The democratisation of tourism – Carmel Cacopardo

The debate on the impacts of tourism is never-ending. To what extent does the economic impact of tourism justify its social and environmental impacts? What is the carrying capacity of our islands, that is, what is the number of tourists with which our resources can reasonably cope?

Earlier this week, Tony Zahra, President of the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association (MHRA) sounded the alarm: he was reported as saying that the number of tourists visiting Malta was too high. He emphasised that it is substantially exceeding the limits of what the country can take sustainably. Tony Zahra’s interest in tourism is limited to the impacts on hotels and hoteliers, his bread and butter. I have yet to hear the MHRA and Tony Zahra advocating agri-tourism, for example, and its importance in diversifying Malta’s tourism product sustainably.

Almost simultaneously The Islands and Small States Institute of the University of Malta published a Paper authored by Professors Lino Briguglio and Marie Avellino, entitled: Has overtourism reached the Maltese Islands?

In their Paper Briguglio/Avellino skim though the issues, identifying the trends and an ever-growing literature on over-tourism. “Over-tourism” and “tourismphobia” are increasingly used as terms to describe the emergence of social discontent with the pressures linked to tourism growth. It was way back in 2008 that  the Catalan anthropologist Manoel Delgado had described turistofobia as a mixture of repudiation, mistrust and contempt for tourists.

In a survey which is discussed in the Briguglio/Avellino paper, 51 per cent of respondents said that they did not want to see more tourists in their town or village. The authors interpret this as indicating the existence of over-tourism in the Maltese islands, even though they consider the sample of respondents as being weak and not adequately representative.

Among the issues contributing to this developing tourist phobia are social discomfort, environmental degradation (including both generation of waste and excessive construction activity), traffic congestion, noise, the loss of cultural identity and socio-cultural clashes.

The MHRA, as indicated by its President Tony Zahra, seems to be on the same wavelength although Tony Zahra limits himself to speaking in general terms, as his primary interest is the financial bottom-line of MHRA members.

The Briguglio/Avellino paper points at the need for tourism policy to consider mitigating the negative impacts of tourism. This could address not just the well-being of the local residents but also the tourist experience. The democratisation of tourism development through encouraging the active participation of the residents suffering the impact in our communities, opine Briguglio/Avellino, could be the way forward. The authors do not go in detail as to what the “democratisation of tourism development” would actually mean. It is, however, understood that the decision-making process of tourism development should be subjected to more public scrutiny by the community suffering from the impact and, that the views of the community are not only heard but acted upon.

Through the democratisation of tourism development, the conflicting interests and agendas involved in tourism must be addressed. As a result, the short-term gains of tourism entrepreneurs would be compelled to face the reality of social responsibility, as well as cultural and environmental costs. So far, the tourism operators pocket the profits and we, the rest, face the impacts.

Tourism is not an activity that happens in a vacuum. It takes place in a community of persons, who should be assured that their quality of life is not impacted negatively upon as a result of the experience. Tourism is not just about numbers of tourists, or the millions of euros spent or a contribution to the Gross National Product: it is also about our quality of life.

Sustainable tourism is primarily about people – not about profit! Is it not about time that those feeling the impacted are involved in ensuring that their lives are not made miserable by others whose vision is limited to euros on the horizon?

The democratisation of touristic development is the only way forward.

Carmel Cacopardo
Published in the Malta Independent – Sunday 11 August 2019