September 11, 2012, by Rob

‘Getting away from it all’: social responsibility in tourism

Amongst a series of thoughtful comments on my last blog (thank you!), it was noted that in spite of some negative impacts on the environment, tourism was a powerful force in addressing social issues such as poverty and unemployment. In this blog, I put forward the main social benefits of tourism and reflect upon the potential for and limitations of the tourism industry in delivering them.

First is the possibility of wealth distribution. This ‘hidden hand’ justification of tourism is widely shared within the tourism industry and is a cornerstone of ‘responsible’ tour operators who are vociferous supporters of tourism and social justice. On the positive side, tourism brings wealth into regions that may lack economic resources or that may be dependent upon others to capture and exploit them. It connects local people and regional economies into global markets and precipitates streams of inward investment that may trigger further developments in infrastructure, health and education. The global scale and reach of tourism renders the potential wealth benefits massive. On the negative side there are a number of questions such as whether all the wealth flows in or does much leak out?, for how long are operators committed to destinations and how are inequalities in wealth distribution managed (if at all)? These questions are further complicated by the marked differences in cultural, economic and regulatory environments facing agents in the global tourism industry and the competing interests of dominant stakeholders. For example, governments seeking to tap the wealth potential of the ‘hidden hand’ have enacted ‘tourist zone’ policies that turn over ancestral land of local communities to tourist developers with little or no compensation. This links to the next point.

Second, is the potential for tourism to be a force for human rights. At the extreme end this may include tackling issues of coercion and exploitation (by no means exclusive to the tourism industry).  According to Amnesty International there are some 12 million people across the world subject to modern forms of slavery. Some of these end up (in)directly in tourism. On the positive side, MNCs are increasingly committing to CSR policies that govern how they (and subsidiaries) should manage various labour issues in multiple contexts – especially helpful for less regulated zones. They may also be powerful enough stakeholders to influence whether and how such issues can be addressed. However, the growing ‘informal’ area of the tourism industry (away from the cities, hotel chains and package resorts) can lack the kinds of regulation, resources and the authority to enact policies that would work against non-contracted work, bonded or child labour. In these informal contexts much responsibility is left to the judgement of individual operators and tourists themselves as well as charities and NGOs (e.g. Tourism Concern). Responsible tourism operators in particular have worked harder than any to raise the human rights bar here, not only by campaigning against exploitation but by offering contracted work, better pay and terms and conditions.      

Finally, tourism has the potential to be socially inclusive, allowing people often disenfranchised by tourism to have a say in how their communities are run and how tourism can be part of that. A historical problem of tourism has been the exclusion of local communities not only from economic benefits but also from decision-making processes. Locals may have a large stake but no voice in tourism precipitating on-going conflicts over water, land and energy provision. Again, ethical operators have worked hard to address this issue, setting out new frameworks for engagement that ostensibly are far more inclusive of local interests, with relationships between tourists and locals being re-defined as participative and mutually beneficial.

There is little doubt that people want the money and opportunities tourism may bring. The question put here is not “Tourism: whether or not?” but how can the social benefits of tourism be enhanced in an equitable way and what are the forces that will enable and inhibit this.

By Dr Rob Caruana, Lecturer in Business Ethics at the International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility.

Image taken by Squirmelia reproduced under creative commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)  source:

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