The Need for Sustainable Tourism Development

Destinations International's Jim McCaul interviews Shannon Guihan with Bannikin to dive deeper into the topic of sustainable tourism.

Sustainable tourism is a topic that is being discussed more frequently in the communities we represent. In the recently released 2017 Futures Study, we spoke with destination and community leaders to get their thoughts on the trends that will affect our industry over the next 3-5 years.

A common response amongst community leaders was that the democratization of travel has arrived and significant growth in many destinations is leading to ‘over-tourism’. Destination leaders acknowledged the need for destination organizations to become thought leaders on sustainability, with greater involvement in preservation of local experiences. Destination organizations need to encourage responsible travel and strike the right balance for developing local experience and legacies.

We recently sat down with tourism development expert, Shannon Guihan, to dive deeper into this issue. Shannon is a Director at Bannikin, a Toronto and Hong Kong-based travel and tourism consultancy dedicated to enhancing the businesses of niche-focused tour operators, destinations and lodging providers worldwide. She has more than 15 years of international experience working at multiple levels of tourism development and delivery. Shannon has worked with organizations including the World Travel & Tourism Council, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, The Travel Foundation and Tourism Cares on the issue of sustainable tourism development.

Jim: When you talk about sustainable tourism, people tend to think about being "green”? What is your definition of sustainable tourism? Is it more holistic than that?

Shannon: There are so many definitions of sustainable tourism that I loathe to add another. Frankly I feel our industry’s need to redefine only adds to the lack of understanding. In short - yes, it’s far broader than the question of “green”, which is very limited in scope. Rather, I believe that the successful path to a sustainable tourism model is an integrated approach that includes local planners, communities, destination marketers and tourism providers - and I do realize what a mouthful this is. Being “green”, or environmentally responsible is only one element, managing inventory and demand, educating and involving travel trade and the end consumer, pricing appropriately, benefiting the local community, adding quality employment options - these are all pieces of the puzzle. 

Jim: Overtourism has dominated news reports over the past year. Why do you think this is becoming an issue now?

Shannon: Well it certainly isn’t a new issue; however, I think we have a bit of a perfect storm of strong increases in visitor numbers, coupled with the sharing economy and the travelers search for the “authentic”. Visitors are no longer confined to hotels or urban tourist centers - they’re in the flat next door, it’s an entirely new element, and one not welcome by all. It’s the ‘not in my backyard’ mentality that it is not uncommon when a development or change impacts your community. Overcrowding at destinations worldwide has been the elephant in the room in travel and tourism for many years - it’s not a new issue, but the potential checks and balances that may stem overcrowding are not popular choices for most.

Jim: I would also add that “over-tourism” or overcrowding can intensify preexisting problems in a destination. The rise of urbanization has put strains on cities, and an increase in visitors deepens that. You see that with Airbnb being blamed for the increase in housing prices, when the reality is it’s a number of factors that are contributing to the problem, many with a much larger role.   

Getting back to travelers searching for the “authentic," Jason Clampet of Skift once wrote, “Locals really, really don’t want tourists to live like a local. They just want them to let locals live their lives without tacky shops and sky-high housing costs geared toward by people living on big vacation budgets.” Would you agree?

Shannon: Though I appreciate the message here, I don’t agree entirely. I believe this is determined by what it truly means to live like a local. If visitors are genuinely behaving, not simply living, as locals, then I feel this is a considerable step towards preventing the tacky shops - as there is a breed of traveler who doesn’t wish for that any more than the local would. A crucial element of genuine sustainable travel is the tourist’s education and respect of local customs. Many in the industry may disagree with me, but I believe that travel is a privilege, not a right. And for the sake of the communities around the world, that needs to not be an elitist approach, but a responsible one. 

Jim: We’ve seen recent examples of destinations trying to maintain a balance of resident and visitor needs in their communities. In Venice, they launched the #EnjoyRespectVenezia campaign aimed at telling tourists how to behave when they’re exploring the city. Amsterdam is looking at increasing their taxes on visitors. And places like Cinque Terre are going as far as imposing caps on the number of tourists. Are any of these practical solutions for the long term, or are they merely stopgap solutions to an issue that needs a larger strategic approach?

Shannon: I would say that these are all elements to larger, destination specific, strategic approaches. Frankly I’ve never agreed with the thinking that caps on visitor numbers is an extreme response to destination management. At the risk of oversimplifying, most industries have product quality standards - well, we sell experiences, and the quality of said experiences can be directly, and negatively, impacted by overcrowding. I’ve always supported a user pays model and we can all agree that visitor education and awareness of local customs is crucial. The issue here is tackling each of these issues in silos and without context - seasonality, current pricing structure, hotel inventory, the nature of a destinations experience - these are all parts of a larger picture that must be considered. The solution for potential overcrowding in Iceland simply will not work for an urban center like Barcelona. 

Jim: I would agree that the challenges vary from destination to destination, but there seems to be an industry wide need to move away measuring success based upon purely upon arrivals. What are your thoughts on more sustainable metrics of success for destinations?

Shannon: We’re in a world of big data, it’s everywhere, let’s use it. Quality, amount and spread of visitor spend means so much more at a destination level than simple arrival figures. They might not be as flashy, but let’s give our audiences more credit for wanting to view the bigger picture. 

About Shannon Guihan:

Shannon is a Director at Bannikin, a Toronto and Hong Kong-based travel and tourism consultancy dedicated to enhancing the businesses of niche-focused tour operators, destinations and lodging providers worldwide. She has more than 15 years of international experience working at multiple levels of tourism development and delivery. Shannon has worked with organizations including the World Travel & Tourism Council, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, The Travel Foundation and Tourism Cares on the issue of sustainable tourism development.