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What’s wrong with Tourism Day?

World Tourism Day (27 September) – or, as we like to call it in South Africa, Tourism Month. Nice idea. But it misses the point.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation celebrated Tourism Day for the first time in 1980 under the theme, ‘Tourism’s contribution to the preservation of cultural heritage and to peace and mutual understanding’ – which is nicely ironic, considering the wholesale trampling of places and communities for which our sector was even then becoming infamous.

And the theme changes every year, of course.

In 1993 it was, ‘Tourism development and environmental protection: towards a lasting harmony,’ (and how did that work out?); in 2002 it was, ‘Ecotourism, the key to sustainable development’ (really? Is ecotourism even still a thing?); in 2007, ‘Tourism Opens Doors for Women’ (but has it?); and in 2015, ‘1 Billion Tourists 1 Billion Opportunities’ (scary – unless you’re a climate change denier).

And this year, it’s ‘Tourism for All.’ (Or, as our National Department of Tourism prefers it: ‘Tourism For All – Promoting Universal Accessibility.’)

Universal accessibility is vitally important, of course. Especially since up to 15%  of the world’s population live with some kind of disability, and given that visitors to a destination who don’t speak its language are pretty much groping around in the dark. (See This Tourism Week, 31 May, 2016: ‘New universal access guide will help your bottom line.’)

And what’s going to happen in 2017? Are we to forget universal accessibility, just as we’ve forgotten ecotourism, and think instead of something else? Roast beef perhaps? How to make better éclairs?

But no. These things are always allocated themes. Themes give the politicians something to hang their speaches onto. So we’re just going to have to live with them.

The bigger issue here is whether World Tourism Day is (or even ever was) really relevant – and that comes out of the question of whether tourism really is (or even ever was) a special-needs kid, or whether it’s the golden thread that runs through the economy.

The rise and rise of the destination management organisation (DMO) – a rise that began around the turn of the century – points to the latter.

Well-run DMOs strive to integrate local economies by marrying travel and commerce at levels we haven’t seen before. (Remember that bit in ‘Are newly-elected councillors qualified to serve on tourism boards?‘ where I wrote that “A destination is the sum of everything that makes up a municipal area – and since tourism can only ever be one aspect of any economy, no town can ever be ‘just’ a tourism hotspot.”)

And THAT’S my point: imagine the hullabaloo there’d be if we set aside a day (or even a month) every year to celebrate only one partner – the groom, say – in any other kind of marriage?

  • But what do YOU think? Is tourism a special-needs economy? Is Tourism Day (sorry, Month) a waste? And if it isn’t, how should we celebrate it?
  • Share your ideas with the world! Please comment on this issue in the space below.

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Ben White via – Free (do whatever you want) high-resolution photos.