The return of the tourists: Regions rethinking attractiveness and sustainability

As one of the largest, fastest and most consistent growth sectors in the world economy, tourism’s potential as a source of job creation, export revenue and domestic value-added, is huge. In OECD countries, tourism directly accounted for, on average, 4.9% of GDP, 6.9% of employment and 21.6% of service exports.

Global tourism was decimated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the first quarter of 2020, with asymmetric and highly localised impacts between and within countries and regions. The recovery to date has been equally unbalanced, with some destinations experiencing stronger than expected growth in visitor numbers, while others struggle to fill vacancies following significant job losses during the pandemic.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis, compounded by the consequences of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and existing megatrends (e.g. climate change, digitalisation and demographic change), has given policy makers the opportunity to rethink the attractiveness of tourism regions.

Taking steps to improve the attractiveness of regions to international visitors can also boost the attractiveness of destinations as places to live, work and invest. Tourism can also support inclusive economic growth by providing opportunities for employment, innovative start-ups, infrastructure and the development of cultural and environmental assets.

Tourists on the return

Enhancing the attractiveness of tourism regions

For many destinations, tourism growth in recent years was the result of rapid and unplanned growth in visitor numbers, which can negatively affect not only the visitor experience but also the environment and host communities upon which tourism depends. What can be done to enhance the attractiveness of regions to visitors while supporting a more sustainable and resilient recovery?

Rethinking tourism success

First there is a need to shift the focus solely from achieving high visitor numbers to delivering socio-economic and environmental benefits. As travellers increasingly look for environmentally friendly and sustainable travel options, adopting a more environmentally and culturally responsible approach can meet this growing demand, while preserving these assets. It can also provide regions with an important lever to set themselves apart from the competition, as a sustainable destination.

Finding a balance between environmental, economic and social impacts remains a challenge. For many destinations, it will require taking steps to diversify the tourism offer and reducing or spreading demand away from high profile tourism hubs (both geographically and temporally). For example, in 2021, due to concerns over the number of cruise ships and tourists visiting the Balearic Islands in Spain in peak periods, an agreement was reached to limit the number of cruise ships calling at the Port of Mallorca.

Taking steps to limit the volume of passengers that disembark, typically for short periods, will provide an opportunity to enhance the visitor experience, relieve pressure in the city’s historic centre, and benefit local residents.

In Argentina, La Ruta Natural programme organises nature tourism through 17 major territorial routes, which cover the entire country and are based on the natural, environmental, or geographical identity of each region. In turn, the programme promotes and communicates through the website and enhance a responsible way to travel and by developing infrastructure and improvement of services.

Regions and destinations should target guests that will contribute to the well-being of local communities.

In Canada, a “high- value guest” approach is at the heart of Destination Canada’s new strategy, which looks at tourism through the lens of “wealth and well-being”. This approach prioritises collaboration with partners in deeper, more strategic ways to identify higher-value visitors who appreciate nature, engage with the locals, are less time-sensitive, and are eager to explore lesser-known areas and engage in cultural exchanges. It targets visitors with a higher propensity for return travel that leads to greater return and higher contribution to GDP.

Taking steps to attract and retain staff

Many tourism regions and businesses continue to face challenges in attracting and retaining staff, which is leading to ongoing workforce shortages and impacting the visitor experience in many destinations.

Increasing labour demand in general is making it difficult for tourism to compete for the required workforce in a competitive global job market. Implementing initiatives to make the sector more appealing to prospective employees, including improving skills levels, enhancing qualifications, supporting training, and developing innovative recruitment initiatives, as well as providing decent wages and working conditions, and regulating prices in housing for the workforce and locals, can help to encourage talent into the sector.

Social innovation and digital technology can provide innovative tools to solve the challenge of workforce shortages, as experienced by Arctic destinations. In Norrbotten, Sweden an innovative co-lab was created using advanced AI technology to attract more residents and employers for SMEs, including in the tourism sector.

In Portugal the “Training + Next” programme was implemented in January 2022 and aims to train 75 000 professionals over three years, free of charge and adapted to the local needs of each municipality throughout the territory. The programme will be adapted to the diversity of tourism companies and the sector’s future needs.

While in Ireland the Employer Excellence initiative launched in September 2022 provides tourism businesses with a competitive edge as they recruit and retain staff in a highly competitive employment market. It will help to drive improvements in employment practices across the industry and provide businesses with tailored action plans and a trusted symbol that denotes a rewarding and appealing workplace.

Linking up

There is a need to connect the dots through effective multi-level governance structures and strategies, developed in close co-operation with the private sector and local communities.

Working together to build on – and protect – local assets and communities, will help to make regions more attractive to visitors, support more inclusive and sustainable regional development, and ensure that tourism remains a positive force in these places for years to come.

Senior Policy Analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Peter is a Senior Policy Analyst at the OECD, where he started in 2010, and is currently supporting the work of the Regional Development Policy Committee. From 2021-23 he has coordinated the Regional Development and Multi-level Governance (RDG) Division’s work on Rethinking Regional Attractiveness in the New Global Environment. This work has produced 15 regional attractiveness case studies (from 5 OECD countries) and a synthesis report to identify the policy levers available to enhance the attractiveness of regions to the key international target groups of investors, talent and visitors. Prior to this he supported the work of the OECD Tourism Committee, including recent work on Managing Tourism Development for a Sustainable and Inclusive Recovery in the post-COVID-19 era, and Preparing the Tourism Workforce for the Digital Future. Peter has held Senior Policy Advisor roles with the London Development Agency, Tourism Queensland, and the Australian Department of Industry, Science and Resources. He holds a Bachelor of Administration (Hons Class 1) from James Cook University, Townsville, and a PhD from the UTS Business School at the University of Technology, Sydney, Australia.

Junio Policy Analyst at OECD Centre for Entrepreneurship, SMEs, Regions and Cities (CFE) | + posts

Maya is a Junior Policy Analyst in the Regional Attractiveness and Migration Unit (RAMI) in OECD, working on the Regional Attractiveness for Inclusive and Sustainable Development in LAC countries and Spain.  Prior to this she worked in the Mexican public sector for more than 15 years: first, in the Office of the President as policy analyst, later in the Budget Office at the Ministry of Finance, dealing with the evaluation of political and technical feasibility of budgetary allocations for local governments. Also at the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Minister’s office, and 6 years from (2012- 2018) at the Mexican Permanent Delegation to the OECD. Where she followed up on the Regional Development Policy and Government Committees among other tasks of the Delegation. She holds a MSc in Global Politics from London School of Economics (LSE) and a BSc in International Relations from the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City.