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Social and cultural aspects of tourism

This thread is to identify some of the major social and
cultural impacts on a society which can result from the development of, or
an increase in, tourism. Society can refer to a country, region or specific
location and to that group of people who collectively live in a location. Over
a period of time, a society will develop its own tradition, attitudes and a
style of life which may be more or less distinctive. It is this way of life which
is usually incorporated in the word ‘culture’.
There is now a well-developed literature on social and cultural impacts of
tourism. Many research studies are highly specific, and may therefore be of
more academic interest rather than of relevance to policymakers. However,
experience in many different countries does constitute general phenomena
relating to tourism. In many cases, the regularity with which these
phenomena are reported allows policymakers to anticipate certain social
and cultural impacts from future planned development of tourism.
It is not the purpose in this thread to discuss social and cultural impacts
of tourism in terms which are meaningful only to sociologists and
anthropologists. The intention is to denote ‘areas of concern’; that is, to
consider some of the non-economic impacts of tourism, what effect they
may have on a society, and what problems may arise. Concentration will be
on general impacts. This does not preclude the probability that some tourist
destination areas might have unusual and highly specific impacts.
It is also worth noting that it is easy to exaggerate impacts arising from
tourism. For example, certain areas of a country may never be visited by
tourists. Tourist visits to very large countries such as India tend to be
concentrated in certain areas or tourist circuits. Therefore, to refer to ‘the
social and cultural impact of tourism on India’ is misleading. Tourism tends
to be localized and therefore impacts tend to be localized initially. Whether
impacts cause changes, and whether these changes spread through society,
will be influenced by a wide range of factors, such as the size of country,
general spread of tourism activity, and basic cultural and religious
It is unfortunate that many of the writers on the social and cultural
impacts have tended to react negatively to tourism development. These
negative reactions should be viewed in the same way that economic
disbenefits are – they are problems which require management solutions.
They will not go away and might intensify. As tourism is a great
international exchange of people, it is as important to plan for human
satisfaction as it is for economic needs.
Until the mid-1970s most studies of tourism concentrated on measuring
the economic benefits; little emphasis was given to a prime characteristic of
international tourism – the interaction between tourists and the host
community. From the mid-1970s onward, more scholars and practitioners in
tourism gave increasing attention to the relationship between host and
guest, and particularly to the non-economic effects induced by that
Closer study of this relationship has made us more aware of the social,
cultural and environmental problems which can arise from tourism, and
particularly from an over-rapid growth in visitor arrivals. Many of these
problems can now be anticipated and therefore considered in relation to a
policy and planning framework. It should, of course, be noted that many of
these problems are not new. In the Caribbean, Asia and Africa there are
many examples of newly independent countries which have ‘inherited’
mature tourism sectors: Jamaica, Barbados and more recently Zimbabwe
may be mentioned in this respect. In these countries, many of the problems
of the tourism sector are not of recent origin, and may cause particular
difficulty in finding management solutions.
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Despite these difficulties, governments have ultimately to find a means of
managing, if not completely eradicating these problems. This is particularly
the case where tourism-related problems impact on the sociocultural values
of the society or on the environment. These wider concerns are the
responsibility of government, and it may be that government is the only
agent able to introduce the required remedial actions. In the following, it is
intended to examine the main areas where tourism can influence the
sociocultural norms of a society.
Many of the social and cultural effects of tourism are portrayed as being
essentially negative; early studies by de Kadt (1976) and O’Grady (1981)
have both detailed cases where tourism has caused major changes in the
structure, values and traditions of societies. There is continuing debate as to
whether these changes are beneficial or not; the interests of society and the
individual are not necessarily similar. There is little doubt, however, that
where international tourism is of any significance in a country, it does
become a major ‘change-agent’.
It is not surprising that international tourism should induce such changes,
because tourists usually remain in the host country for a very short time.
They bring with them their traditions, values and expectations. They travel
in what Eric Cohen has termed an ‘ecological bubble’:
A tourist infrastructure of facilities based on Western standards has to be created
even in the poorest host country. This tourism infrastructure provides the mass
tourist with the protective ‘ecological bubble’ of his accustomed environment.
