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How do we mainstream pro-poor tourism?

Mainstreaming pro-poor tourism is a bold aim, and the subject of a recent event, organised by the ODI Tourism Programme on Friday 15 June. For this event, ‘mainstreaming’ had a double-meaning, being about:

  1. Finding new and better ways to assess the current reality and future potential for tourism to benefit the poor in developing countries and
  2. Being able to change reality through influencing the operating practices of the mainstream tourist industry as a sharper force for good.
The composition of the participants, from the tourism sector, other research institutes, NGOs, donors and many other organizations, reflected these twin aims.

As researchers, we provided a platform for some of the most innovative pro-poor tourism research to emerge over the past year. This work has emerged from an informal group of researchers from ODI and a rich assortment of bilateral, multilateral, academic and private research organisations. We kicked off with an up-date on how pro-poor tourism as evolved since its inception in 1999 (as outlined in the ODI Opinion  by Caroline Ashley and Harold Goodwin: ‘Pro poor tourism’ – what’s gone right and what’s gone wrong?). This was followed by a summary of the recent conceptual and empirical advances in our understanding of how tourism affects poor people (the subject of a  new ODI Briefing Paper) and our pioneering efforts to apply pro-poor value chain analysis and economic mapping to understand how poor people participate in tourism in SE Asia and West Africa (the subject of another new ODI Briefing Paper).

As change makers, though, we don’t want to just describe the contemporary reality of poverty in developing countries – our commitment at ODI is to study poverty in order to reduce it. In line with this commitment, some of the most influential members of the private sector and development agencies – progressive people with the financial and organizational clout to make a difference - participated in the discussions. A glimpse of some of the most innovative tourism research specifically aimed at supporting tourism policy makers, offering a relevant empirical base for their decisions, was provided before a panel discussion (audio, summary) about mainstreaming pro-poor tourism, with leading lights from the world of tourism including:


Key themes to emerge from the day are:

For the times they are a’ changing… Tourist attitudes about destination impact in the European source markets are changing fast, and the tourist industry is responding to this change. After a sluggish start a few of years ago, the pace of positive change in the industry is striking. The Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), who sent 13m of the 19m UK package tourists abroad last year, has an active programme to disseminate their sustainable supplier handbook throughout key mainstream destinations, with the aim of enhancing environmental and socio-economic performance. Here, there are two striking developments.
  • First, ‘best practice’ is rapidly spreading through the industry. The FTO is working closely with counterparts in the Netherlands and German to adopt the same approach to industry self-regulation and performance enhancement. Second, the rate of positive change is accelerating. Industry performance that was innovative 18 months ago (for instance, having a specific corporate social responsibility unit and implementing an ‘opt out’ contribution system to finance the Travel Foundation) is now old hat. The systematic monitoring of destination performance looks like being the next trend upon which our industrial vanguard is focusing.
A walk on the wild side…there are signs that as the role of tourism as tool of poverty reduction becomes clearer, and as tourism research itself begins to re-join the development mainstream, some of the more innovative development organisations are prepared to have another look at supporting pro-poor tourist development in poor countries. The World Bank, International Finance Corporation and SNV are at the forefront of this movement, but there are also encouraging signs from the New Zealand's International Aid & Development Agency.

It’s a slow train…
Nerds need to sharpen up. Now that the industry and policy makers are getting interested, there is an urgent need for the research community to have a robust and practical framework and comparative benchmark data to examine tourist destination impact available. Notwithstanding recent positive moves in this direction, the failure of researchers to have done their homework is dramatic. Research is needed that is relevant to mainstream tourist destinations – and its absence may stall the historic window of opportunity in which we now are.

When all is said and done…
We are currently in a ‘window of opportunity’. This is the consequence of such disparate factors as changes in tourist attitude; progressive leadership in parts of the mainstream tourist industry; the urgent need for shared growth in developing countries; and, the coalescence of individuals enthused about the prospects for the mainstreaming of pro-poor tourism in the industry, researchers, private sector and some donors. The real prize is to harness the energy from these sources to provide a lasting force for sustainable change.