Incorporating Social Justice in Tourism Planning: Racial Reconciliation and Sustainable Community Development in the Deep South

Article excerpt

Tourism can serve as a vehicle for sustainable community development by contributing to equity and social justice. This happens as tourists learn about marginal groups through educational tourism, engage in development projects with host-area residents, undertake pilgrimages that bring greater meaning and cohesiveness to an ethnic identity, or encounter stories that transform their view of social injustice and spur further action to reduce inequities. Tourism planning can produce a sense of reconciliation when it brings historically divided groups together. An example is found in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where a group of white and African American residents are collaborating to develop tourism projects designed around a narrative of reconciliation, while they use the process of tourism planning to work towards racial reconciliation within their community. This case illustrates strategies tourism planners employ and challenges they face when they envision tourism as more than merely a means of economic growth.

Keywords: heritage tourism; Mississippi Delta; racial reconciliation; social justice; sustainable community development

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The advantages of tourism to rural communities are generally painted as economic: developing a tourism industry brings in "fresh" dollars, provides jobs and offers opportunities for local entrepreneurship (National Agricultural Library, 2008; World Travel & Tourism Council, 2008). When tourism focuses on local heritage, cultural advantages can accrue as well, as local residents learn about, take pride in, and conserve their own stories (Barton, 2005; Howard, 2002; President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, 2005). A growing body of literature argues that tourism can also contribute to social equity and justice in rural communities, and that social and cultural factors are important elements in sustainable community development in many rural contexts (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2008; Moore & Jie Wen, 2009; Scheyvens & Momsen, 2008). Recently, the social justice aspects of tourism have received substantial attention in the media as well (see, e.g., Gentleman, 2006; Lancaster, 2007; Markey, 2007; Popescu, 2007; Rao, 2009; Weiner, 2008).

We consider one aspect of social justice, the case of racial reconciliation in the Deep South. The Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century in America made substantial progress in the extension of political rights to African Americans, but economic disparities and cultural differences continue to separate black and white residents in much of the region (Andrews, 1997; Austin, 2006; Edelman, 2005; Hill, 2007; US Commission on Civil Rights, 2001). We draw on a case study of a rural county in the Mississippi Delta to examine how tourism might contribute to or detract from equality and social justice in rural communities, and the challenges that community planners face when promoting tourism as a means of addressing ingrained racial disparities.

Sustainable community development

When assessing tourism as a community development strategy, community planners must consider how tourism will contribute in a sustainable way to community well-being (Haywood, 1988; Richards & Hall, 2000). The literature on sustainable development has emphasized three crucial dimensions: economic efficiency, environmental integrity and social equity and justice (Edwards, 2005; Klein-Vielhauer, 2009; World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). Finding a balance among these factors that is appropriate in a given context increases the chances for sustainability, and distortions arise when one of these elements dominates the others. In the tourism industry, economic considerations frequently drive decisions, while the potential for negative impacts such as environmental deterioration and increased inequity are given less attention.

Sustainable tourism

Tourism has the potential to produce social inequities in a variety of ways. …