In many countries, tourists are not sensitive to local customs, traditions and
standards. Offence is given without intent. In a sense, foreign visitors do not
integrate into a society, but rather confront it. Where large numbers of
tourists, often of one nationality, arrive in a country, reaction is inevitable.
Reaction may take two forms: either a rejection of foreign visitors by
locals, or an adoption of the foreigner’s behavioural patterns to constitute a
social ‘demonstration effect’, where local people copy what foreigners wear
and do. In both cases, problems will arise. An ongoing point for discussion
and action is how to make tourists aware of local customs, traditions and
‘taboos’. Is the information and educational process only a function of lowvolume
tourism, as for example in Western Samoa, and Bhutan, or can it be
adopted for high-volume visitor flows, e.g. India, Thailand? Very little
attention has been given to the relationship between the scale or volume of
tourism and its impacts on societies. This relationship is subsumed into the
question of the carrying capacity of a destination, but as considerations of
social and cultural impacts are essentially qualitative rather than quantitative
judgements, it is a difficult area to analyse. For example, the Seychelles
has established a growth limit of 4000 bed spaces in its tourism sector
development plan. Why is it 4000 rather than 5000 or perhaps even 3000? To
some extent the capacity limit is determined by individual locations and the
availability of infrastructure; but there is also a strong but indeterminate
notion of the possibility of overcrowding in some locations.
Effects on social behaviour and values
When tourists enter the host country, they do not just bring their purchasing
power and cause amenities to be set up for their use. Above all, they bring
a different type of behaviour which can profoundly transform local social
habits by removing and upsetting the basic and long-established norms of
the host population.
Tourism is a ‘total social event’ which may lead to structural changes in
society. These changes can now be seen in all regions of the world.
During the tourist season, the resident population not only has to accept
the effects of overcrowding, which may not exist for the remainder of the
year, but they may be required to modify their way of life (increase in
seasonal work, shift working) and live in close contact with a different type
of visiting population, mainly urban, who are there simply for leisure. This
‘coexistence’ is not always easy. It often leads to social tension and
xenophobia, particularly noticeable in very popular tourist areas or where
the population, for psychological, cultural or social reasons, is not ready to
be submitted to ‘the tourist invasion’.
The ‘demonstration effect’ results from the close interaction of divergent
groups of people, and manifests itself by a transformation of values. Most
commonly it leads to changed social values resulting from raised expectations
among the local population aspiring to the material standards and
values of the tourists. Not unnaturally, changing social values lead to altered
political values, sometimes with unsettling consequences. A decline in
moral and religious values is also not uncommon and may show itself
through increased crime levels. Not only are local attitudes changed, but the
targets and opportunities for criminal activity are increased.
As tourism is essentially a human activity, it is desirable to avoid conflict
between visitors and the host community. The behavioural patterns of the
visitors must be acceptable or tolerable to the host community. The resilience
of the host community to accept tourism is subject to numerous qualitative
parameters: the socioprofessional structure of the local population; level of
education and knowledge of tourism; standard of living; and strength of
existing culture and institutions. What is needed is recognition that the local
population is part of the cultural heritage which merits protection as much
as other aspects of the tourist destination, e.g. the environment.
Human relations are important, since the excesses of tourism may have
very damaging repercussions: the transformation of traditional hospitality
in many countries into commercial practice results in economic factors
superseding personal relationship. Further effects may be the appearance of
consumerist behaviour, relaxation of morals, begging, prostitution, drugtaking,
loss of dignity, frustration in failing to satisfy new needs.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to blame tourism for all these problems,
which are linked also to social changes affecting communities in the process
of modernization. Tourism accelerates the process, rather than creates it.
Cultural impacts
Tourism may generate social costs, often difficult to estimate, but which are
no less serious for that reason. An example is the threat to traditional
customs specific to each country and sometimes to particular regions.
