Tourism - The Problems & Solutions
Over the 34 years I have been in Thailand I have established and operated resorts, restaurants, tour operations, experiential education centres and a non-profit organization. My company Track of the Tiger matches the projects run by that foundation in education, sustainable agriculture, agroforestry, 2nd revenue stream development, and responsible tourism for the communities it works in, to the CS and CSR programme interests of our international school and corporate clients. (Please refer to Credibility in the Conclusion.)
In researching the problems and solutions in tourism as outlined below, I have drawn heavily on my own experience and on that of many experts on the subject, who's research I have cited under readings, research, citations at the end of the article.
The industry has long proclaimed that tourism has the potential to address inequality, poverty, and environmental problems, providing opportunity where it is desperately needed. Many tourism-related organisations and NGOs are doing good work in business skills development, marketing, and training for micro and small tourism businesses. However, their successes over the past 30 years have been overshadowed by the exponential growth and negative impact of mass tourism.
The industry’s shareholder profit-driven, commission-based model – is essentially a monopoly - and is the biggest obstacle to establishing the level playing field needed to allow all stakeholders in the destinations that host tourism - an equitable share of the benefits that tourism can provide.
The Traditional Model - Exerts far too much control over the distribution of guests to tourism destinations, and the individual businesses within them. It contributes far too little to the sustainable development of the destinations used and takes too great a share of the profits. It also puts most of the burden of infrastructure and environmental-related costs onto the local taxpayer.
Online Travel Agents (OTAs) - Share little, if anything, of the increased profits made by eliminating costs (personnel/overheads) incurred along their shortened version of the supply chain. As a result, they have more to spend on SEO (search engine optimisation and metasearch) used to secure greater market share. They make no contribution to local taxes and put the burden of taxation and of looking after those they make redundant along their supply chain - back on the taxpayer. It can, therefore, be argued that their business model is more destructive than disruptive.
Overtourism - Is the result of the aggressive promotion of attractions and activities selected based on the returns (commissions x volume) generated to the tourism operators who promote and book them. This comes at the expense of locally owned products and services providers who offer less in profits and capacity - but would have wider appeal if given equal market access.
Revenue Models - OTAs vs Hotels
The Different Supply Chain Models
An added problem is that In many cases, the initial good will and warm welcome of the local residents fades, as they are confronted by a class or type of tourist who is less sensitive to the local culture. The cost in long term damage to the 'old destination' is borne by the local community, not by the travel operators. In this age of internet connectivity, we must ask - are there no better options?
In evaluating the current status of any destination it is worth reviewing the highly regarded 'Butler's Evolution of Tourism Model'. https://www.numptynerd.net/tourism-the-butler-model.html which details the 7 stages in the development of any destination that ends in either decline or progressive action by the local stakeholders to rejuvenate and/or reposition the destination to secure its future.
See an interactive presentation
A Viable Alternative - The development and adoption of real solutions are urgently required. Those introduced, must ensure that the host countries and their tourism industry members derive a greater share of the benefits of tourism, have more control over the type and extent of its development, and can better manage the risks of their dependence on it.
This is not a call that would damage the industry. It is a call for the introduction of an alternative model - not to replace, but to run alongside the existing model and deliver significant benefits. It is aimed primarily at attracting the growing responsible tourism market, who will help the industry to deliver on its long-overdue promises - correct the inequities - and build a better tomorrow whilst we can.
We are confident that the social enterprise driven model, established by the RTA (Responsible Tourism Alliance) that redistributes the benefits and rewards of tourism in favour of the buyer at the one end, and the seller at the other end of the supply chain, whilst restructuring the role and diversifying the revenue streams of the 'local agent' in the middle - offers such a solution.
It addresses the problems of overtourism by developing the tourist route system - supporting excursions from and trips between destinations, widening the visitor footprint whilst reducing the negative impact of overtourism on the city hotels, restaurants, and attractions, without penalising the visitor, or the local stakeholders.
The Tourist Routes - Serve to link the products and services of the micro and small business operators (accommodation, attractions, activities, courses, and workshops) in a logical manner. They are presented in a format that allows guests to research and customise itineraries to include their choice of unique and rewarding travel experiences on offer.
The model identifies more closely with that of new generation online social enterprises like ALOBI (http://abalobi.info/) that allows local fishermen a much better price, and market access via a transparent fee based co-operative. The restaurant diner gets a bill for fish that identifies where it was caught, who caught it, what it weighed and what the fisherman was paid for it. The stakeholders get really accurate and real time information on the state of the coastal fish reserves at little or no cost.
