RESPONSIBILITY IN TOURISM MANAGEMENT: A MEDITERRANEAN PERSPECTIVE

 

 

Theodora Papatheochari, Spyros Niavis2, Antonia Koutsopoulou3 & Harry Coccossis4

1Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly, Pedion Areos, 38334, Greece, e-mail: thpapath@uth.gr

2 Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly, Greece

3 Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly, Greece

4 Department of Planning and Regional Development, University of Thessaly, Greece

 

ABSTRACT

An increased need for sustainability in tourism destinations has made both the terms of responsibility and sustainability equally important for tourism management. Both concepts include the aim to increase the socio-economic benefits for tourism destinations while preserving the natural and cultural environment and the need for involving all relevant stakeholders in the decision making process. Although recent literature addresses the issue of responsibility in order to achieve sustainability in tourism, in practice the notion of responsibility is not always easy to communicate to tourists, businesses and local communities. However, the new trends in tourism which call for a deeper understanding and relation between the visitor and destinations, the shift to a more environmentally friendly tourist profile and the emerging pandemic implications have put responsibility in the spotlight. Under this context, this paper examines the views and experiences of three INTERREG MED projects representing the Sustainable Tourism thematic objective, which deal with sustainable and responsible development of coastal and maritime tourism in the Mediterranean area. The projects aim at improving the monitoring and assessment of the water sustainability performance of the tourism sector, promoting coastal destinations as “consume-less” locations directly involving all interested actors (local authorities, tourism operators, tourists) and evaluating the impacts of ecotourism in order to strengthen competencies of local stakeholders. Through a set of questions, addressed to project representatives, the challenges and recommended actions towards responsibility in the tourism sector are identified considering not only tourists and tourism operators but also local communities. In addition, the new aspects imposed by the pandemic crisis are being addressed, putting the dimension of responsibility under a new perspective and calling for new, creative and innovative strategies towards this direction. Finally, new trends in tourism responsibility are being discussed, considering also the increased awareness of the involved actors which includes an environmental sensitivity and understanding of the local environment by tourists, an understanding of the tourism sector and its implications and impacts by local communities and a tendency towards corporate social responsibility by tourism beneficiaries.

Key Words: Responsibility, Coastal and maritime tourism, Tourism management

 

 

1 INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND

An increased need for sustainability in tourism destinations has made both the terms of responsibility and sustainability equally important for tourism management. Both concepts aim to increase the socio-economic benefits for tourism destinations while preserving the natural and cultural environment and the need for involving all relevant stakeholders in the decision making process (Zhang et al., 2020). Responsible tourism has been often linked to the idea of community-based tourism while its origin has been related to the tourist demand for social contact with the local community and for experiences of creative activities, knowledge and exploration (Luh Sin & Minka, 2015). There has been a wide interest to define social responsibility in tourism. It could be referred to as obligations and activities of the involved stakeholders, as the collective efforts of responsible actions of destination stakeholders as seen by the residents (Lee et al., 2021). According to Mody et al. (2014), responsible tourism could not be regarded as a type of tourism, but rather a way of perceiving a destination, in which responsibility plays an important role. The characteristics of responsible tourism include the minimization of negative impacts, the generation and equitable distribution of economic benefits for host communities, the involvement of local communities in decision making, the sustainable management of the natural and cultural heritage, the connection between tourists and the local community and a culturally sensitive behavior (Caruana et al., 2014; Grimwood et al., 2015). The stakeholders usually involved in such processes are the tourists, local authorities, tourism service providers, tourism businesses in general (Lee et al., 2021; Grimwood et al., 2015). In order to define the responsible tourist, it is imperative to explore and understand the motivations behind a consumer’s decisions and preferences when travelling (Mody et al., 2014). There is a wide range of push motivations and pull factors that affect tourist decisions, from demographic to emotional etc, while, it is considered that responsible consumers show a high interest for the environmental and social aspects of a destination. Therefore, they are considered as more environmentally and socially sensitive. It is argued that social responsibility on the part of the destination could affect tourist perception of the destination, influence their intentions to revisit and, in general, encourage responsible behavior. However, still the consumers are unpredictable and inconsistent in their behavior, therefore, difficult to manage (Caruana et al., 2014; Su et al., 2020). In this context, it is important that all relevant stakeholders try to comply with the destination interests (either social, economic or environmental) and understand each other’s interests in order to promote socially responsible actions (Lee et al., 2021; Su et al., 2020). Regarding tourism businesses, responsibility (or, more often, corporate social responsibility) is more than linking practices with the pillars of sustainability. It requires a strategic perspective across the value chain and a specific focus on the target groups’ needs. Corporate social responsibility activities usually concern environmental management practices, the generation of a dialogue with the local community and employees relationships (Coles et al., 2013; Tamajon & Font, 2013). Adding to corporate social responsibility, the initiative of Interpid goes beyond bringing social benefits. It promotes a more solid link between creating value for the business and improving the destination community, building on local capacities (World Travel and Tourism Council, 2021). 

Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is tightly related to the tourism industry, it is understandable that the idea of responsibility for all groups of involved stakeholders has been affected. It could be said that international traveling, an inherent element of tourism, contributed to the fast-spreading of the disease and thus made the tourism industry considered one of the pandemic incubators. On the other hand, the sector is one of the worst-hit activities by the pandemic as many countries have imposed restrictions on people movement and a considerable decline in international tourism arrivals was observed in 2020 (Gössling et al., 2020). Although the pandemic's possible persistence may be considered a threat to the tourism industry, it may also become an opportunity to reconsider the type of tourism growth of the future. This is because all actors of tourism may become more responsible, thus enhancing the sector's sustainability (Sigala, 2020). At the supply side, tourism entrepreneurs have already increased their services' health and hygiene standards (Jiang & Wen, 2020; Sigala, 2020). Moreover, the disruptions of air connections have mobilized destinations in attracting tourists from more adjacent markets. This new target setting reduces the number of flights and the carbon footprint of tourism (Ioannides & Gyimothy, 2020). Furthermore, the disruptions in the global logistics chains increased the consumption of local foods as a response of tourism enterprises to the risk of possible food and beverages shortages. This shift to the strengthening of local value chains has two benefits. First, it reduces the global tourism footprint as fewer supplies are shipped from distant places, and it also helps local suppliers to increase their incomes and generate more jobs (Ioannides & Gyimothy, 2020). Therefore, tourism becomes a fundamental contributor to the local economies and is being embraced by the local communities.  

On the other hand, tourists' responsibility may also be enhanced. Initially, tourists may feel somewhat responsible for the further transmission of the disease and thus may become more responsible by keeping all hygiene standards and showing greater respect to the places they visit. This "ascription of responsibility" may be preserved in the future behavior of tourists, thus enhancing the sustainability of the sector (Han et al., 2020). Moreover, the behavior of tourists may also change with respect to the hotels that they chose to book. Tourists may choose to stay in more remote and rather small hotels avoiding the large resorts where overcrowding phenomena are observed and social distancing is harder to keep. The same trend was also observed in tourists' dining options, with many of them preferring to spend time in open-air places instead of visiting crowded restaurants (Pardo & Ladeiras, 2020). Therefore, the pandemic may provide an excellent opportunity for halting the dominance of mass tourism. Finally, tourists may also choose more adjacent and familiar destinations to spend their holidays where they might feel safer and reduce international flows (Ioannides & Gyimothy, 2020; Pardo & Ladeiras, 2020). The same trend might be observed in professional travelers as many of them may substitute online meetings for air travel. The slowing of air transport is expected to reduce the overall carbon footprint of tourism (Gössling et al., 2020).  All these trends observed during the pandemic might be preserved after the covid period with very positive effects on the sector's sustainability.

The aforementioned portray that responsibility is an evolving issue open to many perceptions. Therefore, it is very interesting to examine how tourism experts working on different dimensions of tourism sustainability perceive the meaning of responsibility, the main trends among the tourism actors and the implications of the COVID-19 for the future development of the phenomenon.

 

 

2 METHOD AND RESULTS

2.1 Method

This paper examines the views and experiences -regarding responsibility- of three INTERREG MED projects representing the Sustainable Tourism thematic objective. The projects deal with the sustainable and responsible development of coastal and maritime tourism in the Mediterranean area. The project partenrships include tourism related entities of the Mediterranean, such as regional and municipal authorities and councils, universities, development agencies, networks, NGOs, regional and national agencies, ministries and other local, regional, national and macroregional entities.

