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.

 

Chris Harman 1942-2009

This is a recording of Chris Harman, the influential British Marxist and SWP activist who died suddenly this weekend in Egypt, speaking at Marxism 2009  in the summer.  Chris will be greatly missed by the left for his activism and inspiration.   You can read a tribute to Chris written by Alex Callinicos by clicking here.

Hey big spender!

Will Hutton is interviewed about the economic crisis in this week’s Big Issue magazine. Despite Hutton’s position in the mainstream media as a bit of a maverick, he normally makes quite conservative predictions about economic and social matters, trumpeting the rise of China or promoting economic / managerial approaches to social and cultural change. As director of the Work Foundation, he is certainly not a radical voice and for that reason we should look at his predctions as representative of a current within mainstream political circles, albeit one that he is able to voice publicly due to his ‘outsider’ status in the media.

 

Hutton points out that an economic recovery will require a rise in spending, by consumers or businesses. The consumer, claims Hutton, is concentrating on rebuilding savings, while businesses are becoming debt-minimizers in order to future-proof themselves against difficult economic times. Whether the British are re-building savings or merely starting to save after years of credit-fuelled spending is a moot point, but the likely outcome of this is stagnation in the economy, as happened in Japan in the 1990s after their economy crashed following a sustained boom. Stagnation of course, is even more problematic than a recession for a capitalist economy. A recession and a collapse in asset values at least offers the opportunity for growth and the restoration of the rate of profit; a prolonged stagnation denies capitalists the ability to grow their capital and limits the potential for competition, destroying the engine of the economy.

 

The stagnation that Hutton predicts however, doesn’t look like stagnation at the level of the individual worker or their communities. In order to maintain profit levels, it is likely that the current rate of job losses could continue at 60,000 per month for another three years before stabilisation is achieved. This could (should) lead to a period of social change as the economy and social provision is restructured to reflect this new socio-economic reality. Whether this period of change can be politicised to promote positive political developments remains to be seen, but already the possibilities of workforce mobilisation and collective responses to the crisis are facing up to the use of the recession to intimidate and manipulate workers. Politicians are keen to avoid taking the blame for the current crisis, as each country seeks to line up other markets or ‘the world financial system’ as the villains of the piece. This tactic creates a moving, camouflaged target for the public at large to aim at, and one that is obscured further by techno-managerial jargon and PR.

 

Will Hutton’s prescription for the crisis is a super-Keynesian level of fiscal stimulus, mainly based around a massive programme of public works similar to that which helped to lift the US economy out of the great depression in the 1930s. This might include large engineering projects and the development of a green economy. Of course, after the 1930s the US was left with a vastly expanded productive capacity which could only be usefully employed on a war footing over the following 60 years. The government funded expansion of production can only fix the system in the short-term, eventually the levels of state production work against competition and so have to be reduced and the debts incurred have to be repaid.

As David Harvey has pointed out, the current crisis offers an opportunity, as do all crises, for the reconfiguration of society within a different ideological framework. A more equitable society is not the necessary outcome of this process. Previous crises have seen the deepening and strengthening of the current system of power and attempts to provide a stimulus to return the economy to ‘normal’ are attempts to do just this.  The human costs of this will be enormous, and should shame journalists and politicians out of their current fetishisation of the fiscal stimulus as they hide behind superlative descriptions of it’s size and importance.

David Harvey ‘The Crisis Today’ @ Marxism 2009

By far the best thing I saw at the conference and an insightful, challenging analysis of the next steps in the crisis in which David Harvey presents a new model of restructuring around seven ‘moments’ that offers an opportunity to the left for a reconceptualisation of it’s approach.

More on the Marx revival

Comedian / activist Mark Steel writes in the Independent yesterday about the resurgence of interest in Karl Marx that appears to be happening as the economic crisis gathers pace….

“Even Karl Marx himself is in vogue. Most papers have had articles about him in their business sections, commending his analysis of booms and slumps, and he was on the front page of The Times. Soon a Times editorial will begin: ‘As the global downturn gathers pace, perhaps one economic remedy to be considered by our esteemed guardians is a violent workers’ revolution as envisaged by Mister Karl Marx, and championed with consummate aplomb on page 32 by William Rees-Mogg.'”

Continuing on the Marx theme, David Harvey has written on his blog about the US stimulus package and why it is “bound to fail”:

“The prevailing hostility in the United States to “spreading the wealth around” and to administering any sort of relief other than tax cuts to individuals, arises out of hard core neoliberal ideological doctrine (centered in but by no means confined to the Republican Party) that “households know best”. These doctrines have broadly been accepted as gospel by the American public at large after more than thirty years of neoliberal political indoctrination. We are, as I have argued elsewhere, “all neoliberals now” for the most part without even knowing it. There is a tacit acceptance, for example, that “wage repression” – a key component to the present problem – is a “normal” state of affairs in the United States. One of the three legs of a Keynesian solution, greater empowerment of labor, rising wages and redistribution towards the lower classes is politically impossible in the United States at this point in time. The very charge that some such program amounts to “socialism” sends shivers of terror through the political establishment. Labor is not strong enough (after thirty years of being battered by political forces) and no broad social movement is in sight that will force redistributions towards the working classes.”

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Reading Marx’s ‘Capital’

Over at this blog you can watch, listen to, download or subscribe to a series of lectures given by David Harvey on Marx’s ‘Capital’.   This is a great resource of video lectures by one of the world’s most important Marx scholars.  There is something of a Marx revival going on at the moment as a response to capitalism’s latest systemic crisis, but a real lack of explication of Marx in the public domain. I’ve embedded one of the lectures below, but I’d recommend downloading them and viewing them offline, probably with a notebook!

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