Interview with professor Tom Baum on the social dimension of sustainable tourism: “Start treating tourism workers as human beings, not as shadows that we ignore”
Alexandra Pastollnigg interviewed Tom Baum, professor of Tourism Employment at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, about how tourism is and can be sustainable in the light of the current flight shaming debate and the growing awareness of climate change.
In the public debate, banning air travel seems to be the main point of focus, but Baum argues that making tourism sustainable involves much more than banning air travel. He warns about the often forgotten social impact of tourism and the socioeconomic implications on host communities if we abruptly stopped flying.
The often forgotten social impact of tourism
“It’s very easy to be almost oblivious, to be unaware of the people who clean our rooms, who deliver the food, who prepare the experiences we have”, Baum explains. “And while we can be very ethical travelers in terms of what we consume, how we travel and we can be very conscious of the environmental impact of what we do. We’re less, frequently less, conscious of the social impact and social consequences, and I’m a great believer that we need to always think about the people.”
“Our money, through development aid, through our tourism expenditure, has built up infrastructure.”
In various regions globally and specifically in the global South, like many African countries, entire regions and communities have become fully dependent on tourism for a living. They transitioned from their traditional agricultural or fishing industries to building hotels and providing services to travellers. “Our money, through development aid, through our tourism expenditure, has built up infrastructure, has built up facilities in tourism destinations, which is very hard to withdraw from”, Baum explains.“
When we consider stopping flying for the climate, we should also take in consideration our direct impact on these, currently, dependent communities. If tourists stop coming, like also happens with conflict or disease outbreaks, “the economic and the social consequences are catastrophic to those communities because they don’t have alternative economic options to fall back on, and they don’t have the social support systems that we might be used to, for example, in Europe”, states Baum.
“Tourism on the cheap”
There is an urgent need to empower host communities to be less dependent on tourism revenue while at the same time consider the environmental impact of tourism and air travel specifically. Baum suggests that “rather than to necessarily withdraw, we need to start thinking seriously about paying a realistic price for what we’re looking for.
If we started to pay more, then perhaps there would be a means to balance some of the environmental impacts that we have as travelers.
Because part of the other side of the problem, as far as I can see it – this has consequences for the people who work in tourism – is that essentially we as Europeans, as Westerners, are looking for the cheapest price for everything we purchase.”
“And, it’s not realistic to go around tourist towns as backpackers or other forms of travelers and look for the $6 a night accommodation option. We’re not paying a realistic price. If we started to pay more, then perhaps there would be a means to balance some of the environmental impacts that we have as travelers. At the moment, we’re getting tourism on the cheap.”
The human dimension in travel
Besides paying a fair price, another aspect of that dependency is that we have a responsibility as travelers to manage the consequences of our actions and to support the transition to a more sustainable source of revenues for host communities. This not only relates to the money we spend directly but also the money our governments and international institutions spend on our behalf through development aid.
We have a responsibility as travelers to manage the consequences of our actions and to support the transition to a more sustainable source of revenues for host communities.
“Whether it’s through the United Nations, whether it’s through the bilateral aid that individual countries give for tourism development, the European Union, other agencies: World Bank, etc. They’ve invested or directed huge quantities of development aid into tourism”, Baum explains. “Whether it’s from the human capacity side, through training, or, whether it’s through infrastructure development: building new airports and alike. And, that’s been done on our behalf.”
Trying to be mindful of the consequences of our actions sounds quite complicated and complex. However, it doesn’t need to be that way. It’s actually easy to travel sustainably even if that means you fly a long distance to reach your destination. It’s about the human dimension that’s a very large aspect of travel.
How to travel sustainably
“Whether you’re in our own countries or overseas, is to try to interact more directly with the people who work in the industry. Start treating them as human beings; don’t treat them as shadows that we ignore”, Baum explains. “Try to spend your money wisely within a local economy, and perhaps try to support local providers, where far more of our expenditure will circulate within the local economy, rather than just going, for example, to all-inclusive resorts or buying all-inclusive packages, going on cruises where 90% of the money remains within the large multinational companies coffers.”
“Try to spend your money wisely within a local economy, and perhaps try to support local providers.”
Besides the local community, you also have an influence on the industry by choosing which companies and airlines you book or fly with. For example, support more responsible airlines who try to lower their impacts. This will eventually lead to creating new baselines.
As the debate of this topic is heated, many people might argue that these efforts are too limited and too slow. Baum clarifies that he isn’t “a proponent of radical change”, but more interested in “a gradualist approach which can make a difference over time.” He concludes by raising the question: “could we owe it to the host communities that will be affected to find a sensible, realistic solution to these sorts of problems?