Re-imagining Tourism in a Future with Less Air Traffic: Summary of Webinar

by | 17 Apr 2023 | Webinar

Does aviation-driven tourism live up to its promise of delivering prosperity for both people and the planet? How did aviation and tourism become dependent on each other? What opportunities lie ahead for the tourism industry with a drastic reduction in air traffic?

On 28th February 2023, we discussed these questions in a webinar titled “Re-imagining Tourism in a Future with Less Air Traffic”, which was chaired by Daniela Subtil (network coordinator at Stay Grounded) and Neus Crous-Costa (tourismologist), both from the Tourism Working Group in Stay Grounded.

We wanted to bring together practitioners and researchers from the Mediterranean (Spain) and the Caribbean (Dominican Republic). The shores of the Mediterranean became the first leisure destination for sun and (mass) beach tourism after the Second World War. Later, when the pleasure periphery grew, the political and industrial structures related to tourism were transferred to the Caribbean area. It is not a coincidence that most investments in the area are exogenous. Furthermore, most Caribbean destinations are located on islands, which poses an extra challenge when it comes to international mobility. Our guest speakers were:

Giselle Cedeño
Graduate in Tourism and Hotel Business Administration from the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (UASD), with a specialisation in Sustainability and Quality Management in Tourism Businesses, and is a member and collaborator of Alba Sud. She writes about tourism(s), inequality and alternatives from the Dominican perspective.

Carlos Buj
Designer and facilitator of workshops and courses on ecosocial transformation. He has researched public policies to promote international tourism in Spain and founded the cooperative “Viaje a la Sostenibilidad”.

Ernest Cañada
Researcher of tourism from critical perspectives, postdoctoral researcher at the University of the Balearic Islands (UIB) and founding member of Alba Sud. Since 2016 he has been an expert member of the Tourism and City Committee of Barcelona City Council. Among other topics, he focuses on post-capitalist emancipatory alternatives in tourism.

Tourism and aviation

It is difficult to imagine contemporary tourism without the massive use of commercial aviation. It is also hard to establish if the pleasure periphery was able to expand because of the availability of affordable commercial aviation, or if commercial aviation managed to grow because middle classes enjoyed paid vacation time. Either way, since the 1960s the tourism industry has always grown hand-in-hand with air traffic. This is evidenced by the fact that the share of international tourists travelling by air has increased from 46% in 2000 to 59% in 2019 (UNWTO, 2021).

Today, leisure and business travel have become highly appreciated ways of accumulating symbolic capital, as well as genuine forms of enjoyment and creating intercultural dialogues.

Despite mounting pressure to tackle air traffic’s contribution to global heating, the aviation and tourism industries are poised to continue growing and reinforcing their interdependence. Both industries refuse to recognise that cutting aviation’s GHG emissions requires cutting air traffic itself. Instead, they use ‘job and wealth creation’, ‘development’ and ‘environmental conservation’ narratives to try to claim that the benefits of their business model justify the damage it causes.

From the Mediterranean to the Caribbean

The Dominican Republic receives around 10 million tourists annually, and the government is currently carrying out policies aimed at raising these numbers even higher by collaborating with the industry to promote it as a destination in source markets such as Canada or the United States.

This obviously requires an increase of air traffic and goes hand in hand with the expansion of infrastructure and the opening of new destinations, such as Miches, Pedernales and Puerto Plata. Public investment for these developments is up to 18 million US dollars.

A similar imbalance can be found in Spain. Historically, Franco’s dictatorship strongly fostered the development of sun & beach tourism which brought large amounts of foreigners (and their money) to the country. Today, this means receiving around 85 million tourists a year, in a country of little more than 40 million inhabitants. Coastal areas and islands are the most pressured. Still, public investment in tourism marketing is amongst the highest in the world. This creates a perceived attractiveness which, alongside the geographical location of the country, at the edge of Europe, has created a need for an increasing numbers of flights.

Patterns in tourism policies and management have not changed, because tourism is still presented as an essential source of growth to host societies, yet socially it is no longer perceived as free of negative externalities. Therefore, it is crucial to create new narratives and to raise critical voices which can generate enough political power to influence public decision-making, as is already happening in areas such as Barcelona.

The impacts on local communities

Mass developments involving foreign investment are fostered not only by the tourism industry, but also by the real estate industry. Even before Airbnb, ski resorts or golf clubs included the building of large residential developments around them, which hid the real business, rather than the sports facilities themselves. None of them, though, really benefit local communities. In this regard, today in Aragón, Spain, we are seeing how, in spite of social protests, EU Next Generation funds are allocated to expand ski areas.

The same situation can be found in the Dominican Republic. While scientists and even the press show evidence of trash and pollution even in the tourist beaches (due to mismanagement of waste in hotels) the Government denies these facts, with public figures posing for pictures while bathing on these beaches. An example of this is Playa de Bocachica.

In short, we see that the intense development model of the 1960s and 1970s in Spain is still widely enforced without real criticism on the side of public management. Thus, tourism is acting as a strong mechanism of capital reproduction, inducing dispossession and violence. Local, indigenous populations, lose their sovereignty over land and over their own existence both in rural and in urban settings.

Holding on to growth

The tourism industry is now trying to somehow “make up” for the income that was not generated during de Covid pandemic lockdown. This caused a step back in terms of public regulation of tourism. Clear examples of this are the expansion of airports, redoubled efforts in international marketing, fiscal privileges and policies in favour of air traffic.

Parallel to these state-wide policies, local authorities try to minimize the worst effects of mass tourism.
The tourism industry is well aware of the legitimate crisis of mass tourism and of aviation. This is moving towards and elitisation of tourism, masked under the term “quality tourism”. Reality is that tourism performed by the richest end of society tends to have even higher impacts and to be less mindful of them, than travel carried out by middle classes. And we are still presented with another fallacy: greater expenditure does not equal more benefits for the host population.

Re-Imagining Tourism

Yet, not all hope is lost. Beyond an industry, tourism is a social practice , which means it is subject to change. Local or national tourism usually has a lower ecological impact, at least in terms of mobility. The industry needs to start taking more into account the wellness of its own workers. Tourism itself, as an activity, should not be regarded as a problem: the issue is how it has been planned and managed historically.

Numbers of incoming tourists will need to be reduced. But we should read this within a degrowth framing: quality of life (both hosts and guests) can and should be measured in non-money terms.

A new management, focused on the well-being of both people and the planet, needs new imaginaries. This has to involve politicians, public administrations, civil society groups and the creation of new narratives. And here we  need to step into non-capitalist forms of social organisation.