Resources Provocation paper

Volume or value? Complex sustainability and Cultural Tourism

The tourism sector talks of aviation and inbound tourism as a way forward for rural areas, but could the cultural sector something more in tune with the challenges of our time? Clore 15 Fellow Fiona Wotton explores. 

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 depend on the sector for an income.  But many of the jobs tourism creates are low skilled, poorly paid and seasonal.  And 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.

 This account will explore the case of Cornwall, the leading holiday destination in the far south west of the UK and an Arts Council funded Cultural Destination.  As Project Director for this cultural tourism programme, I have been responsible for initiatives which brought more visitors to the region to enjoy arts and heritage venues and activities and increased the resilience of the visitor economy. My concerns over the sustainability of the industry were always present but as public consciousness of the Climate Emergency intensifies and co-ordinated action is curbed by Brexit inertia, a tourism sector deal is published with no mention of the environment and the colonisation of the creative industries by neoliberalism continues, I am fearful for the future of our vibrant, distinct culture and communities. Accepting the complexity of the political, social and physical environments in which tourism operates, I argue that the cultural sector should assume a more strident position to demand and create conditions for transformation.

Cultural Tourism

Cultural tourism has been held up as a solution for a wide variety of economic and place-based issues. For rural regions, cultural tourism is positioned as a means to compete for a slice of the lucrative 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.   Although the definition of Cultural tourism varies – some accounts consider all forms of tourism to be cultural whilst others look at increasingly niche markets from film to gastrotourism – it is widely understood that cultural tourists are attractive for their propensity and ability to spend more on their visits.  In the wider European context, initiatives like European Capital of Culture and the Manifesta Bienniel use culture as a lever for investment in regeneration which is heavily reliant on attracting visitors as well as engaging local residents. Cultural tourism is 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, selected through a competitive process to run programmes of activity designed to diversify audiences, make both sectors more resilient and create a legacy of both sectors working together.  Whilst each destination approached the challenge differently, reflecting the variety in the geography, demographics, infrastructure and cultural assets of each place, the evaluation of the programme found that there was a shared sense that the two sectors were still struggling to work together to achieve true partnership.  The joined-up position promoted from Arts Council and Visit England did not always filter down to the organisations running the programme in the regions:

 “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, however, is not reflected in strategic alignment at a national level.  The draft Arts Council 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.  Climate change and the cliff edge of Brexit are ignored and 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.

The Cornwall Context

Cornwall was one of the first local authorities in the UK to declare a climate emergency and has recently published a report setting out the Emerging Cornwall Carbon Neutral Action Plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030.  The plan includes a flagship 8,000 ha Forest for Cornwall project to absorb emissions.  Despite the Council portfolio holder for Climate Change and Neighbourhoods emphasising the need for a “holistic approach” and asserting that the urgency of action is needed in part because Cornwall’s environment “forms an integral part of our cultural identity”, specific actions towards curbing the impact of the visitor economy have thus far been muted.  The hesitancy is understandable – tourism is one of our bedrock industries.  But besides the economic impact, our need for Cornwall to remain open and welcoming to visitors from all over the world has greater significance. This is about our confidence in what makes us distinctive and making connections and friendships which increase diversity in our communities and contribute to our global sense of place.  Allowing mass tourism to destroy our environment and the very assets which hold our communities together and make us the place that people want to visit, however, is a case of short-term greed overtaking long-term sense. We need to work faster to avoid irreversible environmental tipping points. 

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.  Before considering the ways in which the Cultural sector could take a lead in creating the conditions for sustainable cultural tourism in Cornwall, I explore two important external factors which may also effect change:  the UK’s international reputation and changing consumer behaviour. 

External factor 1: UK international reputation

There was a 4.3% decrease in volume and a 5.9% decrease in value to inbound tourism to the UK in 2018 with experts speculating that this was due to a combination of Brexit and terrorism related anxiety[8]. The forecast for 2019 is also looking weak with European flight bookings down particularly for the period post March 29th (by which time it was anticipated Brexit would have been actioned).  The weak pound still persists which will attract retail tourists to London and cities but rural areas like Cornwall are not sufficiently helped by the national tourist board, Visit Britain,  and their marketing of areas as an alternative to the cities.  Could a reduction in inbound travel instigate adaptation within the regional economy that would help policy makers recognise that long haul international markets are not as lucrative or predictable as they think they are?    Coupled with uncertainty over the freedom of movement of EU citizens post Brexit  – 250,000 Germans visit Cornwall currently each year – there may be a further reduction in volume encouraging the destination management plan to focus on value rather than volume.

