Degrowth and Overtourism

“To seriously pursue degrowth at both global and most national levels would require drastic transformation of the tourism industry and its metabolism”

An important piece of research has been published that explores the links between overtourism and degrowth: “Tourism and degrowth: an emerging agenda for research and praxis”. The authors: Robert Fletcher (Associate Professor in the Sociology of Development and Change group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands); Ivan Murray (PhD in Geography from the University of the Balearic Islands and a MsC in Environmental Sustainability from the University of Edinburgh); Asunción Blanco-Romero (Associate Professor of Geography at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Catalonia); and Macià Blázquez-Salom (Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of the Balearic Islands) write:

“On 22 May 2019, Nirmal Purja, a mountaineer and former British soldier, published a photograph of his view from the rear of a long queue of climbers snaking towards the summit of Mt. Everest. This image quickly went viral (see Hill, 2019), prompting – combined with the fact that this congestion led to the death of at least five other climbers in the days surrounding the photo’s publication – widespread complaints that the peak had become dangerously overcrowded (e.g., Beaumont, 2019). This event crystallized several years of increasingly vocal critique in popular destinations worldwide concerning a phenomenon now commonly labelled “overtourism”, which the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way” (2018, p. 4). How had it reached the point, critics now complained, that such overcrowding had come to affect even the highest point on Earth?

At the heart of this discussion stands the sustained yearly increase in growth the global tourism industry has experienced since at least 1950, which the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2019) claims averages 4% per annum. Critique of overtourism thus calls into question this growth itself and the extent to which it can remain sustainable in the face of a mounting range of negative impacts. In this way, the critique touches the heart of discussion concerning the potential for sustainable tourism more generally. As we demonstrate further below, the bulk of this discussion takes as its starting point the necessity of sustaining tourism growth. Yet if this growth is itself an essential obstacle in the face of sustainability then this perspective may need to be questioned in its entirety.

In this way, the overtourism discussion dovetails with longstanding critique of a similar growth imperative at the heart of sustainable development policy more generally (e.g., Escobar, 1995; Wanner, 2015). An increasingly popular response to this imperative has been a call to move away from a growth-based economy altogether and instead pursue “degrowth.” Emerging from a conjunction of activist social movements and critical scholarship, degrowth is a proposal for a radical socio-political transformation, for a “planned economic contraction” (Alexander, 2012) intended to shift the societal metabolic regime towards a decabornized one based on lower material throughput. In contrast to proposals for “decoupling,” “dematerialization” or “green growth” (see e.g., Fletcher & Rammelt, 2017; Parrique et al., 2019; Smil, 2013), degrowth advocates a re-politization of sustainability discourse and radical transformation of the political economy within which sustainability is pursued (Asara, Otero, Demaria, & Corbera, 2015). It includes calls to (re)build societies and economies around principles of commons creation and governance, care and conviviality (see esp. D’Alisa, Demaria, & Kallis, 2014).

Research and advocacy concerning degrowth has developed rapidly over the last decade in particular (see Kallis et al., 2018). Yet to date this discussion has, with few exceptions (outlined below), largely neglected sustained attention to tourism specifically. Tourism is, however, one of the world’s largest industries and hence a main form of global economic expansion (Fletcher, 2011; United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 2019). Moreover, the industry is forecasted to continue to grow dramatically into the foreseeable future as the basis of the development aspirations of many low- and high-income societies alike (United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 2019).

To seriously pursue degrowth at both global and most national levels would, therefore, likely require drastic transformation of the tourism industry and its metabolism.”

Read the full paper here.


Image credit: Nirmal Purja

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