Shifting sands, the next economy & tourism

Dianne Dredge

Sand is awesome. It gets in your hair, in your shoes, on your beach towel, and in your food. Sand challenges the comfort zone. It’s also the original, all-natural version of ‘serious play’ where creativity and innovation are needed to solve complex problems — like building that turreted sandcastle complete with moat and drawbridge. So when TTRA’s 50th International Conference in Melbourne was themed “Navigating the shifting sands: Research in changing times”, I grabbed my bucket and spade and headed to Melbourne!

Challenging the status quo

Australia, and indeed the global community, is in need of some very serious discussions about the future of tourism. Serious, long range, honest discussions. Uncomfortable discussions. But also creative and constructive discussions that acknowledge the shifting sands that are transforming tourism.

Most tourism conferences usually start with the unquestioned premise that growth is good. Passenger movements, bed nights and per capita spend remain the key metrics by which governments and tourism organisations measure their success. It’s a model that is built on the assumption that the resources on which growth is based are infinite, and that our social and environmental systems can continue to absorb the impacts resulting from this growth. This year the TTRA 2019 conference organisers took a courageous step by inviting two keynote speakers who were always going to challenge that assumption:

Prof Tim Flannery, mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, conservationist, explorer, public scientist and Australian of the Year (2007). Tim Flannery’s keynote was a powerful and very personal account of his participation in a Reconciliation Ceremony on the island of Malaita in the Solomon Islands. To his long list of expertise above, I would also add storyteller and sage! His message was clear: tourism and travel can unleash complex relationships and cultural sensitivities. Tourism needs to be culturally appropriate, respectful, and the level of change acceptable to those communities should be set by the community itself, not outsiders.

Professor Flannery’s recounting of his personal journey and vulnerabilities in making the reconciliation trek, left no doubt that travel can be a transformative personal journey, especially when mutual authentic exchange occurs. The Reconciliation Ceremony that Professor Flannery attended was in response to open wounds arising from historical conflicts between locals and outsiders. Left untended for some 80 years, difficult relationships between indigenous people and travellers had escalated to dangerous levels. In Flannery’s story, it became clear that the impacts of tourism can take generations to appear, and even more time to heal.

Prof Pauline Sheldon, University of Hawaii Professor Emerita, United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Ulysses prize winner for contributions to knowledge in sustainable tourism, and TTRA Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, was the second keynote. The remainder of this article focuses on unpacking her contributions.

Shifting Sands

Professor Emerita Pauline Sheldon gave an inspiring keynote that highlighted a number of trends that are converging to reshape our economic, social and political systems. Drawing on diverse works including the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Johan Rockström’s call to recognise planetary boundaries, Kate Raworth’s work on Doughnut Economics, and Naomi Klein’s treatise on the failures of our current economic system, Professor Sheldon called for a rethink of the current ‘growth is good’ discourse. Can the planet really cope with international arrivals growing at a rate of around 3.3% per annum and reaching 1.8 billion international tourist arrivals in 2030?

Professor Sheldon’s address was a call to think — really think — about those figures and what that means for our planet and its fragile ecosystems, for places (and especially those already flooded with visitors), and for people, cultural traditions, languages, values and ways of life.

The climate crisis, biodiversity loss, water and food security, labour and employment issues associated with Industry 4.0, and the challenges of inclusive development, are just some of the challenges that are changing our relationship with the Earth and with capitalism. But tourism, enjoying seven decades of positive growth, and characterised predominantly by SMEs with low propensity to innovate, has been slow to acknowledge, let alone take up the challenge of transitioning to this next economy.

It’s clear we need to shift our thinking about tourism — and quite dramatically. We need a new relationship with capitalism, and a new relationship with Nature. We also need to redefine what we think of success in tourism, and to put the wellbeing of planet, people and places — not just profit and growth — on the agenda. In short, Professor Sheldon suggested we need to move from the ‘Me’ to the ‘We-economy’.

Alternative capitals

Professor Sheldon argued for a broader interpretation and valuing of the different kinds of capital that can be created in tourism. We also need frameworks and metrics to help us learn and better understand and manage the diverse kinds of value generated by tourism. Acknowledging the value of alternative capitals, it’s possible to start re-imagining and re-engineering the tourism system. Identifying and measuring alternative capitals helps to value a wider range of material and non-material resources that are generated by and/or used in tourism. It also brings to light the impacts associated with the way different capitals are traded, exchanged, accumulated, spent, and exploited.

