On Tourism

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Tourism is a complex industry. Businesses and individuals seek to generate profit from the provision of goods and services to people from other places. But it is also an industry built on the human desire to travel, learn, recreate, explore and interact with other people.

Some blame tourism for the loss of amenity to “the community” while ignoring the many social, economic and environmental benefits that flow from tourism. Its a convenient scapegoat for the problems a community perceive affect their lives. Blaming the visitors has parallels to the populist reaction to blame others for the problems we as society face.

I live and works in close proximity to one of Australia’s most iconic and evergreen tourism destinations. The costs and benefits of tourism in Byron Bay have been espoused by interest groups from concerned residents to business owners to politicians. Invariably, every one who moves to Byron Bay wants to be the last person to move to Byron Bay, citing the pressures of over-population on infrastructure and the environment as reasons to curb tourism. Convenient if you’ve put roots in the promised land and now want to protect your patch. Others assert their authority on matters tourism-related because they have a holiday once in a while.  Other selfish souls give the majority a bad name by profiteering and giving nothing back to the community.  Thinking people understand that it’s a bit of give and take to live in a beautiful place that is desirable to live, work and recreate in.

Though ive made my living out of it for nearly two decades, I really dislike the word tourism, and loathe the word ‘tourist’ and its connotations of a homogenous, unthinking mass of interlopers rolling into towns by the coachload, adorned with cameras, long socks  and loud shirts ready to tick off their bucket list and take, take, take.  That’s a stereotype of course, but one that is persistently applied by those who seek to demonise tourism. Travellers or visitors are collectively individuals, families and groups of people of different beliefs, values races, religions and cultural backgrounds moving from their usual place of residence temporarily. Often its for a holiday, but also to visit friends and relatives, to be educated, to gain employment or for business.

In defence of tourism, it is integral to the culture, economy and communities of nations, in particular regional and rural areas. Places that proactively embrace and plan for tourism understand that a healthy and sustainable tourism industry brings vitality and prosperity. Here’s how:

  1. Travel  and tourism  foster social cohesion. People travel for many reasons, including to visit friends and relatives who they don’t see regularly. This is often combined with the pleasure of ‘a holiday.’
  2. Travel and tourism create jobs. Providing gainful employment is a key factor in addressing social disadvantage.
  3. Travel and tourism build cultural tolerance and understanding. Travel to other places broadens the mind and more accessible travel in the 21st century has contributed significantly to tolerance and empathy for the values and beliefs of other cultures, indeed the success of multiracial Australia.
  4. Tourism revenues can help build local community resilience. There are many examples of local governments in Australia having the acumen to work out business models (like tourism levies) that contribute to their revenue streams and more than cover the costs resulting from increased human activity. This also helps offset the burden on residents from raising revenue through council rates.
  5.  Tourism helps protect the natural environment. World Heritage wilderness and National Parks need protection for future generations and the wellbeing of the planet. Allowing people to visit, experience and appreciate them builds knowledge and respect for their cultural and ecological significance. Allowing people to visit in small groups led by expert guides and indigenous leaders serves both to educate and reduce the carbon footprint by reducing the number of vehicles required to provide the experience.
  6.  Tourism creates vibrancy and diversity in local communities,  providing amenity for residents. Where I live in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia, the vibrancy of its towns and villages is in part due to the viability of tourism to sustain a diverse range of businesses. The great cafes, restaurants, galleries, markets,  services, pubs, festivals and events would not survive without the trade of visitors to augment that of residents.
  7. Tourism has a symbiotic relationship with other industry sectors The view that tourism is purely about hotels, motels, resorts and attractions is hackneyed and outdated. Tourism benefits – and benefits from –  industry sectors that make a region unique; the arts and creative industries, local markets, health and wellness not to mention  traditional sectors like retail and supermarkets,  food production and agriculture, conservation, fuel stations, services.
  8. Input industries rely on tourism. Cleaners, linen providers, tradespeople, farmers, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers – all rely  to some extent on tourism industry operators as clients. A downturn in tourism hurts those businesses who provide goods and services to tourism operators. Discouraging tourism hurts more than just traditional tourism operators
  9. Tourism operators and businesses are part of the community. Business owners are residents too, and pay rates to their council in return for services that improve their amenity.
  10. Tourism contributes to sustainability.  Regional communities in Australia often don’t have a big enough population to sustain the kind of lifestyle they aspire to enjoy without sharing it with visitors and travellers. Several viable industry sectors can and should be developed to reduce dependence on any one sector
  11. Custodians of place – local government, state government and traditional owners have a responsibility to promote a positive public image. In partnership with the private sector, these custodians can influence the type of tourism they want by considering tourism holistically – from research, destination and product development to promotion and the visitor experience. The view that tourism promotion simply exacerbates the problems is naïve. In a communications void, travellers and the public will build their own perceptions of a destination. A proactive strategy of tourism promotion can help shape, change and influence opinion.
  12. Beautiful places will always attract visitors. Why did we come here in the first place? Because we all heard about it from someone else who’d visited and because it offers an enviable mix of vibrancy cosmopolitanism, tradition and bucolic charm. Old school meets new age. We should strive to keep it that way. But that doesn’t mean we cant share it with those who appreciate it for the same reasons.

In a recent role as head of the Northern Rivers regional tourism authority our strategy was to develop and promote the region based on its strengths and the realities of life here; it’s a region of towns and villages; a place which attracts and nurtures creativity; where farmers, conservationists, artists, traders, surfers, counter-culturalists, developers and entrepreneurs, young, old and middle aged co-exist relatively harmoniously.

A place where residents understand the importance of local food resilience – production and consumption;  where nature dominates the landscape and is there to be enjoyed by all who appreciate it; a place where healthy mind, body and spirit are given priority; it’s a place of opinionated, socially and politically aware people who will have their say, if not their way; a place where transport links are poor and need much improvement, but somehow people get around; It’s a place where the elements can be brutal and oblivious to human endeavour; a place that floods regularly and also where the sunshine is strong and bright.

For better or worse, we should be thankful for this and be willing to share it with others.