Tourism: It's about Managing Competitiveness, Too. (Exporting Better)

By Robinson, Ken | International Trade Forum, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Tourism: It's about Managing Competitiveness, Too. (Exporting Better)


Robinson, Ken, International Trade Forum


Tourism is a key industry to promote for a country seeking to increase its foreign revenues. For national strategy-makers, both optimism and caution are in order.

Tourism is changing. Only a generation ago, relatively few people travelled abroad; if they did, it was usually to easily accessible and familiar places, or further afield mainly in groups. Today, many tourists are more sophisticated, making their own plans and holiday bookings -- they are what tourism specialists call 'Free and Independent Travellers'.

Most countries recognize the potential of tourism and seek to increase the number of foreign visitors, which is an opportunity to increase their exports of services. Until the last five years, the few existing tourism strategies have been mainly about selling. But even a well-organized approach to tourism promotion is not enough to constitute an adequate tourism strategy.

Managing rapid growth

By 2020 it is estimated that three times as many people as now will travel internationally. Where are all the extra tourists expected to go? Capacity at popular places is limited as are potential locations for intensive new development, without ruining the environment that holiday-makers are seeking.

I am an enthusiast for the benefits that tourism can bring. But I am also concerned at the lack of coordinated management -- and in many places, there is evidence of what can go wrong when tourism evolves according to demand. The question is: What to do about it?

Generalized aspirations in a national tourism strategy are not enough. Tourism is usually concentrated in certain regions and even more locally on small, highly popular areas which themselves need specific local plans. If the key places are not analysed, planned, developed and managed, a simple national strategy is useless.

Three precepts

There are three ideas that tourism strategy-makers need to bear in mind from the outset:

* The tourists will come anyway, whether the country has a strategy or not. The question is, will they be the kind of tourists that you want, and will you be prepared to receive and manage them to increase the benefits and minimize the problems?

* Tourists are diverse: the backpacker trekking round the world is not looking for the same thing as the businessman, or the frequent leisure holidaymaker, or a person travelling to another country for medical treatment, or to visit friends and relatives.

* Tourism strategy must not only be about selling -- it is about management, about optimizing the social, economic and environmental benefits that tourism can bring.

A perishable commodity

Tourism is also a most perishable commodity. You can always sell a manufactured product made today, sometime tomorrow, or in the future. A tourist bed unfilled represents revenue lost forever. Tourism demand is often seasonal, so matching supply to available demand is essential for viability. In contrast to conventional industries, too, tourism makes an impact on everybody in a locality -- not just on those directly involved in the business.

Unfortunately, few countries, regions and localities have cohesive tourism strategies. In developed countries, the existing regulatory, social and commercial infrastructure provides a management context for tourism, but in developing countries this is much less evident and tourism developments are often driven by short-term financial judgements of individual developers and multinational companies. Recently 'environmental sustainability' has become a fashionable focus for local tourism plans. Cultural and community sustainability are just as important. The popularizing of crafts and traditions can cause permanent distortions if local culture is turned into a commodity to appeal to foreign visitors.

Neglected factors undercut strategy

Often a national tourism strategy just considers international visitors and misses or undervalues domestic tourism by residents. …

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