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The tourism sector talks of aviation and inbound tourism as a way forward for rural areas, but could the cultural sector offer a route that is more in tune with the challenges of our time? Fiona Wotton examines the issues.

Mass tourism can damage the authentic experiences visitors seek

Can tourism ever truly be sustainable? It is a well-known fact that tourism creates lots of jobs. Globally one person in ten is employed in a tourism-related job and in Cornwall one in four households depends on the sector for an income. But many of the jobs are low skilled, poorly paid and seasonal. With the emphasis on volume rather than value of visitors, communities can find themselves overwhelmed by mass tourism which erodes the very culture and authenticity of place which travellers are seeking out and contributes to the climate emergency. 

Cultural tourism

Cultural tourism has been held up as a solution for a wide variety of economic and place-based issues. For rural regions such as Cornwall, it is positioned as a means to compete for a slice of the overseas markets, luring international visitors away from cities. Ailing towns are encouraged to consider culture as a key part of regeneration and attracting cultural tourists is fundamental to making investment in venues and arts programmes sustainable through increasing footfall and spend. Cultural tourism is also not only a means to strengthen the economy but is seen as a means to assert national or regional identity and soft power. 

Regional identity was of significance to the design of the Cultural Destinations programme. Arts Council England, in partnership with Visit England, allocated funding initially to ten regions of England, of which Cornwall was one, selected to run programmes of activity designed to diversify audiences, make both sectors more resilient and create a legacy of working together. In the evaluation of the programme there was a shared sense that the two sectors were still struggling to achieve true partnership: “Both sectors are quite fragmented at the local level, and increasingly look to the Arts Council and Visit England to take the strategic lead. There is a strong case for the two organisations to continue to work together to help achieve this”. 
The urgent need to address climate crisis is further set back by a lack of strategic alignment at a national level. The draft Arts Council England strategy 2020 – 2030 cites “dynamism and environmental sustainability” as one of three guiding principles for investment in cultural organisations whereas the recently published Tourism Sector Deal makes no reference to sustainability at all. The strategy blithely talks of growth in aviation and inbound tourism in a way which suggests a complete disconnect from the wider ecology of which it is a part.

Complex cause and effect

Policy is usually designed with the assumption that impact will be linear, gradual and measurable. In other words, predictable. But systems involving people who are interconnected, mobile, have agency and are often irrational, are anything but. They are highly complex systems, and complex systems do not respond to pressure in linear ways. 

‘The Ecology of Culture’ has been proposed as a means by which to understand these complex relationships. An ecological model offers insight not only into the relationship between different parts of the cultural economy – between theatre and visual art for example – but with the wider social, political, economic environment in which adjacent sectors such as tourism, education and health are also evolving. What now needs to be added into this approach is the primacy of the physical environment. 

Two important external factors may also effect change: the UK’s international reputation and changing consumer behaviour. 

External factor 1: The UK’s international reputation
There was a 4.3% decrease in volume and a 5.9% decrease in the value of inbound tourism to the UK in 2018 with experts speculating that this was due to a combination of Brexit and terrorism related anxiety. The weak pound still persists which will attract retail tourists to London and cities but not rural areas like Cornwall. Could this trend lead to adaptation within the regional economy and help policy makers recognise that long haul international markets are not as lucrative or predictable as they think they are? 

External factor 2: Changes in consumer behaviour
A growing global debate about the climate emergency will undoubtedly affect some inbound and domestic markets as consumers try to take responsibility for their own environmental impact while waiting for their governments to take action. Consumer behaviour may also change as a result of the climate emergency itself where wild weather causes damage to essential infrastructure. We saw this in 2014 when storms cut off the rail connection to Cornwall, damaging key attractions and visitor numbers.

A culture-led approach to sustainable cultural tourism

Cultural organisations have broad aspirations to transform lives through participation and enjoyment of art forms, and investment in the arts will now be framed by concerns for climate change. These explicit values are more in tune with the approach needed to embed social and environmental sustainability into cultural tourism planning. This is not to exclude tourism from the debate but for culture to lead on organising the space where urgent deliberation and action take place. 

Cornwall is not alone in the challenges it faces in managing cultural tourism in the context of climate emergency but perhaps is better attuned to the possible outcomes of doing nothing as we watch our coastlines battered by storms, air quality declining and communities losing resources. In the absence of better leadership from the national and regional tourist boards, the cultural sector appears better placed to act faster, be more accountable, call out ignorance and demand better data and tools to tackle the crisis. Radical change requires a radical rethink of the structures underpinning society and resisting the capitalist vision of creativity which “focus on replicating more of the same: the same inequalities, precariousness, privitisation and global injustices.” Radical action can start small, but it must start now. 

Dr Fiona Wotton is Director of Cornwall 365 based at Creative Kernow, one of Cornwall’s key creative industries organisations, and ran the Arts Council England funded Cultural Destinations programme. A 2018/19 Clore Fellow, Fiona is part of the 15th cohort of Clore Leadership Fellows.

Clore Leadership 

This article is sponsored and contributed by Clore Leadership, a dynamic and inclusive resource for leaders and aspiring leaders in the arts, culture and creative sectors.
Clore Leadership was launched in 2003 by the Clore Duffield Foundation. In the 16 years since, the programme has succeeded in creating a sought-after cadre of creative and cultural leaders, and inspired investment in leadership on the part of governments, agencies, foundations and charities both nationally and internationally. It was and remains an exemplary intervention in our sector – Clore Leaders, some 2220 alumni, are thriving and the investment is reaping significant rewards.
Our vision is for a society enriched by arts, culture and creativity, and Clore Leadership’s role is to cultivate excellence and innovation in the leadership of culture to help us get there.

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