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Tourism: Death of an industry

If we want tourism to survive, tourism as an industry has to die, writes Martin Hatchuel in his latest newsletter.

Barefoot writer & Tourism Tattler contributor, Martin Hatchuel
Barefoot writer & Tourism Tattler contributor, Martin Hatchuel

Actually, if you think about it, the very idea that tourism is an industry is preposterous and self-defeating. But it’s the central premise of what we’ve been doing since the ‘50s and, as Anna Pollock points out, it “contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.”

Anna Pollock is the tourism entrepreneur and thinker behind Conscious Travel “a movement, a community and a learning program that enables places to attract and welcome guests in a manner that doesn’t cost the earth,” and her paper, ‘Can tourism change its operating model’ could be one of the most important documents you’ll read. (Download it HERE.)

She argues that the industrial model of tourism – tourism as an industry – was built on best practices in product manufacture (mass production, economies of scale, standardisation) and that these things are fine for things, but that they fail miserably when it comes to providing people with the kind of experiences that relax, refresh, and rejuvenate us.

This goes against the main reasons why people travel – so the results can only be dissatisfied customers and diminishing returns.

It is, she says, an adversarial system where the traveler and the host are pitted against one another, the one for price, and the other for returns.

In ‘Conscious Travel: Signposts Towards a New Model for Tourism’ – her submission to 2nd UNWTO Ethics and Tourism Congress (Quito, Ecuador, 12 September 2012) – she said that “Both parties (guest and host) endeavour to win at the cost of the other. Guests now have access to instant and ubiquitous information and tools for comparison in their search for ‘the best deal.’ Hosts have sophisticated revenue and yield management tools but are vulnerable to sudden and unexpected drops in market demand caused by factors out of their control such as currency fluctuations, natural hazards, terrorism, epidemics etc.

“In such situations the most commonly used tactic for maintaining share and cash flow is price discounting accompanied by rigorous cost cutting. The latter takes the form of more automation, personnel layoffs (doing more with less), standardisation, and the application of innovative promotional concepts such as couponing. The end result of which is a drop in service quality and increased customer dissatisfaction expressed as a resistance to pay more and commitment to paying less i.e. getting a cheap deal.

“In short, in an industrial model, where neither guest or host views the other as an equal partner but as an object to be manipulated or an adversary to be beaten, the effect is the same over time – a downward pressure on price, yield and satisfaction.”

It’s not a nice scenario, and you wouldn’t want to go there – but we have. And with a billion tourist arrivals a year – that’s a seventh of the world’s entire population! – and a projected increase of 400 million arrivals a year over the next eight years, the world (and especially the natural environment) can’t afford this industry any longer.

It’s got to go. But that doesn’t mean I’m advocating that we should stop travelling: it’s pretty fundamental to what we are, and it’s important. As Mark Twain said, it’s “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The reason the industrial model of tourism is flawed is because tourism is made up of three basic elements – and it (the industrial model) fails to give equal weight to all three:

  • Guests: the people who visit;
  • Hosts: the people who are visited (because all but the most extreme trips to the most extreme environments need at least some services – which can only other people can provided) and;
  • Places: the physical environment (wilderness, cities, villages…) where the hosts receive their guests.

Tourism, in Anna’s words, is “a human system embedded in a natural system.”

And – Bingo! – there you have it. Tourism isn’t an industry, it’s a system – a network – that survives on the rules of networks: rules like purpose and trust and the number of people with whom each one of us is able to interact before we reach cognitive wipeout (when we begin to block out and even revolt against everything around us that has no value to us: think airports – economy class – theme parks – thousand-room hotels).

An aside: For ideas about why purpose and trust are so important in business – and just generally and altogether – I’d recommend the work of Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start with why’ and ‘Leaders eat last.’ Begin with this video. You might also want to consider Dunbar’s number: “a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.”

For us in tourism, for tourism to survive, to turn around, and to thrive sustainably, we have to stop thinking in industrial terms, and start thinking in terms of people and place.

In fact many of us have.

Early adopters have been showing the way – not just in tourism, but in all the things we humans do, since the ‘70s.
And now, as we approach tipping point, there’s no arguing it: the world is changing – radically, fundamentally, and at a pace that’s been growing amazingly since the recession of 2008.

Anna Pollock again, quoting the founder of VISA and the author of ‘The Birth of a Chaordic Organization,’ Dee Hock: “We are at that point of time when a four-hundred-year-old age is rattling in its deathbed and another is struggling to be born – with a shifting of culture, science, society and institutions enormously greater and swifter than the world has ever experienced.”

Conscious travel – responsible travel – is the only future for the tourism economy.

So let’s call what we do for what it is: the tourism network. Because we’ll survive together only when we’ve said goodbye to the tourism industry.

  • We’re less than three weeks away from the start of Responsible Travel Week 2014 – a week-long online and real world conference during which people from around the world will get together to focus on travel that creates better places to live in, and better places to visit. And BTW: locals from wherever you are are invited to create your own events for RT Week 2014, which runs from February 10 – 16. For more, please visit the Planeta Wiki – and follow the hash-tag #RTWeek14 on Twitter.

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