Posted by: Mike Grenville | 26 May 2009

Tourism in Transition?

What is tourism’s contribution to sustainable communities. A large and vital industry in so many towns and villages in the UK, tourism’s role within the wider sustainability agenda should not be overlooked. Anna Waddilove reports on a recently completed piece of research examining the potential role of tourism within sustainable communities, with a particular focus on the Transition model.

Glastonbury. photo by Mike Grenville
The relevance of sustainable communities to tourism is becoming increasingly evident. Tourism will be at the sharp end of an energy-constrained future, especially in terms of travel itself. Domestic tourism is, therefore, likely to increase. It already accounts for 80% of tourism’s value in the UK; any increase places even greater emphasis on sustainability concerns. Tourism can only become more sustainable at the local level – tourism generally ‘happens’ in communities. By their nature, sustainable community initiatives take an integrated approach to their development, and may therefore be able to offer examples of ways in which tourism can become more responsible and sustainable. It is suggested that the notion of local distinctiveness will play an increasingly important role in people’s holiday choices if holidaying closer to home and it is argued that Transition Initiatives are well placed to showcase this aspect, given their focus on re-localisation.

The main objectives of the research were to determine the extent and types of tourism-related activity taking place within Transition Initiatives around the UK; whether there are any examples of responsible tourism good practice emerging which could be replicated elsewhere; the kinds of tourism that would most benefit sustainable communities; the character and extent of collaboration between Transition Initiatives, the tourism industry and local government. This was done through a combination of survey questionnaires and key informant interviews. Case studies were undertaken in Glastonbury and Totnes, both located in the south west of England.

Although almost half of survey respondents reported that their Transition Initiative was considering tourism in some way, findings suggest that tourism is not currently a major focus for activity. This is surprising given that all Initiatives responded that their local economy is reliant on tourism to some extent, with some communities perceiving their local economy to be significantly reliant on this industry. Furthermore, many of the Initiatives’ current areas of activity have relevance to tourism. Three respondents commented that the survey had prompted them to think about tourism for the first time, despite the holistic approach implicit in the Transition model. However, case study participants generally agreed that tourism has to be addressed as part of efforts to increase a community’s sustainability and resiliency in places where tourism is a significant industry.

Tourism-related Transition activity taking place in the two Transition Initiatives investigated (Transition Glastonbury and Transition Town Totnes) includes: an environmentally-friendly shopping bag range; local food producers’ directories; bike hire and rickshaw services; a local currency and Transition tours. Virtually all the tourism-related activity within the two case studies represents examples of good practice, fulfilling many of the principles set out in the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism[1] as well as certain sustainable tourism policy objectives underlined in the UK government’s tourism strategy and the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s Indicators for Sustainable Development in Tourism Destinations. Although local circumstances are clearly a key factor in determining the feasibility and priority of activities, and the notion of local distinctiveness is by definition pertinent to a particular place, some schemes have already been replicated elsewhere.

Apple Day cake judging - Forest Row - Photo Mike Grenville

It is suggested that the basic principles of the Transition movement are strongly aligned to those of responsible tourism. However, findings show that most Transition Initiatives are too young to have begun to think about tourism activity; the majority are still at the stage of raising awareness of the Transition model within their communities. In other communities, where activity on the ground has begun, tourism is often being overlooked. There is uncertainty amongst groups as to how to integrate tourism into the Transition model, yet many of the existing working groups set up within Initiatives have relevance to tourism – if only the link is made. There is evidence to suggest that Transition Initiatives could offer an holistic approach to tourism development and that tourism could play a key role in linking many of the core elements of sustainability at the heart of Transition (and sustainable communities more widely) to drive change and promote sustainable development.

Most tourism industry representatives interviewed were generally supportive of the Transition Initiatives, or showed signs that they would be with a better understanding. However, to date, engagement with accommodation providers and local attractions managers appears to be low, though there were indications that engagement may be fruitful.

Investigating the mechanisms through which community groups might seek to engage with and influence local government proved one of the most challenging elements of the research. There is general recognition within the Transition movement that support from above is necessary. However, whilst most Initiatives have local authority support of some kind, many feel they lack influence and frustration with local government was a general theme of this research. Community groups seeking to influence policy, especially in a cross-departmental area such as tourism, will probably require a working relationship with all levels of local government. However, politics can be contradictory across the different tiers.

Approaching partners of the Local Strategic Partnership may prove an effective course of action; opinions are mixed as to whether consultation on policy documents such as Sustainable Community Strategies yields positive results. It remains to be seen what impact the Sustainable Communities Act will have, but putting pressure on local authorities to ‘opt in’ is advised. Other key recommendations within the report include seeking to engage the tourism industry in the Transition process (especially by targeting the mainstream, high volume operators) and networking amongst other Transition Initiatives, and other sustainable community initiatives, across the county to give the movement greater credibility in the eyes of local government.

The report aims to assist sustainable community initiatives, such as the Transition movement, to incorporate tourism into their remit, and to raise awareness of the issues within the tourism industry and local government.

The full report has been made available to the Transition Network. Please contact Anna Waddilove via for further information.

1 International Centre for Responsible Tourism (2002) Available from:



  1. “wider sustainability agenda should not be overlooked”..I totally agree with this statement.

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