Uncovering the purpose of tourism and how we measure it

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Uncovering the purpose of tourism and how we measure it | The Tourism Space

Over the last 10 years, I have collaborated with many destinations around the island of Ireland and in Great Britain.  The idea that the wellbeing of the place should be at the very centre of tourism has been a recurring observation in my work.



On occasion, as a facilitator, I get to hold spaces where local people and businesses get the chance to think about what they want from tourism. Occasionally, there are projects that start with local people and businesses having a chance to really slow down and think first about what the purpose of tourism is before they dive into sales, marketing and all that goes with it.

What they say is usually very emotional and very instinctive – led from the heart rather than the head. Here are a few examples:

  • On the Atlantic coast in South West Kerry, a small community told me they would measure the success of tourism by the number of children enrolled in the local primary school.
  • In the North East, on the opposite side of the island, in a town in a commuter belt region between two employment-rich cities, a community told me they would judge the success of tourism by the number of non-commuter jobs created in their town.
  • In the Mid-West area of Counties Clare and Limerick, communities said they would judge success by the extent to which stories of the past were re-awakened and became part of their present and their future again.
  • In Mid Ulster, a fisherman once told how his visitor experience was about much more than him and his business, it was about stewarding and sharing the fishing tradition of a shy, close-knit community that was only beginning to discover its pride in what they had to offer the world.


Apart from my own observations, over the last couple of years I have hosted a number of speakers from around the world in our Huddle – where people share their journey and also teach their journey. Two such people were Elke Dens, Marketing Director of Visit Flanders in Belgium, and Kristin Dunne, former CEO of Tourism Bay of Plenty in New Zealand. Both destinations had engaged in a process with their communities to understand what the vision for tourism in their places should be. 


Learn more about The Huddle here


There is much to be learned from these two places and the approaches and strategies they employed. Of interest here are their conclusions on the purpose of tourism: for Tourism Bay of Plenty it was about growing love of place and legacy for future generations, while for Flanders, it was about flourishing better, not growing more.



This commonality of theme, no matter the county, the continent or even the hemisphere is striking. For all those people in all those places, when it’s all stripped away, it reveals that the purpose of tourism is about protecting and nourishing the very soul and spirit of the place – it’s about keeping children in our classrooms, about keeping families in our towns, about breathing new life into our stories, about regenerating our traditions. It’s about creating flourishing places and thriving communities in the places where they live.



If these are the things that people in destinations want, then shouldn’t these be the things that our tourism policies and plans should measure and target?

There’s an uncomfortable circle to be squared here. Our plans generally do not include goals for the things that people in destinations say they want. They include macro plans for growth in numbers, growth in revenue, growth in number of experiences, growth in market share. They are well intentioned goals because the underlying assumption is that this growth will lead to greater economic value in the destination and will support healthy and flourishing communities.


The 8 biggest benefits of destination networks



The assumption that more visitors means more value went largely unquestioned until very recent years. We can’t assume away the reality though that there are many destinations with a ‘hot spot attraction’ that attract high numbers without a corresponding benefit locally. There are also destinations that, pre-pandemic, had passed the tipping point after which more numbers actually meant less value to locals in terms of quality of life. 

What if we flipped it though? What if we targeted the benefits that local people say they want and assume that the volume of visitors to deliver those benefits would work itself out? This would mean flipping the entire model and mindset of tourism.



It’s very hard for us to imagine measuring the value of tourism in terms of community sentiment, numbers of in-destination jobs, numbers of households living and working in the destination, profitability of local, in-destination businesses, conservation and access to natural and cultural heritage.

Or is it?

We’ve gotten our heads around much stranger things in tourism over the last while. We once believed the growth in tourism was unstoppable. We once believed it would be hard to enforce a capacity limit on attractions and places. We once believed we could travel where we wanted when we wanted.

Community sentiment, types of jobs, numbers of households, financial resilience of local businesses, access to and conservation of heritage – all of those things are measurable and meaningful.

Why not bring them into sharp focus as the primary goals and measures of performance, instead of assuming they would come to pass as a by-product of pursuing a different goal (i.e. volume of visitors)?


Tina O'Dwyer


Tina recently gave a TEDx Talk in Galway titled 'Tourism on the Line' where she explored the current shift taking place in tourism from a Numbers Paradigm to a Place Paradigm. You can watch it here.


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