Support & Collaboration
VWB (The Volunteers Without Borders Foundation), our non-profit alliance partner, is tasked with the training role. It is funded by donations from our membership – including those who would benefit from our extensive (non-personal ID related) research. It has a proven track record in working with schools, universities, and corporate clients. It matches their CS & CSR goals with the development project requirements of the rural area communities it serves.
VWB has won awards for its roles in tourism development (The SKAL Ecotourism Award 2006) and has won awards for its role in rural education and related infrastructure development in northern Thailand from the Thai Ministry of Education.
The pace at which we can implement the project will be dictated by the support and collaboration provided by the progressive members of the tourism industry, its representative bodies, and the educational institutions that provide its workforce.
We, like many in the industry, foresee a phased reopening that allows domestic and regional tourism to restart well before international tourism makes a return. The RTA platform is designed and will be ready to launch in June 2020. The first ‘tourist route’ designated for the pilot project has 20+ businesses signed up and another 80+ potential candidates identified. The core tasks to be undertaken are:
Note* The hospitality sector, and hotels in particular, must ask the difficult questions. (1) What if International tourism does not return for a long time, if at all? (2) What if the global economy changes dramatically and countries like Thailand must restructure their own economies, moving up the supply chain? How does the hotel sector adapt? Surely the prolonged Corovid19 problem will create a need to accommodate the elderly, residents & guests, those most at risk. Surely economic restructure presents MICE and a wider range of training venue opportunities for the domestic and regional markets?
Recruit VWB volunteers and trainee RTA Local Agents from other countries, who can learn how the model works, how to train others, and return home to establish operations, on a concession basis, in their own countries. The need for solutions is global and collaboration is the key.
Note* It is highly likely, that as long term concerns about our immune systems, weakened by years of unhealthy diets, in part due to our modern intensive farming methods, the world, or much of it, will pivot (return) to a healthier more sustainable and chemical-free food production system. Countries like Thailand have the potential and space to supply that market.
As those who can work remotely, (digital warriors) choose to move out of the cities into less congested areas, either full or part time to reduce their exposure, places like Thailand, have the potential to attract this market.
|Readings, Research, Citations|
“We have a finite environment—the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”
Sir David Attenborough
On the role of the OTAs in tourism
The links below are to just two of the many articles to be found online. These both highlight the problems associated with OTAs
This article states that taxes collected are not enough to cover costs of tourism impact. https://www.thetravelfoundation.org.uk/invisible-burden/
In The Challenge of Overtourism in the Responsible Tourism Partnership Working Paper 4. October 2017 Harold Goodwin points out that OTAs are free riders in that they use the public realm as a resource or sell it as part of an itinerary for free and yet do not face the same taxation as the local residents. More on this can be found in the extracts from his paper in the next section.
On the future of responsible tourism
The responsible tourism movement has been growing for some time. As early as 1987, Krippendorf, in his seminal text ‘The Holiday Makers’ published in 1987, called for a new form of tourism, one that:
“…will bring the greatest possible benefit to all the participants – travellers, the host population and the tourist business, without causing intolerable ecological and social damage.”
Kippendorf placed the needs of people, hosts and guests at the core of this new tourism and argued that to create it, we needed “rebellious tourists and rebellious locals” (1987: 107-109)
When reviewing the opinions and research of acknowledged leaders and personalities in this field, I came across some thought-provoking arguments. Below I list references, brief synopses and relevant extracts of their statements and those of the experts they quote.
The future of tourism: In a Q & A session with National Geographic (Monday, 12 August 2019), activist and CEO of Responsible Travel and Justin Francis talks about the unprecedented challenges facing the tourism industry - and travellers themselves.
On the Responsible Travel website, an article entitled ‘Overtourism – What is it , and how we can avoid it?’ states categorically that we are ALL responsible for overtourism and we need to own this. Francis refers to ‘freeloaders’, and places travel agents within this category. He notes that travel companies ‘have profited from creating pretty packages…’, but at the expense of the locals who foot the tax bills. It is an article worth reading.
The GSTC Criteria serve as the global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism. With reference to these, Justin Francis’s comments are relevant to our context here in Thailand. He notes that as a service industry, tourism is made up of a wide variety of supply chain elements and is therefore more inherently complex to evaluate than a simple product. If we wish to improve sustainability practices, we have to recognize that in different contexts, absolute criteria are unable to be met and that we need to recognize and reward progress rather than absolute achievement. At RTA, we intend to do just that.
