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date: 27 May 2017

Authenticity and Sustainability in Responsible Tourism

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Tourism is important in debates on change and development because it is arguably the world’s largest industry, a major driver of economic growth, and a high priority in developing countries’ plans for economic development.

Discourses of responsible tourism claim to address the concerns surrounding mass, packaged tourism: principally, the lack of environmental and cultural authenticity and sustainability. Responsible tourism promises to fulfill tourists’ desires to experience authenticity while having positive economic and social impacts. Proponents of this kind of tourism claim that, by creating a demand for these “goods,” communities can protect and revive pristine environments and authentic cultures.

Authenticity plays an important role in the sustainable development discourse implicit in responsible tourism. However, there are tensions between authenticity, sustainability, and neo-liberal development whose historical trajectories can be traced from the 1970s to the present; from a rejection of market-led economic growth to delivering sustainability through market mechanisms. Critics have noted that the neo-liberalization of every aspect of development has been integral to the political agenda of global governance by institutions such as the World Bank. In short, by integrating sustainable development into neo-liberal mechanisms, alternatives to dominant market-led development are denied.

Tourism plays a major part in these debates because conceptualizations of authenticity have followed a similar path: from imaginations of pre-contact, harmonious idylls; to creation of “value-added” products; to conservation of natural environments; and preservation and revival of traditional cultures for tourist consumption. The turn away from modernization development paradigms and towards cultural revival is politically fraught. Whereas traditional cultures, admired by the West for their environmental sustainability and social cohesion, existed largely outside of global markets, under global neo-liberal regimes, cultural revival is delivered through market forces. Moreover, delivering cultural revival through tourism often de-politicizes highly contentious issues. This is particularly pertinent in Latin America, where the continent has been experiencing a “left turn” in formal politics, including indigenous cosmovisions in new constitutions.

Finally, debates on authenticity, sustainable development and tourism, and especially responsible tourism, are key to understandings of current political approaches to development.