for inspirational images and armchair adventures to take us places virtually when we can’t go physically. When facing the prospects of quarantine, health screening and physical distancing it became clear from surveys that people wanted travel but in a self-controlling manner.

Rural locations and wide-open spaces were high on priority lists, preferences towards domestic holidays and staycations appear higher at present. The latest results from the BVA-BDRC COVID-19 tracker finds it is younger consumers who are more likely to ‘splurge’ and most likely to be missing overseas holidays and, for the first time in the four months of the survey, the majority of respondents feel that it will be 2021 before we can expect normality and there is an uptick in intention to walk and cycle amongst commuters.

The walking route between the Grey mare's tail and Loch Skeen

While there is the need for the tourism sector to restart and a desire among the consumer to travel, the communities that have embraced the tourist historically are contemplating how they will manage the early trip takers.

We can sympathise with communities that perhaps have been sheltered from the heath impacts of the pandemic, their rural location a benefit to ensuring the spread of the virus was minimised. This will naturally make communities wary of newcomers, especially if this brings strains on infrastructure. Indeed, it was only last year that the growing issue of over-tourism was a portent of the role communities play in the delivery and impact of tourism. With the hiatus that COVID-19 has brought, it is an ideal opportunity to readdress societies relationship with travel.

The message of responsible tourism is more important now than it has ever been. 

Anecdotally, many operators don’t want to just rebuild their business as it was before, they want to do things differently. It is the coming together of the new traveller mindset with the responsible tourism ethos of operators that will bridge the gap between the benefits of the visitor economy and communities.

Destination case studies

There are many inspiring case studies of destinations, providers and organisations driving forward tourism recovery responsibly and with community focus. Here are a few examples:

  • Iceland  Tourism Pledge – Inspired by Iceland offers tourists to take a pledge to travel responsibly when visiting the country. ‘The Icelandic Pledge’ is an online agreement where tourists can sign and promise to respect nature and society while travelling in Iceland.
  • New Zealand Tiaki – This is an initiative to help all travellers to New Zealand care for people, place and culture, for now and for future generations. ‘Tiaki’ in Maori means “to guard or care for people and place.” The premise is to ask visitors to be mindful of their actions while spending time in someone else’s homeland.
  • VisitGreenland – The latest campaign from VisitGreenland is “Nunarput Nuan - our Wonderful Greenland”, which is targeting locals to visit friends and family, explore areas of the country they’ve never been to before get a deeper connection with their home country. The objective is that they will help local businesses and jobs to survive and develop unique experiences along the way.

We have seen how the Faroe Islands (Preservolution Strategy to limit tourism to positively impactful levels) and Slovenia have been developing responsible tourism initiatives that embrace community impacts of tourism for some time. This is part of a developing trend that will differentiate destinations in the eyes of consumers.

The trends are becoming clearer and are evolving from signals observed over the past few years. The new normal post COVID-19 will find consumers seeking travel with purpose. Visitors want to support a tourism industry that support communities. This may be through volunteer tourism at one extreme and visitors demonstrating their commitment to limit travel impact through their actions such as rewilding initiatives or sustainable travel choices through to recognition of operators preferences to local suppliers, and collaborative activities within destinations which encourage longer stays – higher value but lower volume experiences.

It's clear that while we all adapt to the world today and the unprecedented changes we have witnessed, care will be the new service standard and operators and destinations will need to behave as responsible members of society demonstrating care for people in general, not just their own customers.

In many ways, social distancing has translated to physical distancing, but social closeness is improving. This closeness and care for each other is something that we expect to remain even post COVID-19.

The Adventure Travel Trade Association

Further reading

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