Although Tourism Concern was closed by its trustees in September 2018, this website is being maintained for the time being as a useful reference source for campaigners and educators.
Read on for an illustrated story of the organisation and its thirty year history, followed by this page’s content as it was on the date of closure.
Alison Stancliffe tells the story of how a passion for justice helped to bring about postive change in the world’s biggest industry.
1988 I started a new British network, calling it Tourism Concern. Why the name? Well, tourism was the world’s newest growth industry. New destinations were filling the brochures to cater for ever rising tourist numbers. There was mounting evidence from around the world that it could and did cause damage to the people whose homes and communities were in the path of expansion. Yet those people’s voices were being totally ignored in the scramble to develop, and tourism’s negative impacts were hardly on the radar.
You can’t challenge injustice until it’s in the open, so with a small band of likeminded people I began getting the word out to anyone who’d listen.
“Tourism Concern has been set up to change the one-way focus of our current perceptions of tourism. It starts from a simple premise: that the people living in the places where we take our holidays matter” First recruitment leaflet
This photo rescued from an old album shows the steering group we formed to turn our mission into reality. Our first solidarity action was helping protestors in Goa raise their concerns with British package tour operators. It’s hard to believe now but, back then, the idea that a host’s rights in a destination could be as important as a guest’s was revolutionary! Someone early on labelled us ‘a bunch of militant academics’, but we were simply ‘telling uncomfortable truths’, as one of our critical friends in the industry said some years later.
Our network soon included tour operators and travel agents, global NGO workers and tourism consultants, teachers and university researchers, church and community leaders. We’d all been touched one way or another by experience of tourism’s harmful impact and we wanted to change tourism for the better. By 1989 we’d become a membership organisation.
It wasn’t just in the UK that critical voices were being raised. We’d been inspired by other groups in many European countries, in America and the Antipodes, in the Caribbean and India, in Africa and the Asia Pacific. As the world opened up to tourism, we banded together to support people at tourism’s sharp end, questioning and challenging decision makers, developers and managers, as well as tourists themselves.
“Tourism should contribute not merely to economic growth but to just, participatory and sustainable societies” Third World Tourism European Network manifesto 1987
Ten years on, under the leadership of our formidable and visionary Director, Tricia Barnett, we were an established charity and veteran of numerous campaigns. We’d set up a library and a magazine. We’d published a raft of reports and education publications, all made possible by the precious resource of enthusiastic members and volunteers supporting our council and staff.
We explored many avenues over the next ten years to turn awareness into positive action that would benefit local people. Displacement caused by tourism had been a major theme of our work. It was still glaringly obvious that injustice and a lack of respect for people’s human rights was the root cause of much local discontent with tourism, witnessed over and again by shocking tales that came through our door and postbag. So although we never ignored the disastrous impact that badly managed tourism had on the natural environment – impossible anyway, as they’re usually intertwined – we relied on the well funded wildlife lobby to address this and we kept people at the forefront of our campaigning.
With partners around the world, we’d had some success getting tourism included in the sustainable development debate sparked by the 1992 UN Rio Conference. And we’d also pioneered a global fair trade tourism network. But most importantly, our message that local people mattered was getting through to the industry. Now came the harder bit – changing things for the better.
In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, we grappled with how Indian coastal communities could protect themselves from rapacious developers eying their land for new resorts.
Working with international partners in five global locations we researched labour conditions among hotel workers and exposed how far they fell short of acceptable standards and practices.
Campaign video from 2011
We developed codes of conduct with indigenous people’s movements to ensure their rights were respected and worked with trekking porters’ organisations to improve dangerous working conditions.
All these issues and many more were cited in our major report Putting Tourism to Rights, with practical recommendations for all stakeholders. It was launched at the House of Lords in 2009 with the backing of Lord Joffe and Baroness Helena Kennedy, opening doors for us to work with the UN World Tourism Organisation.