More specifically, the vision of CONSUME-LESS project is to offer authentic and original tourist experiences while reducing water and energy consumption and waste production for the preservation of the destinations’ natural and cultural heritage. The actions foreseen by the project aim to promote and reward sustainable management actions in the fields of energy, water and waste and also to communicate sustainable resource management to visitors and raise tourists’ awareness and responsibility to the destination. The implementation of those actions requires but also promotes the involvement of local and regional authorities, SMEs and tourist operators and the active participation of tourists. In a similar context, CASTWATER aims to support sustainable tourism water management in Mediterranean coastal areas by promoting sustainable tourism policies and practices on water efficiency. The project engages tourism SMEs in an online self-evaluating monitoring process that evaluates their performance on water efficiency and water management and in return provides recommendations on how to improve their water management performance. Through the active participation of SMEs, local and regional authorities can gain access to important information and data on the overall performance in water management of the tourism sector which can in return be used to assess the implementation of relevant policies. Capitalizing on the experiences of MEET network and DestiMED project and with the vision to improve coordination between tourism and conservation policies, DestiMED Plus aims to create a network of ecotourism itineraries through a collaborative approach in order to promote ecotourism in protected areas. The project foresees a series of monitoring and training actions for measuring and improving the sustainability of ecotourism products and also to increase capacity building of local ecotourism stakeholders. All three projects involve actions and develop strategies to cope with the new aspects and challenges imposed by the pandemic crisis, especially in relation to issues regarding environmental awareness, destinations’ sustainability and tourism responsibility (INTERREG MED, 2021).

For the purposes of this paper extended interviews were conducted with the projects’ key representatives, defined by each project. The interviews included a set of questions to address the challenges and recommended actions towards responsibility in the tourism sector considering not only tourists and tourism operators but also local communities. In addition, the new aspects imposed by the pandemic crisis are being addressed, putting the dimension of responsibility under a new perspective and calling for new, creative and innovative strategies towards this direction. Finally, new trends in tourism responsibility are being discussed, also considering the increased awareness of the involved actors which includes an environmental sensitivity and understanding of the local environment by tourists, an understanding of the tourism sector and its implications and impacts by local communities and a tendency towards corporate social responsibility by tourism beneficiaries.

It should be noted that the extended interviews were conducted with an emphasis on three categories of stakeholders (tourists, businesses and local communities) and the sustainability dimensions (socio-economic, environmental, governance) and around four topics:

1. The challenges of tourism responsibility.

2. The recommended actions towards achieving responsibility in the tourism sector.

3. The effects (positive and negative) of the pandemic in achieving responsibility.

4. New trends in tourism responsibility.

The project representatives expressed their experiences on the issues under discussion as experts of the tourism research and sector and as representatives of their projects, passing on the lessons learned during their project implementation.

 

2.2 Results

As stated above, the interviews with project representatives were conducted around four general topics with the aim to address the issue of responsibility, specifically in the three groups of stakeholders (tourists, businesses and local communities). Each interview opened with the general question of What is responsibility in tourism?. All answers included the need for stakeholder involvement and understanding of the destination in order to assist the tourism sector and promote sustainability. More specifically, the responses included the practices of the tourism sector to promote responsibility by engaging all relevant stakeholders in understanding that they are part of the problems generated as well as the solution and incorporate the idea of value, place and people.