However, tourism may become the guarantor of the maintenance of certain
original traditions which attract the holidaymaker. It is important to protect
and maintain the cultural heritage and deal with connected problems: the
illegal trade in historic objects and animals, unofficial archaeological
research, erosion of aesthetic values and of a certain technical know-how,
disappearance of high-quality craft skills, etc.
The commercialization of traditional cultural events may lead to the
creation of pseudo-culture, ersatz folklore for the tourist, with no cultural
value for the local population or the visitors. The same applies where the
craftsman is concerned. The issue is the potential conflict between the
economic and the cultural interests, leading to culture being sacrificed for
reasons of promoting tourism, i.e. creating an additional economic value at
the price of losing a cultural value. However, the exposure of resident
populations to other cultures due to tourism would appear to be an
irreversible process. On a social level, well-organized tourism can favour
contacts between holidaymakers and the local population, will encourage
cultural exchanges, will lead to friendly and responsible enjoyment and
finally, will strengthen links between countries.
From the viewpoint of tourism planned to respect the physical and
human environment, other positive advantages can be mentioned. The most
significant are given below:
1 Tourism constitutes a method of developing and promoting certain poor
or non-industrialized regions, where traditional activities are on the
decline, e.g. tourism replacing sugar cane cultivation in many Caribbean
countries. The development of tourism provides an opportunity for a
community to remain intact and to slow the drift to urban environments.
The retention and continuation of communities in situ is often the best
way to conserve tradition and lifestyles. The income and employment
opportunities arising from tourism provide a stability to community
2 Tourism accentuates the values of a society which gives growing
importance to leisure and relaxation, activities which demand a highquality
environment, e.g. Scandinavian countries.
3 With proper management, tourism can ensure the long-term conservation
of areas of outstanding natural beauty which have aesthetic and/or
cultural value, e.g. National Parks in the USA, Ayers Rock in Australia.
4 Tourism may renew local architectural traditions, on the condition that
regional peculiarities, the ancestral heritage and the cultural environment
are respected. It may also serve as a springboard for the revival of urban
areas, e.g. Glasgow, Scotland.
5 Tourism contributes to the rebirth of local arts and crafts and of traditional
cultural activities in a protected natural environmental setting, e.g.
Highland Games, Scotland; Prambanan Ramayana open-air cultural
centre, Jogyakarta, Indonesia.
6 In the most favourable of cases, tourism may even offer a way to revive
the social and cultural life of the local population, thus reinforcing the
resident community, encouraging contacts within the country, attracting
young people and favouring local activities.
It has been noted that the economic impacts of tourism are often observed
in the short-term if not immediately. Tourists can be seen arriving at airports
and spending money. The social and cultural impacts take very much longer
to appear and, as qualitative changes, may be subtle and difficult to
measure. In some cases, little is done to monitor these changes until one day
they explode into a violent expression of discontent. Such outbursts will
deter tourists from visiting a country or even a region, and often undo years
of patient (and costly) image building. The need is to identify potential
conflicts and to defuse situations before they occur.
In many cases, the seeds of discontent and antagonism are seen at the
preplanning stage. Insufficient or no attention is given to local views, needs
and susceptibilities. The errors and omissions of planners become frustrations
which are linked to tourism. Tourism is an abstract concept for many
residents in developing countries. Tourists are not abstract – they are present
in the society and can become the focus for local resentment. This must be
avoided, not only for the sake of tourism and tourists, but also for the local
Concern with host–guest relationships has become more prevalent in the
tourism literature. The notion of sustainability has been applied to tourism.
Planners are becoming more aware of the need to see tourism development
within a long-term perspective. It is no longer sufficient to view tourism
development in simple terms of costs and benefits. Increasingly, attention is
being given to the acceptability of the type and scale of tourism development
to the host community. Hence emphasis is being given to involving the host
community in both the planning and management of tourism development. It
is a difficult issue to resolve because in many developing countries the
concept of the community and community leadership is very different from
that understood in Western, democratic countries.
It should be noted that tourism is a discretionary purchase. Tourists must
be persuaded to visit a country, they cannot be coerced. If a country has
acquired a reputation for an antagonistic attitude towards tourists, visitor
arrivals will eventually decline, no matter how justified that feeling may be.