Adapted from Sheldon, P. Tourism and the New Economics, TTRA conference Keynote, 2019.

Diverse Economies of Tourism

Some interesting conceptual work over the years traces and describes diverse economies in general, and more recently in tourism. We know these economies by different labels, but all are trying to capture alternative capitals or describe other kinds of non-financial transactions (e.g. emotional, psychological, and relational). The almost tunnel-vision emphasis on the accumulation of financial capital, growth and profit over the last century, and its acceleration since the 1980s, has meant we’ve lost sight of these other kinds of capitals. We’ve forgotten how to value benefits and costs of our social, environmental and economic transactions in broader and more holistic terms.

imagine list different terms associated with diverse economy, e.g. gift, circular, sharing economies
imagine list different terms associated with diverse economy, e.g. gift, circular, sharing economies
Adapted from Sheldon, P. Tourism & the New Economics. TTRA Conference Keynote, 2019.

Tourism is full of diverse economies, and some, such as the collaborative, gig, and experience economies, have had a transformative effect on tourism in recent years. These economies generate diverse value and other kinds of capitals well beyond financial value. Sharing, for example, is said to contribute to trust, deeper social connection, cultural understanding, and so on. These diverse economies — and what’s being traded and shared, and the impacts and motivations of these exchanges— are deserving of more attention if we are to navigate the shifting sands of tourism.

Highlighting the work of Anna Pollock, John Fullerton, Daniel Christian Wahl and others, Professor Sheldon has suggested that we look beyond sustainability towards the regenerative economy. The regenerative economy requires redefinition of our economic systems with the key aim of supporting thriving, living systems. It requires redesigning our industrial system of production and consumption around circular patterns of resource and energy use and draws inspiration ecology. It also draws attention to the need to move from a vicious cycle of resource exploitation to a virtuous cycle of nurturing regenerative cultures.

Professor Sheldon briefly touched upon a number of cases where these ideas have progressed into something more concrete, but argued more work is needed to measure and demonstrate the value of such approaches. In all the locations discussed, change-making work is a work in progress.

The Aloha Challenge in Hawai’i is one such project that identifies locally and culturally appropriate and relevant goals, metrics and indicators that track the State’s progress toward achieving the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Given the importance of tourism to this economy, it’s a useful case for conference participants to delve into.

But changing the system won’t happen by itself. Professor Sheldon ended her presentation with a reflection on the need to change mindsets in order to progress real, lasting change in tourism. Due to the long boom in tourism, mindsets can be locked into certain ways of thinking, so her call to action included the following:

  • Nurture human values, encourage caring, and how all tourism stakeholders can take personal responsibility. The rise of the purpose economy illustrates that tourism can be both profitable and address a higher purpose.
  • Overcome locked-in mindsets by opening up a debate about new economic thinking. Educate and involve everyone in these discussions.
  • Create and implement new metrics that reflect a holistic approach to capitals, to investment, to the regeneration of the natural assets and social resources that maintain quality of life and planetary well-being. These metrics should also help us learn what to do, not just measure our performance.
  • Support those who are building the bridges and forging new pathways between sectors, silos, and disciplines. We need innovative thinkers to create new working contexts and institutional landscapes for the change that is needed.

The shifting sands described in these keynotes were a highlight of the TTRA 2019 conference. The ideas, cases, and challenges laid out are the small grains of sand that will undoubtedly provide participants with a lot of serious play opportunities as they head back to their daily work. But they are the materials through which sandcastles are built, and change happens. Like I said, sand is awesome.


About the author: Dianne Dredge is Founder and Director of The Tourism CoLab, and passionate about cataylsing the next economy in tourism and the visitor economy. By unlocking purpose beyond profit, by really valuing people, place and planet and the diverse contributions they make beyond growth, it’s possible to unleash a genuine shift towards sustainability, wellbeing, and community care.

Dianne Dredge

Written by

Founder/Director of The Tourism CoLab, passionate about catalysing the next economy in tourism and the visitor economy.

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