Regarding tourists, the interviewees consider that tourist behavior is linked to their way of living. Travelers tend to bring with them their habits, choices, values, intentions and in general their sociocultural characteristics. Awareness raising about responsible tourism and understanding of the destination is a key element for their behavior, impacts and role as part of the solution for more sustainable tourism destinations. Businesses could have a share in keeping tourism responsibility by engaging themselves in responsible actions and, thus, promoting responsibility for the visitor. In this way, integrated actions could be promoted by both groups of stakeholders. In addition, the interviewees have highlighted the need for up-to-date information about legislation, new technologies and digitalization, and funding opportunities as well as the improved understanding of the impacts of tourism development to the destination. Concerning small businesses, changes in their strategies are of importance, such as a better targeting of the preferred type of the tourist and the activities to promote. According to the interviewees, the destination authorities are the principal actor to encourage this integration/interaction among the relevant stakeholders and engage them in the process towards responsibility. There is a need for collecting the data for managing the tourism impacts at both authority and business level and motivate the cooperation between management authorities and entrepreneurs. At the same time, authorities are the ones to ensure the dialogue with the local community in terms of their perspective on the type and intensity of the tourism activities in their territory. In order to do so, it is important to understand the real value of the territories and build together a long-term vision for a shared benefit, be it economic, social and environmental. According to the interviewed experts, responsibility could be considered as a chain, in which one actor could learn from the other. Some of their suggestions, following the new trends in tourism management, are the introduction of new and smart technologies, the shift from promotional management to management of impacts, the improvement of learning about sustainability and the new social economy and new ways of living (e.g. digital nomadism).

The emerging challenges posed by the pandemic crisis have also been discussed with the project representatives. They consider that proximity will be a crucial aspect in setting new goals for tourism while the shift to nature-based tourism is expected to be more enhanced but not necessarily with a more responsible approach. However, it could be considered as an opportunity for promoting ecotourism. The pandemic has changed people’s perspective so it is expected that tourists changed their needs and objectives for travelling, which include not only the need to relax and enjoy but also stay safe and build a relationship with the local community. This leads to a valorisation of the destination while communities could now be considered a value to enhance. Furthermore, the pandemic brought local actors together while it could be an opportunity to reduce seasonality. An example of new ways of cooperation, supported by DestiMED Plus project, was applied to Cabo de Gata Nijar Natural Park in Almeria (Spain). The project supported the Park in finding a new model and collaborative structure that goes beyond the sun, sea and sand tourism models and fits more to the vision of the park as an ecotouristic destination. At the same time, it promotes the cooperation among relevant stakeholders for a coordinated approach of ecotourism (Interreg Mediterranean – DESTIMED PLUS 2021).

Simple, innovative and user friendly training and monitoring tools could assist the adaptation to the new reality in tourism needs, provided these are not costly, especially for small businesses. On this, an example, brought by CASTWATER representatives, is the development of a digital platform that calculates the carbon footprint (CF) of stakeholders in order to improve their behavior and compensate accordingly. Moreover, local service providers seem to be mostly hurt, however, there is an opportunity to promote more the use of local products because the distance between the consumer and the supplier is expected to decrease. Consumers now seem to understand more the vulnerability of the system. An example, coming from CONSUME-LESS project, concerns an initiative adopted by Italy which is called Società Benefit. It is a legal tool for tourism companies that allows them to gain economic profit whilst creating a positive social and environmental impact with the aim of transparency, responsibility and sustainability (Società Benefit, 2021).

 

3 Conclusions

 

This paper sought to explore the views of tourism experts in the Mediterranean area on the tourism responsibility issues arising for three groups of stakeholders, namely tourists, businesses and local communities. It is recognised, both by literature and by the interviewees, that the way towards responsibility is long and complex. On the one hand, there is a series of internal factors to take into consideration, such as the access to information and resources and the cooperation among actors, while, on the other hand, there are also external factors, such as the pandemic crisis, which constitute major impediments for its realization. However, the difficulties could act as opportunities for rethinking tourism development and build a more sustainable future for Mediterranean destinations.

Among the issues highlighted through the interviews was the need for collaboration among the three groups in order to create responsible and sustainable destinations. In addition, the access to more information on how to be responsible and what are the resources and actions to achieve responsible actions and behaviour was particularly addressed which could be accompanied by the assistance of new technologies. New, simple and innovative ideas could accelerate responsible practices and help bridging the gap among tourists, businesses and local communities. To this end, the destinations and their authorities are considered the principal actors to make such an integration among the different interests while communities should participate in the decision making processes.

The challenges imposed to the projects of the INTERREG MED Sustainable Tourism objective towards promoting responsibility in coastal and maritime areas of the Mediterranean include the contribution to the generation of knowledge, the enhancement of actions and the incorporation of policy recommendations for responsible and sustainable tourism development in the Mediterranean destinations.

 

 

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