And of course we tackled the tourists too. We challenged people to think about their role in tourism, at events ranging from Glastonbury to holiday shows. We ran a Talking Tourism programme around the country and produced videos for schools and tourists. We embraced the magic of the early internet to reach new audiences. In fact, long before the emergence of today’s online responsible tourism agencies and bloggers, we produced a web-based community tourism guide, the forerunner of our popular paperback Ethical Travel Guide that went to three editions!
Entering our third decade we turned our attention to the global issue of water scarcity, running a Water Equity and Tourism campaign with large scale funding and international partners. Some years earlier Sun, Sand and Sweatshops, our campaign on corporate and social responsibility, had caught the mood of that era. The WET campaign similarly encouraged government and industry leaders to address systemic problems affecting local people’s rights. Public awareness and education activities included an online teaching package for schools whose title neatly summed up our aim – Water for All.
Meanwhile, new tourism trends were emerging. We’d sounded warning bells in the ’90s about the damaging impact of today’s boom businesses, all-inclusives and cruises. Our Director, Mark Watson, appointed to succeed Tricia in 2012, commissioned reports to reignite public and industry concern about the malign impacts of these products, and he used our website to highlight other disturbing issues, from orphanage tourism to the working conditions of London hotel workers. We also made concerted efforts to get people questioning the merits of commercialised and short term volunteering abroad, while supporting best practice.
With external funding increasingly hard to come by, Mark’s small team worked hard to bring more supporting members into our existing Ethical Tour Operators Group alongside a subscribing Academic Network and Ethical Volunteering Group. They developed an ambitious online interactive Ethical Travel Guide, hoping that would bring us new financial support from the growing number of people who saw themselves as ethical tourists.
But promoting and servicing these activities left little time and money for working directly with local communities to raise issues. Although a consultation on a much needed houseboat code for the Keralan Backwaters involved local tourism activists, making contact with campaigning groups was taking a back seat. In 2017, Mark did sign Tourism Concern up to an important global network initiative – a joint response to the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, the Berlin Declaration: Transforming Tourism.
Frustratingly, there was no capacity in Tourism Concern to support the this initiative beyond promoting it on the website. In fact, the writing was already on the wall for us. In the British economic and political climate of the late 2010s, changing tourism for the better was not an issue that attracted much public attention or donor interest.
We’d also arguably become victims of our own success, inspiring new interest and action inside the tourist industry where previously we’d been a lone voice. Journalists and a mushrooming number of responsible tourism advocates were making the running as much as we were, raising issues and helping community entrepreneurs to find markets.
Underfunded and overstretched and no longer enjoying an active membership to turn to for support, it was a losing battle to live up to our current strapline, Action for Ethical Tourism, and the trustees were increasingly realising this. Tourism Concern had always swum against the tide, but our ability to keep afloat in rough seas was deserting us. After Mark resigned in 2018, the final staff member, Lidia Hejja valiantly tried to keep the show on the road. But that was not to be. The trustees decided that the best option in the circumstances was to close.
While causing few ripples beyond the tourism sector, the shock announcement that appeared on our website in September left many in the industry expressing dismay that no independent critical voice was left in the UK. I felt the same myself. I’d been with Tourism Concern through good times and bad, as a volunteer, a paid worker and an active member. Now who was left to tell the uncomfortable truths, I wondered…
Certainly these days, at the click of a button, you’ll easily find people affected badly by tourism telling their story and getting the exposure it used to take us years to bring about. Campaigning and getting results at local level has never been easier. So you could say ‘job done’.
But what about the deeper causes of the continuing injustice and unsustainable practices that have always accompanied tourism development, alongside its much trumpeted economic success? Who will dare, or even care, to hold the people further up the chain of power, in government and industry, to account? Not to mention challenging the consumers who ultimately play the tunes that the industry dances to?
