Rethinking European Tourism: Proposals for a model of Cultural Tourism

28 May 2024

For the main European tourist destinations, a paradigm shift in their style of governance is more than necessary. For many years this has remained practically static: a capitalist model based on making a profit, focused on attracting the largest possible number of visitors, and in which the rest of the qualitative factors, whether productive or social, take a back seat.

Nowadays, at a popular level, vacations and tourism are practically interchangeable terms, due to an almost imposed need to collect experiences. What's more, the second is included as a right at the same level as the first. The fact of moving is practically more important than where we move. Underestimating the local offer and seeing it as not relevant compared to a foreign one that is perceived as more unique or original.

We have been able to reach this point thanks to both the reduction in travel costs and unprecedented access to information, which allows us to organize a week anywhere in the world, in one afternoon, and from our phone. However, the negative impact that this can generate on society, mainly in those European countries that receive most tourists, is not at all negligible.

Its environmental consequences are well known. From constantly growing pollution levels, to the disappearance of the area's natural resources, due to excessive levels of consumption. And although it is indisputable that the demand for sustainability - with more or less clarity of what this means - has become part of both the new multisectoral policies and the consumers themselves, this does not happen with social demands.

On the one hand, many of these countries, located in the southern Mediterranean, have based their productive/economic model on tourism, which occupies a large part of their national production of goods and services. In Spain, for example, tourism broke a record in 2022, reaching 12.8% of GDP (El País, 2024) . This can lead to great dependence on it, resulting in the future viability of entire areas depending on whether tourists come or not, as could be seen during Covid-19 times. And its consequences can reach the long term, given that, as the opportunity costs of education rise, it is common for many to decide to start working in low-skilled jobs facing the public before continuing their studies in other more diversified areas. Especially if it occurs in a precarious situation in which higher education no longer guarantees a job. Continuing with the same example, Spain is the country with the highest number of graduates (36%) occupying positions below their level of education (20 Minutos, 2023) .

The impact of tourism on local culture is also notable. From generations that feel disconnected from their own history and customs, seeing it as another tool to commercialize in order to attract travellers, to the fact of not being able to enjoy their own natural enclaves as they are “infested” with tourists. And it doesn't end here. This dynamic is accompanied by gentrifying processes that displace families from traditional neighbourhoods, in addition to the loss of native culture, which is progressively replaced by what foreign visitors may like more. In an economic context where most countries are going through a housing crisis, this can be devastating, particularly for younger people, who face high rents. This unrest has recently been noted in a moderate way, as in the recent mobilizations demanding limitations on tourism, but it may not be so moderate, leading to a generalized anti-tourism sentiment (BBC News, 2024) .

This is where Cultural Tourism emerges as a truly renewing option, which changes the current approach to tourism, from being an end in itself to being a tool for transformation. This new perspective, as its name suggests, situates culture at the center, putting the well-being of local society above profit.

By prioritizing the cultural aspect, its approach is multidimensional. On the one hand, it removes the focus on large cities and places it on those enclaves that have an attractive cultural offer, regardless of their size, contributing to reducing overcrowding. This has an impact on sustainability, since the levels of pollution and resource consumption in these areas would be reduced, contributing to a degrowth model that supports respect and admiration for nature.

This can be seen in the example of cultural routes, a concept created by the Council of Europe in 1987. These routes connect historical European destinations under common themes, as is the case of the Napoleonic routes ( Interreg project Napoctep ) and are 90% made up of rural areas ( European Commission on Cultural Tourism ) .

In addition, it would allow for the revitalization of the economy of places that have traditionally been ignored, either because they are areas with less commercial attractiveness or because their offer was simply not known. As they are centers with less inflationary and housing pressure (due to their lower demand), they favor the promotion of slow tourism, by which visitors could enjoy longer and get to know the destinations better. On the other hand, in countries like Spain and Greece, by ceasing to prioritize “sun and beach tourism” it breaks with seasonality models, since visitors do not have to come only in certain months, allowing for greater economic stability throughout the year.

But this process cannot ignore the sociocultural characteristics of the place, and therefore requires that local agents participate in the process of developing tourism policies. Which, in turn, would contribute to social cohesion as well as the creation of local support networks. In a recent study on cultural tourism in the Hellenic country ( Terkenli and Georgoula , 2022) , various stakeholders (local population, local businessmen, domestic tourists and foreign tourists) from the islands where the most tourism was received were interviewed . This demonstrated unanimity in opinion: everyone highlighted the attractiveness of cultural tourism, its importance as a promoter of sociocultural changes, and most importantly, both the need for promotion and the development of the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the new demand.

This is where the role of funding from the European Union and national governments becomes very relevant. Through intelligent, ethical, and sustainable investments, the modernization of these areas can be promoted according to new European models, promoting local employment, which in turn could reconnect with its own cultural heritage and reducing its dependence on the arrival of visitors.