The 1 billionth passenger: A cause of concern or celebration?

( Although this article was written in 2012 it is still just as topical today- Christy Hehir presents her hope for a more consumer-led tourism that will threaten the mass tourism industry and give rise to a more local and democratic industry.)

2012 is set to see the 1billionth passenger – and whilst this is a cause for celebration and success in the travel sector, should it also not come with a warning?

We face a dilemma. How can we align a desire to visit other cultures and far away shores alongside a conscience that call for the reduction in our everyday carbon emissions? Should we slow down and take staycations or continue binge flying to all corners of the world because we can?

In a fast pace world of low-cost airlines, tourism has fast become, for many, a race to tick off trophy experiences and become an avid continent collector. We stamp the passport, buy the t-shirt, take the digital photos and then move on to the next ‘once in a lifetime’ sight.

Am I one of these people? Yes! At 25 I have already visited all 7 continents and stepped foot on both of Polar Regions – yet it is exactly these experiences that have opened my eyes to the pace of development.

In a world of demand, it seems destinations no longer have time to evolve. Could the world’s last frontiers be about to follow the western way and spin into a place of purpose built hotel compounds?

Imagine you are writing a postcard back home from your holiday in Antarctica in 2020. A quota exists for the number of tourists that can visit in any one season and trips to Antarctica are now very expensive and exclusive.

Now imagine your postcard if mass tourism is allowed and Antarctica becomes a large cruise ship capital, with luxury hotels and airports. Compare the two and think how influential we, the travel sector, can be on the development and character of destinations.

My first book ‘Arctic Reflections’ (published 2012) is based on my MSc research into how travelling to the Polar regions can act as an agent of behaviour transformation. Today, carbon guilt is setting in and we no longer feel entirely comfortable boasting about our long haul holidays. Add to this the increasing costs of flying (be it due to tax, fuel or emissions trading) and the industry has an opening for change.Yet to achieve behavioural change on a wider scale, the future of tourism needs a purpose, with not only our desires in mind but also those of the destination.

We already seek out authenticity – real experiences rather than fake culture packaged up for tourists – but future travel will, I think, go further, getting under the skin of a place.

Travel will be about rediscovering the exotic, the tastes and smells of spices in India rather than the Taj Mahal, and locally the appreciation will be in the idiosyncrasies and the detail, the unique selling points that make a destination special.

The shift will be consumer- led. There will be further growth in online user-generated peer-to-peer reviews that will spark a ‘democratisation’ of travel. Travellers and locals alike will gradually be more empowered to speak on behalf of a diversity of new and interesting places, threatening the current monopoly of the mega must-see wonders of the world.

Smart destinations will no longer just pursue more tourists per se. Instead, they will focus more on the types of tourists they need and matching these to the most suitable areas and communities. It is happening – Rwanda has already set a $500 gorilla tax and as a result, its economic benefits will be maximised, while social and environmental costs are kept to a minimum.

I am optimistic that the future of tourism can overcome its hedonistic tradition and become both sustainable and responsible.

With a focus on preserving identities and cultures, celebrating the unique and conserving what is locally distinctive, destinations can create meaningful and lasting relationships with their tourists enhancing their attitudes and actions towards the benefits of travel.

This article was first published by Tourism: The Journal for the Tourism Industry. The Tourism Society Spring 2012 Issue 149 The one billionth passenger: A cause for concern or celebration?

The Article was written by Christy Hehir who is currently completing her PhD at The University of Surrey. Her research within the fields of tourism and environmental psychology – aims to understand which enjoyable factors of a travel experience are most likely to trigger changes in tourist emotion/behaviour. Follow Christy on twitter @christyhehir or email c.hehir@surrey.ac.uk.

About the author

Helen Jennings

Helen has studied at the Universities of Goldsmiths, Kent, Jyvaskyla (Finland) and The Arctic University of Norway (Tromsø) where she obtained a MA in Indigenous Studies. She has travelled extensively and has lived and worked in Canada, Scandinavia, and South America. Helen is particularly interested in cultural, indigenous, and spiritual tourism, ideas behind sensible ‘regulation’ and is convinced of the value of ethical and sustainable tourism.

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