Future Here Now: Tourism on our Terms
The Big Idea
This week's Future Here Now examines the complex and often problematic tourism industry. Thousands of communities across the world rely on tourism of some type to bring in much-needed income and jobs, and an influx of tourists often gives locals access to businesses that their local population couldn't support alone. Tourism can even give local people access to the world in ways that they wouldn't have had otherwise, and tourists can turn into investors, new tax paying residents, new business owners, and even new leadership.
But tourism can also cause a lot of problems, ranging from environmental degradation to dead-end jobs and disincentive to invest in education, loss of local culture and uniqueness, and housing inflation that pushes out the very people that serve the tourists. From Banff to the Florida keys, from Wisconsin's Door County to Las Vegas, tourism- dependent communities face surprisingly similar problems - problems that often seem nearly impossible to unwind.
So what will Fusion Era tourism look like, and how will the trends that are shaping this new era change our assumptions and our practices around tourism? And what new challenges will tourism economies face as a result? These are the questions we will be looking at this week.
The Big Idea
This week's introduction might come across… sour. Crabby. Looking the proverbial gift horse where you aren't supposed to look at them. But tourism requires a critical eye… a lot more critical than we often give it.
Done well and intentionally, tourism can catalyze a whole new dimension of economic and social life. Done without that kind of intentionality, it's like Roundup on your dandelions: they don't keel over and die immediately, but the rot is already at work… and it's not long before the plant shrivels.
What can go right?
Visibility/reputation. Tourism puts a place on at least some maps in a way that it might not be otherwise.
The inherent trade -off of the Fusion Era's de-frictionizing of information (after all, everyone is a publisher now), is that anyone can tell their own story to darn near anyone. But that doesn't mean that every story gets heard. A tourism initiative gives a community a process and a pretty established tool kit for telling its story.
Entrepreneurship and small business - and wealth generation. Tourists obviously need to buy goods and services, and there's no shortage of entrepreneurs and small business owners who derive part or all of their income from visitors.
Communities that are too small on their own to support restaurants or galleries may find that they have far more expansive and high-quality options than they would if the business owners could only rely on local residents. That additional business support increases quality of life on a lot of measures for year-round residents.
And in a universe where franchise retail and chain restaurants often dominate the day-to-day landscape, a tourist community can provide opportunities for entrepreneurship that would get squeezed out in other markets, because visitors are more likely to be seeking something unique.
New residents/ businesses. It's no surprise that occasional visitors sometimes evolve into full-time residents, and when they do, they may bring new new wealth and new businesses to the community. For many tourist communities, these new residents represent a significant bump to their bottom line, depending on how their tax system is structured.
New ideas and leadership. Like new investment in a community, a healthy tourism economy that attracts new full and part-time residents and people who want to open businesses can inject new energy, new leaders, and new solutions into a community. It very often takes a person who has lived elsewhere to see the opportunities that long-time residents take for granted, or don't think have any value. And it's easy to find examples and stories of places that gain a new lease on life because someone new was crazy enough to see the potential.
What often goes wrong?
We love to hear about those kinds of benefits, and communities that are leaning into tourism often see only the dollar signs and not the danger signs ahead. And since these challenges sometimes don't show up until five or 10 or 20 years after the first tenuous efforts, it's easy to discount them.
But organized tourism has been a force in the US for well over 100 years now, and we have plenty of examples, both here and across the globe, that should give us serious pause. So it's more essential than ever for us to learn from the mistakes that older tourism communities have made, and strive to avoid making those again. Chances are we will have a lot less time to address the damage, and the damage will happen a lot faster.
Here are some of the biggest challenges that tourism - dependent communities have experienced, and have told me about over the past 30 years.
Low wage/low education industries. Most of us know that the majority of tourism and hospitality jobs pay relatively low wages. Of course, a low wage for one person is a bonanza for some others - more than one hospitality worker I talked to in the US Virgin Islands was happy to work there because wages were far better than in the Caribbean island that they had immigrated from.
