How tourism yield can be suitably incorporated into the sustainability paradigm

Wednesday, 27 June 2012 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Shelton Dharmaratne

Changing global trends will continually pose challenges to economic theory and policy and the ways in which we analyse tourism activity. Sri Lanka Tourism’s public policies are trapped in a dynamic, ongoing process and it has become increasingly evident that the Government is struggling to comprehend the tourism industry, its impact and future and how they should get intervene.

The Sri Lankan Government has a set a target of attracting 2.5 million high spending tourists by the year 2016 and to increase foreign exchange earnings from $500 million in 2010 to $2.75 billion by 2016. The required number of visitor rooms is to be increased to 45,000 by 2016.

Buying into the tourism phenomena

The tourism industry is diverse, fragmented and dynamic and it must be studied at a number of levels and from many perspectives. Tourism problems are complex and interrelated and they suggest a myriad crises such as overcrowding of tourist attractions, overuse and destruction of natural resources, resident – host conflicts, loss of cultural heritage, increased crime and prostitution, inflation and escalating land costs and a host of other political, socio-cultural, economic and environmental problems that may be brought about or exacerbated by tourism development.

The general issues central to any discussion of the positive and negative impacts of tourism must include notions of carrying capacity and of how impacts can be assessed. Carrying capacity is a relatively straightforward concept. In simple terms, it refers to a point beyond which further levels of visitation or development would lead to an unacceptable deterioration in the physical environment and of the visitor’s experience.

And these risks are truly urgent, penetrating and potentially irreversible: risks to environmental sustainability, risks to greater economic stability, risks to local culture and risks to social value systems. Simply put, in buying into the tourism phenomena, a destination can face the risk of selling its soul which is why it is fundamentally believed that to enable the tourism sector to truly work for the destination, a clear, visionary and focused leadership by the Government is vital

The need for intervention by specialists

Economists are concerned with tourism’s contributions to the economy, the economic development of a destination area, focus on supply and demand, foreign exchange and balance of payments, employment and other monetary factors.

Whether or not tourism creates greater net benefits to society than other forms of development depends primarily on the nature of the country’s economy and what alternative forms of development are practicable. A more balanced view of the economic effects of tourism demands a deeper understanding of the human issues surrounding the impacts of tourism.

This requires joint work by economists, sociologists, political scientists and other specialists in the various humanities. At present, this work is being carried out almost entirely by economists who are not always in the best position to identify all of the phenomena requiring quantification or the appropriate weightings to apply to each.

Sri Lanka Tourism’s role

Over the last 30 years, both the planning and marketing of tourism have been primarily orientated toward the needs to attract large numbers of tourists and hence, ensure enough financial return on their investments. The primary concerns have been how many tourists will come and how can we attract more?

The political structure and fragmented nature of the industry suggest the political systems dedicated to equitable development and resource use are unlikely to be forthcoming. If the adverse effects of tourism are to be prevented or remedied, it is crucial that politicians and planners become less preoccupied.

Sri Lanka Tourism must aspire to achieve acceptable tourism volume and to chart national policy framework in line with available resources and circumstances. High expenditure and low volume is the perfect formula that Sri Lanka Tourism must hold close. Think big and go big is simply a political wish and is the plan of the bureaucracy sans fundamental policy framework.

There is need for much debate and argument over tourism policymaking and a study of Sri Lanka Tourism’s policies. Debate needs to be encouraged to reflect values and interests and therefore enhance our awareness of the political process which surround tourism.

In short, Sri Lanka Tourism has an urgent need for public policy studies – the focal point of Government activity, in order to comprehend the causes and consequences of policies decisions and actions, which should be of interest to economists, sociologists and environmentalists as well as hospitality industry professionals.   

Key questions

Obviously, key questions to be considered include: what is the optimum number of tourists that the area can support in terms of its physical, environmental and social carrying capacity? How can these tourists contribute to the enhancement of the life styles of the residents? What works in tourism promotion? More specifically, given the limited resources in tough economic times, how are tax rupees best spent to promote tourism? Is tourism even a worthwhile expenditure for Government funds? How much does tourism actually benefit state and local economies? These are just a few questions facing elected policy makers and local tourism promotion agencies.

Planning for the resultant impact of tourism necessitates a careful definition of the respective responsibilities of the public and private sectors and communities. Tourism creates both positive and negative effects in the destination country or region. Thoughtful policy making and planning can do much to minimise or even remove the negative effects.

Tourism can be a very positive means of increasing the economic, social, cultural and environmental life of a country. The major issue now is if politicians, planners and developers and citizens rise to the challenge and create a truly responsible, and thus acceptable, tourism industry; one which brings long-term benefits to residents and tourists alike without compromising the physical and cultural environment of the destination region.

In the future, planners, developers and communities must take a more proactive role in controlling the   nature of such development in terms of stricter building and design regulations, controlled access to vulnerable sites and attractions and strict transport regulations especially in core areas.

In order for all forms of tourism to become more sustainable, the systematic application of sustainability objectives and criteria to new and existing infrastructures and services must be encouraged. This also includes improved governance and rethinking the existing infrastructure at destinations.

