Tourism must be a tool, not a goal
CAST, the Center for Advanced Studies in Tourism of the University of Bologna, is one of the Associated Partners of the CROSSDEV project. We met with Alessia Mariotti, Associate Professor in Economic Geography and head of the Center until 2018, for a short interview.
Prof. Alessia Mariotti
What do we mean when we talk about Sustainable Tourism?
Sustainable Tourism has been defined in many ways, and many of them are official definitions, like the one adopted by institutions such as the World Tourism Organization in 2004.
The word sustainability got tied to tourism quite quickly, as soon as the United Nations started talking about Sustainable Development through Agenda 21, the one with the famous slogan "Acting local, thinking global". It was 1992.
Sustainable Tourism is a tourism ensuring the three pillars of sustainability: ecosystem integrity, economic efficiency, and social equity. Where all three pillars are respected simultaneously, there is sustainability. Therefore, sustainable tourism should at the same time protect the ecosystem, minimise environmental impacts, and be economically efficient by fairly redistributing its revenues.
Is it a utopian idea?
It is not utopia, but it surely invites you to start thinking how to get from words to facts.
There are so many different approaches, here’s mine. First of all, I want to stress that tourism is a proper industrial sector, a real industry, and as such it has both negative and positive impacts. In case of economic crisis, many territories get resolutions to invest in tourism, convinced that it is a light industry. It is not. Tourism can have extremely strong impacts. This is why it is important to address it adequately.
And where do we start from?
The key word is "planning". Promoting the sustainable development of tourism means adopting a thorough planning approach. This can be done in three ways: considering the impacts on a global scale, adopting a long-term perspective, and encouraging local communities to take part in the decision making process.
This works very well especially in the “off the beaten tracks”, areas that are less traveled by mass tourism.
In places with no tourism or where tourism plays a marginal economic role, you can plan starting from a small scale, encourage locals to get involved and give their take on what to do to increase tourism.
What impact can Sustainable Tourism have on communities?
I believe that serious planning for sustainable development of tourism generates at least 3 types of benefits to the communities involved.
The first one is an intangible benefit: the growth of cultural capital. This happens because in order to start planning you need to know where to start from and this imply a study phase. So, the first step is to gather information. Often, communities do not know what key elements of their cultural, natural or intangible heritage could be exploited for tourism purposes. So, the planning process is a process of becoming aware of what you have, but also of choosing if you want to share something and what with visitors.
The second benefit comes from the fact that often these initiatives are the only resource for a local community. So, even if the visitors’ flow is minimum, the benefit is deep, also in terms of resilience. It's a matter of scale: in some places, even a small impact can be very significant.
The third benefit depends very much on the context. In some places what we call community tourism involves a great deal of foreign tourists. In this case, an intercultural dialogue can be built.
Last but not least, some benefits are pretty self-explaining, such as the occasion to learn a new job or a new language.
What do we respond to those saying that there is no such thing as Sustainable Tourism?
The debate is open. I would answer with a question: with respect to which element of sustainability are we saying that tourism is not sustainable?
If we follow some benchmarks, we end up saying that domestic foot tourism is the only truly sustainable kind of tourism. And yet, we all agree that humanity has a need to move even to places that will never be reached on foot.
What do you think is the biggest strength of CROSSDEV?
CROSSDEV really stresses the link between Sustainable Tourism and cultural products, and I really appreciate that. In CROSSDEV tourism is a tool and not a goal: this is crucial.
Tourism must be used as a tool to achieve sustainability. In no way sustainability should be used as a way to increase tourism flows. In this project, tourism becomes a means to build intercultural dialogue, growth of social capital, complementary income opportunities etc. But, the ultimate goal is to build opportunities for peoples to be equal and get together.