The bigger challenge, from my perspective, is that tourism - related jobs often provide relatively few avenues for advancement, or more importantly, for building new skills and increasing employee value. Unlike sectors like manufacturing or healthcare, there is little incentive for the typical hotel or restaurant or resort or canoe livery to support their employees in continuing their education, gaining new skills, etc.
In Las Vegas, some emerging industry leaders have noted that people with hospitality experience bring some assets from that experience when they go to work in other industries, such as customer service or healthcare. One healthcare provider I knew there sought out EMTs and other medical professionals who also had casino experience because he had perceived that those employees tended to have more patience and better communication skills with patients. But since so few people find their way from a tourism job to healthcare, this opportunity was seen more in its absence than in its appearance.
Money goes out and doesn't come back. I mentioned before that tourism often provides opportunities for entrepreneurship that might not exist in a comparable community that doesn't have that influx of visitors, but tourism communities across the US are struggling with the replacement of their home-grown amenities with corporate franchises. That can include hotel and restaurant chains but it also includes what an Appalachian Ohio development director called “corporate cabins” - companies that purchase dozens of formerly locally owned rustic lodging units to market on Airbnb, where the consumer can't tell if they are locally owned or not, and may not care.
In addition to hand-wringing worries like loss of local culture or uniqueness, these kinds of ownership patterns mean that much of the wealth generated by these types of assets - wealth that would have stayed in the community and recirculated in the community in earlier times - leaves the local community and supports someone else's bottom line. That means that the community is not only losing revenue, but it is losing local assets that could be loaned or invested to support new construction, or new business starts.
Too much of a good thing. We all know tourist destinations that have become a victim of their own success, whether the source of the complaint is traffic congestion or tackiness or damage to natural features, as we often see in national and state parks.
Tourism is inherently the business of selling a place and an experience to a certain set of people, and tourism tends to have the same blind spots around unintended consequences that we have seen in factories and big box retail and virtually every other consumption - driven sector. That means that we have to assume that tourism, unmanaged or inadequately managed, will generate impacts that neither residents nor tourists want to live with. But since tourist destinations are so often environmentally fragile - peninsulas, estuaries, deserts, waterfronts, so and so on - the natural environment often has a lot less capacity to adapt to those unintended consequences.
No place for workers. Tourism creates high demand for limited living spaces, and high demand drives up prices, and as a result low-income employees in tourism - dependent industries almost universally get priced out of the area where the tourism is successful. That'll not only creates difficulty for the workers, but it threatens the viability of the tourist economy itself.
Culture conflict and fear of the new. Even when tourism is built around a community's heritage or culture or other kinds of uniqueness, the very act of opening that culture and heritage and uniqueness to outsiders opens the community up to more and faster change than it has probably experienced in its history. And that is incredibly scary.
Most communities that succeed at attracting tourists end up with a newcomers versus Old-Timers conflict that ranges from economic to cultural to the very basic assumptions about how people should live in a community. And those kinds of conflicts consume precious energy, and attention, and social capital, and can undermine the benefits that residents were supposed to get from the tourist economy.
Anticipating future shocks. Tourism - dependent communities seem to have a tendency to make the same unforced error that Rust Belt factory towns made in the 1970s: they don't look for the early signals that the world around them is getting ready to change, they assume that what's working today will work in perpetuity, and they hide from any indication that the future will be different from the present. And whether you are Las Vegas or Cape Cod, that means that when that change does finally arrive, the dislocation and the pain and the damage come at a surprise, when perhaps they weren't a surprise at all.
Living successfully and sustainably in a tourism- dependent economy requires much of the same future readiness that we talk about here in a variety of contexts. But tourism dependent communities also tend to be more fragile and more easily damaged. And too often, they have fewer resources - local industries, local money and local talent, especially - to fall back on.
IIt bears repeating: we have been doing tourism as a nation and a globe for long enough now that we should be able to anticipate what the arc of growth and decline is likely to look like. And more importantly, we should be able to see and anticipate where we can make more future-ready choices. There's no reason for today's tourism communities to fall into the same old traps.
Future Here Now is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.