10 questions to ask before you open your door for tourists

Tourism is not a simple industry. It is rather complicated since it touches all other industries. Tourism development is not merely about promoting a place and pumping up demand. It is also about the establishment of a solid social infrastructure that can withstand the ravages of greed, exploitation and irresponsible acts of human beings.

Here are ten questions that destination managers, tourism officers, local leaders and policy makers should ask before they even start promoting their community for tourism. ​​​

1. Do we have the proper tourism infrastructure to handle the volume anticipated?
There are 2 types of infrastructure – physical and social. Physical infrastructure include roads, bridges, transportation terminals, communication facilities, restrooms, hotels, restaurants and banks. Even sewage treatment plants, materials recovery facilities and a sanitary landfill are infrastructure that are necessary to address waste disposal and pollution. Social infrastructure, which is equally as important, include capacity, skills, knowledge, values, cooperation, collective vision, organizations, institutions and systems of control. These two need to be in place in order to create a fortress of protection against the impact of human activities, which can easily destroy natural and cultural assets.

2. Are the people ready to provide services to visitors?
It is not uncommon to find rural destinations where local people are clueless as to their role in tourism development. Without proper intervention and assistance rural community members often end up as spectators, not understanding what is going on as tourists come and go. Most do not have knowledge on entrepreneurship, or capital to invest in economic activities related to tourism. In such cases, it is often outsiders who reap the benefits because they have the resources and knowledge to take advantage of the opportunities that tourism brings. This scenario perpetuates serious economic leakages. The latter is money that is infused in a local economy that is not available for re-investment or development. This occurs because the person who earns the income takes the money elsewhere to be spent. Value chain analysis is a study of the linkages of suppliers and how much money leaks out due to the non participation of local service providers and stakeholders. Without proper training and start-up capital local residents are left wondering why other people are getting richer, while they are getting poorer. This, despite what seems to be a booming tourism industry. ​

3. Is the police force ready to handle potential crimes of tourists against locals and vice versa?
One of the indicators of local development is the ratio of police to residents. A lower ratio may imply a safer community. With increased influx of tourists the police will have to watch over more people. They now have to deal with potential crimes of tourists on locals and vice versa. It is also important to note that a place that is getting significant tourist traffic also becomes attractive to syndicates and criminal elements who intend to victimize both tourists and locals. Tourist sites that register increased poverty due to unequal distribution of economic opportunities often become vulnerable to human trafficking, drug abuse and other serious crimes. Children and women, who are very vulnerable, should be protected.

4. Is our supply of water, fuel and energy enough to support tourism development?
We often forget that tourists are humans and they have the same needs as locals. They consume water which may not be abundant in some places. Fuel, which is also a valuable but sometimes a scarce resource, ends up being used by the transport sector, hotels and other tourism related businesses. Local supply, which is primarily for the people living in the area, is being used up by the industry. Unless supply is increased, the industry ends up competing with the needs of the local population.

5. Is our food supply adequate for both locals and tourists?
Food insecurity is a serious possibility in places with limited supply of basic commodities including rice. Hotels can stock up on supplies since they have the financial resources to do so. Locals, on the other hand, do not have the financial capability to do the same. Poor rural communities live on a hand to mouth existence, and rely on current supply for their sustenance. Food shortage is not an uncommon issue in places where there is a huge disparity between rich and poor. The inability to address food requirements also result from extremely low buying power of the greater majority.

6. Do we have appropriate rules, regulations, codes of conduct, ordinances to control tourism and people’s behaviour?
Tourism is an industry that needs to be controlled. People have the propensity to create impacts on the places they visit – trampling, garbage, collection of wildlife, erosion of trails, pollution and cultural dilution. If tourism is to be sustained over many years, these impacts need to be minimized. Two strategies go hand in hand in creating control – education and regulations. The former enlightens people on their impacts, makes them more aware, and therefore, more responsible in their choices and actions. The latter is required for those who refuse to be enlightened and need to be controlled with the use of penalties and disincentives.

7. Can we handle the increase in the volume of garbage that may be expected when tourism booms?
If the local community, at the present moment, has serious issues in managing its trash, then it is highly probable that the problem will escalate when tourism booms. People produce trash on a daily basis. Increased tourist traffic equates to increased production of trash. This is simple mathematics.

​8. Are there policies and mechanisms of control that will tame greed of businesses, and ensure that opportunities are well distributed across the value chain?
There is so much talk about inclusive growth, but it is doubtful that this concept is fully understood by policy makers, leaders and tourism practitioners. To understand this concept one has to look at the big picture. A hotel owner for example needs to look beyond his own niche in the industry and see whether the people at the communities are also involved. People’s lives will not be uplifted by simply generating jobs for them. Development is not simply a function of the number of jobs generated by the industry. It is also about the quality of jobs, income for the people who have not finished formal schooling, economic inclusion of the marginalised and informal sector of society, generating savings and emergency fund for families, as well as retirement fund for the old people. When people at the downstream end of the value chain (those in the communities where the attractions are found) are unable to take advantage of the economic opportunities through enterprise development, the disparity between the rich and poor will be so great that crime will increase, nature will be exploited, and the industry will only be for the benefit of a few. A lop-sided value chain is not a situation that will bring about inclusive growth, but rather, it will create an elitist industry that is generating benefit only to those with influence, financial capital and education.

9. Are there standards that had been established for infrastructure, as well as for services?
In the Philippines tourism infrastructure is often not at par with those in developed countries. Most end up unfinished, unmaintained, mismanaged, or worse, as white elephants. Is this perhaps due to corruption, or the lack of understanding on what good design is about? Perhaps both. It seems that there is still a need to educate rural communities on sustainable designs to avoid infrastructure that ends up as eye sores and unnecessary disruptions to the beauty of the natural landscapes and seascapes.

10. Are there viable tourism products that reflect the brand essence of the destination?
There is still much confusion about the definition of a tourism product. Some define it as an object that attracts tourists, while some consider natural attractions as products that can be sold. No wonder that some local governments have the tendency to promote places even if they are not ready . They end up in lovely brochures enticing people to come and visit. Even bloggers are guilty of prematurely pumping up demand of pristine areas that are not ready to accept visitors. The frenzy among bloggers to post photos and write about unknown destinations is making these places vulnerable to impacts of unplanned tourism.

Places, attractions or objects are not products. I define a tourism product as an experience that is intentionally created for the satisfaction of the visitor and the benefit of the community and the environment. It is composed of things that one can smell, see, taste, hear, felt by the skin, including those that are learned, enjoyed, appreciated, felt by the heart and remembered. It is more than a package tour since it has been developed to reflect the brand essence of the destination. Branding is an essential component of tourism planning because it is the overall message of the place. It is through the products that the spirit of the brand is expressed and delivered.

If the local community does not create its own products, it is usually the private businesses, tour companies and travel agencies that will create them. Often, they are developed primarily to generate income for these businesses without much consideration to the lost opportunities for the local people. Community products are created, not just for economic viability, but for the achievement of environmental and social goals. They are meant to educate, increase awareness promote sense of pride, as well as participation and cooperation among community members.

So, before you even open your doors to hordes of strangers, seriously think about your answers to these important questions. Tourism brings about change, most are irreversible. Planning for tourism may slow down things a bit, but the rewards are worth the wait. ​​

This article was originally published in Chen Reyes-Mencias’ blog, QuantumLight
All photos are by Chen Reyes-Mencias