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Opinion | Responsible Tourism | Spain


Transforming tourism, reducing vulnerability

Ernest Cañada | Alba Sud

The COVID-19 pandemic has called the global tourism model into question. In the face of heightened vulnerability, it is necessary to challenge tourism policies and the public resources that ensue.

Photography by: Olgierd. Creative Commons license.

More than six decades after Spain's tourism expansion, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to destroy one of its main businesses. This could be an assessment of the current situation. If so, there is a need to reduce everything that creates uncertainty and insecurity, or that could stand in the way, in order to recover lost normalcy. On the horizon lies a dilemma: a hope of reviving tourism, or, that its paralysis will drive us deeper into poverty. However, there are other possible analyses of the present moment. Given its severity, we need to make the correct diagnosis and propose leftist policies, in tourism as well, that, without any issues, wager in favor of its transformation for the benefit of the vast majority. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has, in fact, called the tourism model into question, highlighted since the 2008 financial crisis, which, under capitalist ideology transforms entire areas for the sole purpose of tourism. In Spain’s case, this has been a long-term process, first seen in coastal regions, and increasingly in urban areas, so much so that the discomfort has lead to intense turmoil in recent years. The debate about "over tourism" was just one of its manifestations. But the social conflict linked to tourism had multiple expressions: in housing because of rising costs and loss of residential use; the expulsion of people with fewer resources in gentrified neighborhoods; defending areas confronted with environmental destruction; and, among others, job insecurity. But the current crisis calls this tourist model into question even more compellingly because it clearly demonstrates that the emperor had no clothes. There are no alternatives when tourism falls. All of today's warnings only deepen the loss of the sector’s legitimacy and, above all, in business owners who have made putting pressure, making demands, and blackmailing public authorities their way of life. 

The lack of alternatives when there is an abrupt drop in tourism means that our social vulnerability is increasing. In other words, certain structural conditions shaped by the tourist model that we have been subjected to limit our ability to face a crisis situation. The problem is further compounded when vulnerabilities developed by a circumstantial situation become entrenched and structural. 

In recent years, we have witnessed a number of episodes that put tourist activity in different touristic areas at risk on a global scale. It’s worth mentioning those caused by natural disasters, exacerbated by the climate emergency, such as the damage done to Cancun by hurricanes Gilberto in 1988 and Wilma in 2005, or the Sargassum (a type of seaweed) crisis that affected the entire Mexican Caribbean in 2019. Armed conflicts such as those that shook Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have had profound effects on their tourism industries. Terrorist attacks in some global cities, such as Paris, New York, and Barcelona, have also had a significant impact on tourist arrivals. Even previous health crises have had serious consequences, as was the case with the H1N1 flu in Cancun between 2009 and 2010. But the current CDDC-19 crisis has had a powerful global effect like no other. This also means that recovery might be much more expensive. Partly as a result of its very nature, which needs human contact and mobility to survive. But its global reach also inhibits faster recovery, in contrast to the financial crisis that began in 2008. This long, anticipated recovery time creates more risks in terms of vulnerability. The longer the current crisis lasts, the more the productive structure of tourism in Spain can be transformed. Corporate takeover and concentration processes, with greater reliance on international financial capital, along with the difficulties of keeping a large number of small and medium-sized companies afloat, and thousands of autonomous people trying to survive under ever increasing job instability, appears to be a possible scenario for an undesirable future. The risk of the current situation is obvious: the heightened vulnerability due to an unresolved tourism development. 

What can be done about this? So far, various leftist groups have focused on responding to the impacts of the tourist model. Dealing with dispossession and exploitation has not been easy, and we have been fortunate enough to have this social resistance. Without it, it would look much worse. At the same time, when some political left-wing expressions have reached certain realms of institutional power, they have done so without sufficient social strength or clear ideas about which tourism policies should be promoted. The consequence has been, with varying degrees of capacity and intention, to try to put certain limits on the free-for-all and dictated practices with which the owners of tourist businesses have treated our public institutions. Therefore, the first thing to do is to be clear that, based on the interests of the vast majority, we need a tourism policy of our own

The first element of this tourism policy should be to try not to emphasize tourism, and not to mortgage more public resources to revive a sector that condemns us to greater vulnerability. This means challenging tourism policies and the public resources that ensue. From here, we should be able to transform our tourism model from some guidelines that favor greater resilience and social inclusion: 

1) Rethinking tourism policy means making an assumption that tourism will not have the same power it has had up to recent times, or at least not in the most touristy areas. This leads to voluntary growth in some places, although it can grow in others where tourism has played a marginal role. In turn, it means thinking about tourism in a broader framework of economic diversification. 

(2) Strengthen public control mechanisms at various levels - fiscal, labor, urban planning - on the operation and action of companies in the sector - also of a social nature, with the strengthening of the sector’s trade unions. 

3) Promoting more locally-focused tourism, which for climate and social reasons can be more resilient, although it will never compensate for losses in the international market, and should not claim to do so. And to which we must also be vigilant so that it does not lead to a new cycle of dispossession. 

(4) Rethinking and promoting a social tourism policy, which does not merely serve as a subsidy mechanism for businesses but has capacity development and the well-being of the vast majority as its essential function. It is also necessary to strengthen the commitment to a Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) that can take over part of the tourism production. 

Too much is at stake right now to not have a proposal on what to do about tourism. Transformation is urgently needed to reduce tourism vulnerability.


Article originally published in a slightly reduced version of the monthly magazine La Marea, paper edition, No. 78, 2020. 

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