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From visitor to recreation economy – an option to make tourism more sustainable?

Will tourism as we knew it before the COVID-19 outbreak ever be back to normal, was one of the main issues raised at the second conference organized by the TOURIST* project on 23-24 July 2020 in Bangkok and online.


Eva Holmberg

Yrkeshögskolan Novia

Published : 27.10.2020

After years of trying solutions to over-tourism, the COVID-19 pandemic created a completely new situation for destinations dependent on tourism. Instead of striving for finding solutions for how to cope with all the negative impacts of mass tourism, political decisions-makers and destination management organizations have to face the challenge of how to sustain at least some of the tourism industry until the COVID-19 outbreak is over.

Especially one of the keynote speaker of the conference emphasized the need to create a new world that is more local than global. People have to find satisfaction with their daily life at home instead of constantly dreaming of the next trip abroad. From the development perspective, this thinking has been described as recreation economy. The core of the recreation economy is people who enjoy outdoor activities, and whose interests can contribute to innovations in the tourism industry: meaningful outdoor experiences close to home designed to all genders, ages and social classes.

One concept strongly related to recreation economy is staycation. As an idea staycation was developed in US already during the last economic slump in 2008 when many Americans couldn’t afford to travel during their holidays. The staycation holiday can comprise accommodation in a hotel in the hometown or nearby. For instance, during the COVID-19 outbreak all major hotels in Helsinki developed packages such as day spa and afternoon tea especially marketed to local people.

Sustainable development is a concept comprising economic, ecological and social aspects. For a local economy, the challenge is to find a balance when it comes to tourism. The recreation economy can be seen as a positive change in popular tourism destinations especially from the social perspective, as many locals living e.g. in popular city destinations have been very annoyed by tourists taking over their cities for years. When people stay at home or close to it, environmental impacts of tourism will be limited compared to the traditional visitor economy where people travel far away by car or plane. There are some expectations that the recreation economy would grow and the visitor economy shrink.

However, there are societies that are dependent on economic wellbeing visitor economy brings with a few companies that have developed the main part of their experiences for visitors coming from abroad or from other parts of the country. People residing outside a destination tend to spend more money during their visit due to their holiday mood. Furthermore, they are prepared to buy experiences that local not perceive as a unique experience. How many people in Helsinki are e.g. prepared to pay a guide for going mushroom picking in Sipoonkorpi national park, and how many would go for a dinner cruise along the coastline of Helsinki?

When the COVID-19 outbreak is over and a vaccine found, visitor and recreation economies could be perhaps developed side by side. The pandemic might have offered us a possibility to calm down and think what is important in life. Slower ways of living can become more popular and due to the economic crisis of the aviation industry, flight tickets might be more expensive in a longer run.

This article was inspired by the TOURIST project conference in July 2020. The topic of the conference was solutions for sustainable tourism. The TOURIST project aims to create competence centres for the development of sustainable tourism and innovative financial management strategies to increase the positive impact of local tourism in Thailand and Vietnam.