by Jean-Christophe Fromantin
General Delegate of Forum on Universal Issues
The biggest challenge of this century is a paradox: how to showcase and share authentic cultural diversity without destroying it? Countries and cities continue to design economic development strategies to attract tourists even as some of the world’s most visited places want to limit them. Millennials want meaningful encounters with new places, people, cultures and foods but that means commercial packages of the past century won’t do. Tourism directly accounts for nearly 3% of the world’s GDP according to the World Travel and Tourism Council and employs 5% of the global workforce. The United Nations’ World Tourism Organisation estimates that in 2030 there will be more than two billion travellers. Since 2012 China has been the world’s biggest source of tourists, accounting for 70% of global tourism growth.
But travel can no longer be what it once was. It has to cater to tomorrow’s tourist, Generation Y and further down the line, Generation Alpha, all those nine-year-olds of today who will grow up and travel the world. What they will want is to participate in a reconciliation with nature even as they engage in authentic encounters with real people and experience different cultures beyond stereotypes.
Tourism will be about rediscovering the world, the precursor of a new modernity as the planet re-balances the homogenising forces of globalisation with a carefully maintained, authentic localisation. Countries, cities, towns and villages will thrive by retaining their uniqueness and being willing to share a creatively curated version with people from elsewhere. Tourism will be the beating heart of global interaction, but in a way that preserves the local idiom.
The growing demand for cultural travel indicates the change already underway in the industry. Some years ago, Credoc, the Paris think-tank which studies living conditions, noted that nearly 40% of all tourists seek cultural experiences rather than mass-market sun-and-sea holidays. The expansion of experience-based tourism is giving globalization a whole new meaning because it seeks to discern what makes cultures distinct, reinforces dialogue, and stimulates a sense of shared purpose.
The industry is taking note. Consider the part of Neuilly, my city, that is an extension of the famous Champs-Elysées in Paris. Rather than make it a commercial area revolving around the big luxury brands, I proposed that it be the axis of cultural diversity of all the French regions. Multiple pavilions will serve as spaces of animation and dialogue, reflecting the culture and values of the regions, each strand fleshing out the grand narrative. Everyone is recognising the need to tell a story. Destinations are working on how to enhance the visitor experience with local festivals and initiatives that proudly preserve the local landscape and its unique features. Adding a new festival, museum or a specific focus to a city fundamentally changes its tourist appeal and the effort will pay off many times over. For instance, the Guggenheim in Bilbao in northern Spain and health tourism in Valencia in the south. Rwanda’s gorilla tours. Guinea Bissau is considering the development of offshore hippo-spotting.
Developing new destinations will address the acute problem of over-tourism, a word coined to describe the consequences of having too many visitors. One of the results of traditional tourism is that 95% of travellers go to 5% of the planet. They crowd into the usual beauty spots – Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona – with Europe’s roughly 700 million arrivals last year making it the biggest market for tourism. But this is no longer sustainable and popular destinations are restricting visitor numbers or even banning them. Last year, tourists were banned from Boracay island in the Philippines for a six-month clean-up operation, the Thai government restricted overnight stays on the Similan islands, Venice took measures to limit access to the city, and the residents of Amsterdam, Valencia, Palma de Mallorca and Barcelona started to express open hostility to too many tourists. Without controls – and new options – tourists could literally kill tourism, except that the industry is evolving to serve a new age of travel.
There are other key trends too, not least space tourism for the rich, and Tube travel, which means journeying between cities in luxury, tubular passageways. And then there is virtual travel, which seems to accord with the desire to reduce the individual carbon footprint.