Accepting a long-term view in destination changes

Mature tourism destinations often frame their regeneration or strategic development plans under a sustainability agenda. The complexity comes from creating a positive process of change that will visibly move a destination in the right direction, under the requirements of funders and political pressures, while the reality of destination-wide change is that changes occur slowly. This has implications for project management.


The municipality of l’Estartit in the Costa Brava (Spain), had developed in the 1960’s into a mass tourism destination dominated by tour operators driving prices down- their brochures emphasised the flat beaches for their safety for young children, but this did not sufficiently differentiate the destination. By the early 1980’s, the municipal government decided to change its strategic direction with goodwill and vision but without a clear budget or mandate from the industry. This coastal town benefited from having still sites with diving/snorkeling potential if fishing was controlled, and stunning scenery for trekking. Without a clear long- term plan or budget, government staff started to tackle one issue at a time to change the profile of tourists to the town.

This started by proposing the protection of the offshore islands for diving and snorkeling, proposing a tax to manage volume and raise conservation funds.

Estartit sustainable tourism Photo

The complexities of regional government decision-making meant that while the islands were protected, and the municipality was able to promote the sites to diving tourists, the environmental tax was not approved. The four diving sites existing in the 1980’s were supportive of the tax, but the growth in demand from the marketing efforts meant that diving growth did change the profile of tourists to the municipality. Annual statistics from the tourist office showed the increasing importance of nature to the choice of destination, growing expenditure per visitor/day, and the reduction in seasonality.

The price paid for planning and learning by small steps was that the growth in diving numbers exceeded carrying capacity in the 1990’s, and a different type of unsustainable tourism had been created, shifting the management challenge. While in the 80’’s the new forms of tourism grew in the style of the mass tourism model the destination was accustomed to, by 1992 a critical mass of stakeholders understood the benefits of a more sustainable development model, and a new law was passed that allowed better management of the protected islands, regulating the number of dives per day, controlling the number of diving operators, diversifying the offer with kayaking and snorkeling, and zoning users.

Consensus takes time. In the early days the principles and intentions were good, but the management capacity wasn’t fit for purpose and yet they acted out of the necessity to make the steps that could be made rather than wait for more integrated funds and actions available in the future. The diversification of the nature leisure offer to include trekking routes, a management of diving sites and setting of quotas, and a more experience government team has all contributed to allowing a slow transition to a more sustainable tourism model. The challenge for strategic sustainable tourism destination plans is to accept a longer-term view.

1 comment

  1. Launched in May last year, the 870-mile long Wales Coast Path knows little yet of carrying capacity but planning needs to start as soon as the new single environment agency for Wales, Natural Resources Wales, comes into force on 1st April this year.

    Whilst Wales is unlikely ever to suffer the degradation mass charter tourism brought to Spanish coastlines, it’s the potential impact on Welsh language and culture in tourism host communities along the path that matters most.

    There has to be ways host populations meet visitors on even terms with both making cultural gains that are mutually supportive and there’s no better way of doing this than through celebration; yet another ‘c’ to add to content, community and commerce in the new marketing mix.

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