Tourism and the Economic Crisis: Where are going?

I’ve posted on here about tourism and the economic crisis, and have taught about it this year as well.  One of the things that strikes me regularly about the crisis is the unsystematic way in which it tends be analysed – one day a report of bankrupt airline, another day stories of industrial action or falling visitor numbers

I’m going to use this post to apply David Harvey’s ‘seven moments’ model of the economic restructuring process that I heard him speak about here and that he has most recently outlined in an essay for the Monthly Review that you can read online here.  I have adapted these seven moments to analyse the tourism industry in this period of restructuring; it will be interesting to see whether this adds some clarity or helps us to think about how the tourism industry will emerge from the crisis.  

Some of these topics I’ve already written about, some have suggested new areas of investigation.  Over the next few months I’m going to post on each of these topics and then, eventually, bring them all together to summarise this period of restructuring in the tourism industry.

1. The organisation and technological forms involved in producing tourism products and services

It is likely that technological changes within the tourism industry will accelerate during this period of restructuring.   The effects of an increasingly competitive marketplace and problems of over-supply are combining to produce a favourable climate for innovations in the online packaging and knowledge-gathering aspects of the industry and  price-concious customers are driving an increase in competition between web sites, which seems to be providing a stimulus for big providers to move into web 2.0 provision, so as not to lose their competitive advantage.  Where the previous waves of web development have increased efficiencies for tourism businesses and helped to reduce prices for consumers, it is likely that this next wave of web 2.0-style developments will illuminate differences between providers and give new prominence to tourists as expert reviewers of tourism products.

Another aspect of tourism development that it might be interesting to focus on here will be the emergence of new destinations.  This will be driven by three factors, as we have seen in previous crises:

  1. Decline within specific resorts and regions, as part of the fall-out from the economic crisis
  2. The growth of new tourism markets, as the national and regional ‘winners’ of the crisis emerge
  3. Socio-cultural changes that occur as a consequence of the restructuring and as a way of integrating it into pre-existing cultural frameworks.

2. The relationship to the environment

From the mid-1990s onwards, the concepts of sustainable development and eco-tourism have been central to debates about the future of tourism and have provided acres of newsprint for the broadsheets’ travel supplements as middle-class tourists have differentiated themselves from the masses by seeking our ‘responsible’, ‘ethical’, ‘sustainable’, or ‘green’ holidays.  With predicted declines in the market for organic food, ethical fashion and fairly-traded products – has this mode of tourism development also suffered and what is the future for this sector after the downturn?

3.  Social relationships within tourism

Along with the rising importance of green perspectives on tourism, ethical concerns over the social relationships brought about through tourism have been a key element of tourism discourse since the 1990s. 

This area has mainly been focused on the nature of the host-guest interaction within destinations, but has also included concerns over representation in and governance of tourism destinations, authenticity and exploitation.  As with sustainable / eco-tourism, it remains to be seen how organisations that work in this area will fare during a depression.  Recent problems at Tourism Concern are hopefully not indicative of a gradual lessening of support for ethical tourism initiatives from the public and the tourism industry.

4.  Conceptions of tourism and its values

The core question to be answered here is ‘what is tourism for?’  Historically, tourism has been seen variously as a privelege, a human right, a leisure activity, a cultural form and as a social practice.  I wrote here about contemporary developments in the relationship between tourism, social policy and regeneration.  The current crisis provides two non-exclusive conceptions of tourism within the public sphere. 

Firstly, and most likely to gain prominence quickly, is the assertion of the direct and indirect economic benefits of tourism.  In a period of a weak national currency tourism can be a key export for the UK economy and a parallel rise in domestic tourism places tourism in a position of potential growth, even if that growth is relative rather than absolute.   This potential could see tourism taking a stronger role in economic and regional development strategies, perhaps displacing retail and creative industries development in the development zeitgeist.

Secondly, it is possible that the new economics of tourism, if coupled with a sense of corporate social responsibility or development levies of some kind, could create a more favourable climate for social tourism in the UK.  In many European countries, tourism plays an important role in social policy.  Social tourism can take many forms: In France, subsidised tourism channels tourism spending to particular destinations whilst in many part of Scandanavia tourism is seen as a human right, creating obligations on the state to secure this right for its citizens.  In the UK, organisations like the Family Holiday Association have a history of providing tourism opportunities for disadvantaged groups, but this approach has never been mainstreamed into public policy. 

5.  Industrial relations within tourism

We have seen a sharpening of industrial relations within many sections of the economy over the last twelve months.  Disputes at Visteon, Vestas, Lindsey and the Royal Mail appear to be the harbingers of a new period of renewed labour militancy in the UK, but the mixture of compromises and legalistic disputes that have postponed resolution of the BA strike and the Royal Mail strikes mean that it is unclear as yet whether unions are likely to become more or less powerful through the restrucuring currently underway in response to the economic crisis.  The activities of unions in the travel and public sectors are likely to have the greatest impact on the tourism industry, but rising worker militancy generally could lead to changes in the way that non-unionised workers (the majority of tourism employees) react to threats of closures, job losses, pay cuts and work intensification, as the employees of Thomas Cook in Dublin show in the video below:

6.  Tourism policy and politics

In the UK, most public agencies are in a state of paralysis at the moment as they wait for an election and the almost inevitable period of regime change that will follow it.  The smart money seems to be on an early election in March, so until then it is going to be very difficult to get a feel for how tourism policy in the UK is going to develop.  The incoming conservative party have let it be known through various outlets that they plan a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and no doubt this will hit our tourism agencies.  However, every incoming government since 1979 has promised exactly this and then, faced with the prospect of losing control over spending or developing truely accountable structures of governance, has tended to spend a lot of money on the restruturing and rebranding of the quangos instead.

7.  The social reproduction of tourism

Within Harvey’s model, this seventh term relates to the social reproduction of labour within capitalism and the way in which systems of production are maintained and developed through social processes.  Within this adaptation, I will develop the final category as a synthetic product of the preceding areas of analysis.  Once the 6 areas above have been considered dialectically, it will be possible to draw some initial conclusions about the ways in which the tourism industry is being maintained and developed as the crisis progresses and the strategies of restructuring become more clear. 

Each of these seven areas will provide material for blog posts throughout 2010, with a final article being produced towards the end of the year.

 

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