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 whilst waiting for their governments to take action at a national or supranational level.  A decrease in inbound or domestic flights and a rise in train tourism could follow, though the growth in electric cars could also maintain traffic levels and the current rail stock is woefully inadequate for any big increases in travellers.   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 Cornwall in 2014 when storms cut off the rail connection to Cornwall, damaging key attractions and visitor numbers.  In a case of extreme cognitive dissonance and described by Friends of the Earth as “ironic and almost laughable” designers of Heathrow Airport’s controversial third runway have admitted concerns that climate change will affect the operation of the facility, which will make the airport the UK’s largest source of carbon emissions

A culture-led approach to sustainable tourism

Cornwall’s creative industries are growing at twice the national average[11]. If growth continues in this way, the creative industries have the opportunity to have a greater influence on both supply of activity and demand from consumers.  What might that mean?   Culture stimulates consumerism[FW1]  as experiences generate new products and retail opportunities, it generates waste and, through the capitalist rhetoric now inherent in the creative industries, promotes growth without consideration for our limited natural resources in a similar way to tourism as an industry. Cultural organisations have, however, broader aspirations to transform lives through participation and enjoyment of art forms and as explored earlier, 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.

Vision and debate

In a recent interview, the artist Olafur Eliasson talked about the need to inspire people to take action against climate crisis through imagining a better world, “It’s very difficult to move people towards something when they know it’s going to be worse than where they come from” he said[12]. This is a particular challenge for cultural tourism where visitor expectations are constantly raised through marketing and journalism promoting increasingly luxury and exclusive experiences for a mass market.  If our region is seriously committed to change it will need a bold vision to be a sustainable cultural destination and this will involve considering difficult questions like reducing in visitor numbers, the curated decay[1] of vulnerable sites of cultural significance and encouraging audiences to use public transport.  Artists and creative leaders have the skills and resources to create a space where this debate can take place and dovetail with other strategies being developed in adjacent sectors.

Technology and data

Cornwall suffers from a lack of good data to inform decision making in relation to cultural tourism.  On the tourism side, accommodation stock is not properly monitored.  Like many other destinations, we have seen an increase in accommodation being offered through the gig economy via platforms like Airbnb and social media.  Airbnb Experiences also provides an opportunity for creative businesses to reach new customers through offering add-on products to their online basket such as ceramics courses, jewellery making and history walks.  But without proper regulation and strategy, Airbnb is another layer of mass tourism where visitors are at risk from unsafe or poor quality accommodation and communities lose vital housing for local people.  Other destinations like Amsterdam, have taken a more robust position limiting homeowners to renting out their entire home or apartment for just 30 nights out of each year.  In addition Airbnb collects a six percent tourist tax on all bookings for the city just as hotels do. The technological barriers to considering a tourist tax are now well behind us and better data could inform a more considered debate about this potential tool to curb volume and increase visitor value.

Data collection in relation to cultural activity is hampered by the prevalence of activity which takes place outside – for example open air theatre in a field or visits to the Cornish Mining World Heritage landscape. And the opportunities for big data collection offered through the Audience Agency’s Audience Finder Database have not yielded useful insight suggesting that a more localised approach is needed.  One example of where technology could create conditions for change in tourism is a legacy project from Cultural Destinations.  The development of a Cornwall Council transport app will allow visitors to plan their journeys around Cornwall by train and bus but also to receive suggestions about cultural activity to do and places to visit – powered by our Cornwall 365 events listings API. This will produce rich data to review visitor behaviour and interests and begins to create the database we need to do better real-time promotion of areas that need more visitors and potentially to divert visitors away from congested or overwhelmed areas.

Cultural partnership

A new Cultural Partnership for Cornwall has been proposed and rather than establishing a governance structure in order to take advantage of potential funding streams, I believe the sector should make environmental sustainability its core reason for partnership.  The challenges of realising the kind of deep change to business and artistic practices required within a short period of time will be best served through openness, collaboration and sharing resources.

To conclude

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. Even such co-ordinated action at a regional level may fall into the category that George Monbiot recently described as “tinker(ing) around the edges”.   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.”[2]  Radical action can start small, but it must start now.


[1] De Silvey, C. (2017) Curated Decay University of Minnesota Press

[2] Mould, O. (2018) Against Creativity London: Verso p186

Themes Climate Leadership Inclusive Leadership Practices Sector Insights