Over thirty years, our tiny ambitious organisation was not afraid to take on the big truths as well as the small ones, finding allies wherever we could in Britain and around the world to fight injustice. We offered precious solidarity to communities confronting the arrogance and greed of powerful outside forces and supported countless others struggling for a slice of their local tourism cake. And we did, along the way, provoke changes for the better, while inspiring a generation of hosts, guests and go-betweens to challenge the view that tourism is a mere money making machine.
If our story can inspire others with a similar passion to take on the new challenges of tourism in the unfolding century, that will be a legacy worth leaving.
Take a look at this special 2010 edition of In Focus magazine for more about our history and the global movement we sprang from:
Page content before closure
Tourism Concern is a charity registered in the UK (charity number 1064020).
- We expose tourism’s worst human rights abuses and campaign against them.
- Equally importantly, we promote tourism that benefits local people in tourist destinations.
Tourism which is ethical, fair and a positive experience for both travellers and the people and places they visit
To ensure tourism always benefits local people by challenging bad practice and promoting better tourism
- We are a non-industry based organisation and strongly believe that our independence is vital to our role.
- We believe in listening to the opinions and perspectives of our partners in destination communities. Many campaigns have been sparked off by communities asking us for help.
- Shared values and vision
- We believe in working with organisations that share our values and vision and we strive to work collaboratively towards common goals.
- We believe that all people have the right to participate in all decision-making that affects them.
- Ethical practices
- We believe in, and strive to adopt, low-impact “green” policies and practices, purchasing and promoting fair trade products.
Our approach to tourism development
- Human rights and self-determination of communities must be at the core of every tourism development. This includes the right to meaningful participation and consultation including free, prior and informed consent on whether to what extent and in what form tourism takes place.
- If tourism is developed, it needs to seek a widespread and fair distribution of economic and social benefits throughout the recipient communities, including improving local prosperity, quality of life and social equity.Tourism industry operators and governments must be accountable to the people whose land and cultures are being utilised for the benefit of tourists and tourism businesses.
- Strategies must empower people to have a say in the development of their communities and country.
- Attention must be given to marginalised and vulnerable groups such as women, children, minorities, illegal workers and indigenous people working or affected by the tourism industry.
- Tourism should be a positive and beneficial experience for travellers and hosts alike in order to act as a force for mutual understanding, empathy and respect.
Tourism Concern began in 1988 as a small network of global development activists and tourism academics. They all wanted to challenge the exploitation of people and places by a fast growing global tourism industry. The new network, co-ordinated by Alison Stancliffe, linked up with similar initiatives elsewhere in the world, at a time when the tourism industry’s negative impact was hardly on the radar.
By 1989, the network had become a formal membership organisation and in 1991 they were able to employ Tricia Barnett as Director. She developed the organisation into a globally respected campaigning and education charity, heading a team working out of London Metropolitan University until 2012.
Tourism Concern is now based in Croydon, South London, with a small staff and volunteers headed up by current Executive Director Mark Watson.
From the start, Tourism Concern demonstrated tourism’s links with wider issues of development and human rights.
Our first major report, Beyond the Green Horizon, set out ground breaking principles for sustainable tourism development, to coincide with the Rio Earth Summit of 1992. Our many subsequent campaigns have always been backed up by research aiming to open up debate and bring about change.
In the mid 1990s we began our long running work on fair trade and tourism, and by the end of the decade we had produced the first web-based listings of community tourism initiatives – the forerunner of our best-selling Ethical Travel Guide and Online Ethical Travel Guide.
In the 2000s we focused largely on challenging the tourism industry to embrace corporate and social responsibility. So far in the 2010s we have highlighted the urgent issue of water equity and tourism, investigated the impact of all-inclusive resorts and addressed the growing problems associated with certain types of voluntourism.
In past years we produced numerous print resources for schools, universities, the public and the tourism industry, and published a highly respected magazine, In Focus.
Tourism Concern today is first and foremost a campaigning and networking organisation, with a diverse membership. Our management council works with staff and volunteers to ensure that we take effective action for ethical tourism.
Thirty years on from our founding, the need to fight exploitation in tourism is still pressing and we continue to do it with passion.