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Beyond Sun and Sand: The Way Forward for Coastal Tourism

Coastal tourism is the most rapidly developing area of the tourism industry, and with good reason. With a large portion of the landmark one billion people who traveled internationally in 2012 flocking to beaches worldwide, it’s no wonder that developers are taking note. And with tourism becoming an ever more important industry in developing countries, it’s certain that a number of new coastal tourism destinations will be created in the developing world.

With all this development on the agenda, however, there’s an impetus to learn from the mistakes of previous coastal development programs. Previously, most coastal tourism projects operated along essentially the same lines, creating functionally the same types of destinations. Now, experts are questioning whether that model still works.

In his keynote presentation at the recent Executive Symposium for Innovators in Coastal Tourism, Jonathan Tourtellot of National Geographic showed an image of a female tourist lounging on a white sand beach in front of an anonymous, boxy hotel. “Where is this?” he asked the audience. No one could identify the location. “It happens to be Florida, but it could be anywhere,” Tourtellot said. “There’s nothing here to tell you where you are.”

Highrise resort hotels on a Florida beach. Photo by Innisfree Hotels used under a Flickr Creative Commons license.
Highrise resort hotels on a Florida beach. Photo by Innisfree Hotels used under a Flickr Creative Commons license.

This, Tourtellot indicated, was a huge problem. Tourists may be attracted by sunshine and beaches, but sun-and-sand destinations are numerous and largely interchangeable. Unless a destination has something unique on offer – something that no other destination can provide – travelers will look for the cheapest sun-and-sand option, without a preference for a specific place. A classic example of this is the Mexican city of Acapulco. The destination of choice for wealthy foreigners during the 1950s, Acapulco now receives almost no international tourist visits. Because Acapulco had nothing in particular to distinguish it from any other party town on the beach, it was easily replaced when other “it” beach destinations were born.

Because of this pattern, which has been repeated in many places all over the world, Tourtellot emphasized the need for coastal tourism destinations to focus on their most unique attributes in order to attract and maintain traveler interest. Even today, coastal development tends to be almost cookie-cutter in its uniformity, often destroying distinctive elements of the natural and cultural landscape that could and should be the destination’s greatest assets. There are plenty of beautiful beaches in the world. But beautiful beaches with coral reefs, coastal forests, rocky cliffs, towering sand dunes, or majestic wildlife? Beautiful beaches with centuries-old ruins, colorful villages, seaside monasteries, seasonal festivals? Suddenly they become less interchangeable – which is precisely the point.

Highlighting the uniqueness of a destination feeds directly into the destination’s sustainability—economic, environmental, and cultural. Capitalizing on environmental treasures necessarily means reducing water, energy, and pesticide use, because anything that damages the environment interferes with business. Capitalizing on cultural treasures necessarily includes training and hiring local people to work in the destination, because supporting the local economy and engendering pride of place are vital to the destination’s continued health. Focusing on destination uniqueness and sustainability can create a virtuous circle by which business, environment, and community can all flourish. And lest this all sound overly idealistic, Sonu Shivdasani, founder of the award-winning Six Senses and Soneva resorts, used precisely this philosophy to catapult his “barefoot luxury” resorts to success.

Emphasizing the uniqueness of emerging destinations is a new model for the tourism industry to get used to, but ultimately it is the right path to take. Speaking alongside Tourtellot at the Executive Symposium for Innovators in Coastal Tourism, Dinda Elliott of Condé Nast Traveler said, “Sustainability is about the survival of tourism as an industry.” By making sure that emerging and extant tourism destinations develop along sustainable lines that capitalize on the uniqueness of each destination, we ensure that there will be no more Acapulcos. Travelers and travel professionals alike will breathe easier, secure in the knowledge that the destinations we visit will remain beautiful for years to come.

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