In relation to tourism planning, protecting the interests of the local
community is as important as ensuring the long-term welcome and
acceptance of tourists; both objectives are interlinked.
Identifying sociocultural impacts
There is a growing volume of literature relating to the sociocultural impacts
of tourism. Many of the impacts noted are similar. Despite these similarities,
it is not possible to use results from one study in a specific location as the
basis for a general conclusion. There are a very large number of factors
which can influence sociocultural impacts, and similar factors might
provide different responses in different locations. The reason for this
diversity is that we are considering tourism impacts on societies, i.e. groups
of people comprising communities in particular locations. These societies
have developed their own cultures and lifestyles, factors which will
influence attitudes towards tourism.
As noted previously, international tourism, certainly more than domestic
tourism, tends to confront a host community rather than integrate into it.
The main reason is that tourists are short-stay visitors carrying with them
their own cultural norms and behavioural patterns. They are usually
unwilling to change these norms for a temporary stay – and may be
unaware that these norms are offensive or unacceptable to the host
A further difficulty can be the existence of a language barrier which itself
may be a major factor limiting visitor understanding of the host community.
Language barriers create their own cocoon, limiting social interchange
between tourists and residents. These difficulties will create problems, and
require some form of tourism ‘education’ for visitor and host. The main
thrust of tourism ‘education’ has been the provision of information for the
tourist, giving, for example, ways of behaviour unacceptable to local people,
dress codes, and expected courtesies. Examples of information given to
tourists on arrival can be found in Sri Lanka and Western Samoa. Hotels in
Iran often have pictures of Iranian women garbed in traditional dress,
emphasizing the need for women to wear modest clothing in that country.
Attempts to inform tourists of behavioural norms are being balanced by
attempts to educate communities to the cultural differences tourists bring
with them. The host communities must appreciate they are there to welcome
their paying guests. Increasingly ‘tourism awareness’ campaigns seek to
inform local people of the benefits that tourism can bring and about
different cultural behavioural patterns, e.g. Zambia and Malaysia. In many
countries, including the UK, tourism is featuring as part of the school
Perhaps the most difficult problem in identifying sociocultural impacts is
that they can take a very long time to emerge. Unlike the economic effects of
tourism which are readily seen, changes in society may be imperceptible but
cumulative. It may also be very difficult to identify tourism as the cause of
these changes as opposed to other influences, e.g. radio, newspapers,
television. For example, is the ‘social demonstration effect’ solely attributable
to what tourists are seen to do? Or may it be influenced by general
media reporting? If changes in society are evolutionary rather than
revolutionary, then tourism planners must have a system of monitoring
these changes and reacting to them when necessary.
In considering the impact of tourism on a community, we need to
know something about the volume of tourist arrivals, seasonal dispersion
and intensity of location. The greater the volume of tourist arrivals, the
greater the impact on a location. In some areas, the tourist–resident ratio
is very high, and when this ratio is intensified by a seasonal demand
factor it can cause very great stress on local economies and communities.
Access to shops, transport, beaches and specific tourist attractions may be
subject to overcrowding, delays, queuing and, often, rises in short-term
prices. Where residents use or share facilities with tourists, there can be a
gradual build-up of resentment, frustration and eventual aggression.
These problems can be increased by the type of tourists arriving at a
Some groups of tourists are more insensitive to local cultures than others.
Often large low-income groups based on cheap package tours can bring
particular problems. This is not to hypothesize that all low-income groups
are badly behaved and insensitive to local traditions and customs. Certain
ethnic groups might also exhibit characteristics which are unacceptable in a
particular location or country. Where problems are clearly associated with
groups of tourists from a particular country or, perhaps, sent by a particular
company, action should be taken to curb the problem.
It should be apparent that certain volumes of tourist arrivals, or particular
types of tourist groups, will be unacceptable in some locations. Tourism
planners should attempt to ‘influence’ the type of tourism demand in the
same way that attempts are made to ‘protect’ aspects of tourism supply, e.g.
certain attractions and locations. For some developing countries, these
problems are particularly difficult to overcome because tourism sectors,
with all their specific characteristics, have been inherited from colonial
times. Not all of this inheritance is bad, but where the sector is a major
economic contributor to the country, it may be difficult to make necessary
changes without endangering existing economic benefits. Management
changes and actions may have to be introduced over a long period of
One of the problems of changing the type of tourism activity is that
tourists and residents often have a very different view of a country and its
society. A country’s tourism ‘image’ may be the creation of a travel company,
keen to stress those aspects of a country which it believes may persuade
tourists to buy holidays in the destination. So what might be regarded as
‘quaint’ aspects of life by a tourist might be seen as a symbol of
‘backwardness’ by residents. Religious rites and ceremonies treated as a
‘holiday experience’ by tourists can represent a fundamental aspect of life
for residents. In a similar vein, alcohol, promiscuity, gambling and begging
may be regarded differently by tourists and residents. These are only a few
generalized examples of changes which can arise from tourism.
It is appropriate to stress that tourism development can bring with it
beneficial sociocultural impacts. The interchange of ideas, cultures and
perceptions can do much to dispel ignorance and misunderstanding. The
development of youth tourism, in particular, will tend to generate long-term
advantages, not only in relation to repeat journeys, but in a wider
understanding of cultural differences.
Domestic tourism will avoid most if not all of the sociocultural aspects
relevant to international tourism. As domestic tourists are usually citizens of
the country their cultural background will allow them to assimilate into the
visited destination. Often language and religion constitute no barriers to
travel or communication. In some countries, such as Iran, Pakistan and
Oman, emphasis is given to attracting tourists from Islamic countries and
also on creating cultural tourism where visitors are likely to be more
sensitive to the norms of the host societies.
It is not too difficult to identify some of the sociocultural problems linked
to tourism. What is of more concern is how such problems can be dealt with
within the further development of the tourism sector. Given the disparate
nature of the problems, it is only possible to suggest a general approach to
developing a management strategy to control the social and cultural aspects
of tourism.
A management strategy for social and cultural impacts
There are three broad aspects to developing a management strategy. First,
the sounding of representative opinion at the location of any proposed
development should be incorporated into the planning process. Secondly,
representative opinions on the current impacts of tourism should be
surveyed on a continuing basis. Thirdly, other countries’ experiences in
these aspects of tourism should be studied for longer term guidance.
Defining ‘representative’ opinion is not in itself an easy task. In most
communities there exist pressure groups which may be supportive of, or
antagonistic to, tourism. Pressure groups are skilled at using social and
political systems to further their own aims. In developing countries, societal
structures may be quite distinct from those existing and functioning in
developed countries. Access to radio, television and the press may be
limited in some countries, and participative democracy might not exist. In
these circumstances it may not be possible to introduce a representative
consultative process.
It may also be the case that societal structures vest the responsibility for
community views onto a single person – a tribal chief, landowner or
institutional organization. In trying to sound out local opinion about a
tourism development, care must be taken to use confirmed representatives.
It should also be remembered that ‘opinion’ is often speculative; to ask a
person without any knowledge or experience of tourism to anticipate
changes that may or may not arise from a proposed development is not
likely to be very convincing or useful.
It is good planning practice to try to obtain the views of a community
before development takes place. It will provide tourism planners with
information about the likely acceptability of any proposed development,
what views are held by the local community, and whether or not any fears
can be allayed by the development of an appropriate management

In many locations, tourism is already in existence and the need is to discover
what residents’ views of tourism are. In this case, the enquiry aims to record
and then to monitor the residents’ perceptions of the impacts of tourism.
Once these opinions have been collected, they can be tested for validity, as
there are many factors which can influence a residents’ view of tourism and
its impacts on a locality.
To be of use to tourism planners, surveys of opinion have to be properly
structured and stratified. As a continuing exercise, they can produce a
stream of data, perhaps qualitative but nevertheless, important, as a means
of trying to harmonize tourism development within a community. The basis
for any management strategy is information. Measures should be taken to
introduce preplanning and monitoring surveys as noted above.
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