Competitive and sustainable destinations

Destination is the most important element of the tourism system as well as motivating visitation, delivering visitor experiences and contributing to enduring memories of the tourism experience. However the increased growth of demand for tourism, coupled to the changing nature of the tourism consumer, means that destinations are under pressure to be both competitive and sustainable.

Marketing and branding destinations in international markets present many ongoing challenges.  Which markets and segments should be targeted and how should a destination be branded and positioned for these different markets and segments? What global brand elements should be portrayed and how should they be portrayed?

The destination is not a single product like an airline seat or a hotel bed. It is a composite product, made up of hundreds and even thousands of individual products. Destinations are combinations of tourism products, offering an integrated experience to consumers. Destinations are amalgams of individually produced tourism amenities and services (accommodation, transportation, catering, entertainment etc) and a wide range of public goods (such as landscape, scenery, sea, lakes, socio-cultural surroundings, atmosphere etc).

All these elements are branded together under the name of the destination. Traditionally, destinations are regarded as well-defined geographical areas. However, it is increasingly recognised that a destination can also a perceptual concept, which can be interpreted subjectively by consumers depending on their travel itinerary, cultural background, purpose of visit, educational level and past experience.

Understanding the core product as well as the facilitating, supportive and augmented products for each target market is of paramount importance for destination marketing. The augmented environment will include intangible elements such as interaction and customer participation as well as accessibility and physical environment.

Tourism marketing

If tourism is to survive by generating satisfaction among interacting tourists and hosts, it must adopt societal marketing strategies. This involves carefully monitoring tourists’ satisfaction levels and using these as part of the criteria for success, rather than increasing numbers of tourists.

Continually monitoring host reactions to tourists, for host-tourist interaction is an important component of the tourist experience and being aware that infrastructure development of tourism resort areas has implications for the types of tourists that will be attracted.

The National Tourism Authority (SLTDA) has to be accountable for the planning and marketing of the country and to have the power and resources to undertake action towards achieving its strategic objectives.

Tourism marketing should not only be regarded as a tool for attracting more visitors to a region. Instead, tourism marketing should operate as a mechanism to facilitate regional development objectives and to rationalise the provision of tourism in order to ensure that the sustainable strategic objectives of destinations are achieved.

Tourism marketing should also ensure equitable returns-on-resources utilised for the production and delivery of tourism products, as well as the regeneration of these resources.

 It should also provide suitable gains to all stakeholders involved in the tourism system. Hence, marketing should be used as a strategic mechanism in co-ordination with planning and management rather than a sales tool.

Although the National Tourism Authority has traditionally taken the marketing responsibility for the destination product, they fail to control marketing activities and mixes of individual players and hence can only co-ordinate and guide, rather than undertake a comprehensive marketing strategy. Perhaps the most important challenge for destination marketing therefore is to bring all individual partners together to pool resources towards developing an integrated marketing mix and delivery system.

The importance of sustainability

Interestingly, the sustainability of local resources becomes one of the most important elements of destination image, as a growing section of the market is not prepared to tolerate over-developed tourism destinations and diverts to more environmentally advanced regions.

The degree of consumer satisfaction will depend on the assessment of the perceived overall experience of the destination versus anticipated expectations and perceptions. Developing the right image for destinations will therefore determine their ability to satisfy visitors as it will allow them to develop realistic and fulfill-able expectations. Tourists enjoy authentic experiences in places which have experienced limited tourism development.

The response of the tourism sector to the current unprecedented economic crisis should include elements that reinforce sustainability parameters in tourism planning and management. Tourism can contribute to its own resilience and to the global economic recovery by pursuing a climate neutral strategy, as well as innovation in the use of cleaner energy and more efficient resource use.

Combining these strategies and approaches contributes to the reduction of poverty, and to social and economic development within the carrying capacities of ecosystems.

The ultimate objective of distribution channel is delivering the right quality and quantity of a product, in the right place, at the right time, at the right cost and to the right customer. Destinations have suffered because they wrongly assumed that the higher the volume of tourists, the more benefits they can achieve.

However it is evident that limits on the development of tourism activity should be imposed in order to avoid overexploitation of local resources. Although marketing has often been regarded as an enemy of sustainability, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority need to realise that strategic marketing should be used to achieve destination policies.

Sustainability strategy is to Sri Lanka Tourism what sheet music is to an orchestra. It is the direction, the focus and the policy framework.  For the tourism sector, that conductor is the government of the destination, the source of vision, inspiration and disciplining direction which turns passion into proud, purposeful, clearly positioned tourism marketing and experience excellence.

The concept of sustainability is fundamentally important to the long-term viability, credibility, authenticity and the productivity of the tourism sector and it is the responsibility of the planners, developers and communities to ensure that the richness of the term is not diminished by the cliché of its application.

The writer holds B.Bus., RMIT Melbourne, PGD in Advanced Tourism Studies, Bournemouth University and is the CEO of Sustainable Solutions. He could be contacted via [email protected]