Harold Goodwin speaks out about The Challenge of Overtourism in the Responsible Tourism Partnership Working Paper 4. October 2017. He, too, comments on the role of tour agencies. It is worth quoting extracts from his paper here:
Overtourism: Issues, realities and solutions. Ed. Dodds, Rachel & Butler, Richard ( 2019) De Gruyter Studies in Tourism. De Gruyter Oldenbourg
This book is the first academic volume to deal with the topic of Overtourism. It contains chapters by experienced researchers in the tourism field, taking a multidisciplinary approach to review and explain the subject. Chapter 2 deals with the Enablers of Tourism and lists the fact that tourism stakeholders are fragmented and at odds as an enabling factor. It notes that resident and/or community voices are often not involved in planning, marketing or any other aspect of tourism. In addition,
“…enterprises that address social and environmental issues in tourism and either represent communities or help make the community better, are often not included in mainstream tourism offerings due to their small size.” (2019 : 25).
Our belief in the power of the customer donations support system comes from our own experience in working with our International Schools, Universities & Corporate Team Building & CSR client base. Over the past decade these groups have donated over US$1.5 million via VWB to over 160 projects in schools and communities we support. Our projects in communities cover education, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, and small-scale construction (water systems. toilets, classrooms, libraries). Much of the work has involved hands-on input from our clients.
Our first major project - The Pang Soong Nature Trails - a joint Track of the Tiger/VWB/Village Community initiative in northern Thailand saw us win the SKAL Ecotourism Award for 2006.
The projects in support of schools run from www.maekok-river-village-resort.com and have been officially recognised by and received praise and a National Award from the Thai Ministry of Education.
Our 34 plus years in responsible tourism and development in rural communities has allowed us to discuss and understand their problems related to earning enough revenue from tourism, whilst avoiding the negative impacts from it. The RTA business model, developed over the past 10 years, addresses their common problems. It offers the communities, and in particular the entrepreneurs in them, choices from a range of integrated solutions, allowing them to decide which, and to what extent they want to implement these to best suit the needs, interests, resources and abilities of those in their communities. Their choices will help identify their training needs beyond those already identified and outlined below.
Business Skills Training
It not enough to just direct tourism to the micro and small tourism businesses. In order to level the playing field, we must provide these enterprises with the basic business skills needed to succeed and which will allow them to provide a high standard of service. This can be funded by our membership and implemented by our non-profit foundation in collaboration with others.
Best Practice Compliance
Rather than provide the businesses on our routes with a standardised format best practices certification scheme, we must provide them with one that allows them to adopt best practices relevant to their operations and context at that time, and to do so as they can afford to implement them.
To do this effectively the RTA business model chooses to provide them with their own databases – complete with a YES/NO selection option. It allows them to state what they are following, and for visitors to mark them on their efforts using a booking verified guest comment system. Again training can be funded by the RTA membership with implementation by our non-profit partner in collaboration with others.
Feedback from visitors is essential, but we have a duty to make these visitors aware in that in different contexts, absolute criteria are unable to be met and that they need to recognize and reward progress (rather than absolute achievement) if they are to help these businesses develop and reach these targets.
Many businesses cannot afford to implement all the best practices they wish to – yet. Post-Covid 19, income will be even more precarious, so client / guest understanding of context is essential. So, for example, planting trees to shade the sunny side of buildings, should be recognized as a move towards cutting down on power consumption (air con etc.) Fortunately, the majority of our client market is comprised of just those types of travellers Krippendorf envisaged - curious, ‘emancipated tourists’ with a yen for ‘authentic’ experiences.
Feedback from the broader RTA Community is just as important. Surveys to collect it must be well designed, well implemented, widely circulated and used to improve the performance of all involved.
Personalised Service & Flexible Pricing
In seeking to ensure that in this next evolution of online travel bookings provides a more personalised service, we allow customers (RTA Ambassadors) to have their own online profiles on which they state their service preferences - through a YES/NO selection on their personalised service database.
Flexible pricing allows the RTA Business Partners to incentivise their offers through discounts, upgrades, and complimentary services. These are offered on a case by case basis.
The Research Platform
Whilst it is validating to know that our ideas at RTA are in alignment with current progressive thinking, I believe that much more must be done in order to bring about the changes needed. The introduction of the RTAs proposed non-commission-based business model is the catalyst needed to deliver on the long overdue promise of tourism as the means by which we will create opportunity and reduce inequality worldwide.
Krippendorf, J., & Andrassy, V. (1987). The holidaymakers: Understanding the impact of travel and leisure, Butterworth Heinemann
We align with the following United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: