Tourism has contributed significantly to the economic development of the Mediterranean region over the past decades.
This success comes at a cost. The degradation of natural ecosystems, the leakage of economic benefits, the spread of precarious working conditions for industrial workers and the increase in global warming are a constant concern for policy makers.
Yet fierce competition among Mediterranean tourist destinations continues to block the much-needed restructuring of the industry.
The Mediterranean region has unique natural ecosystems shared by many countries with different cultures and sensitive to the importance of protecting the natural environment. Competition for growth has created a negative loop between mass tourism and environmental sustainability.
Some countries are beginning to review their strategies to ensure that the golden goose is not strangled by overdevelopment and the exploitation of limited natural resources.
Mediterranean organizations are not lacking in promoting ambitious green and blue recovery plans to achieve “sustainable” tourism. Many policy makers rightly argue that the tourism industry in the Mediterranean has for too long ignored the socio-economic costs of promoting growth.
The importance of tourism in the political economy is obvious. The sector is labor intensive, contributing an average of 11.5 percent of total employment in Mediterranean countries. The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) says that the Mediterranean tourism sector employs a high volume of low-skilled and high-skilled workers, with a high turnover of seasonal, part-time and temporary jobs. In addition, tourism provides employment opportunities for people who are usually disadvantaged in the labor market, including migrants, women, students and older workers.
Tourism work in the Mediterranean is characterized by functional flexibility and low wages which translate into structural precariousness for workers employed in cleaning, retail, transport and leisure and hospitality services. The informal sector with beach and street vendors and the rise of accommodation platforms between landlords and visitors also prevent vulnerable and poorly paid workers from improving their working conditions.
The quality spectrum of the Mediterranean tourism industry is wide. Most countries attract the lower end of the market, as most cost-conscious Europeans have financial affordability as a top priority for their holiday plans.
A few destinations seem to have found the holy grail of success in attracting more affluent visitors. These destinations include the French Riviera and Riviera, Costa Smeralda in Sardinia, the Greek islands of Santorini and Rhodes, Venice and enclaves of excellence such as Portofino, Cinque Terre, Taormina and Capri in Italy. Many vacationers could only afford a day trip to these prime tourist resorts.
Many policy makers rightly argue that the tourism industry in the Mediterranean has for too long ignored the socio-economic costs of promoting growth
Savvy policy makers in some Mediterranean countries are questioning the strategic thinking behind mass tourism. They avoid the platitudes and wishful thinking that characterize the narrative of some tourist lectures. They focus on brutally honest assessments of industry strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats in particular countries.
Guaranteed good weather, rich cultural heritage, security, high standards of accommodation and frequent low-cost connectivity are key, but not unique, success factors that most Mediterranean destinations can offer to costs.
Realistically, some destinations have endemic drawbacks that cannot be ignored. These include the risk of terrorism, especially in some southern Mediterranean countries, overcrowded resorts due to limited physical space, and the tolerance of unbridled tourists and commercial behaviors common in some resorts.
Mediterranean tourism is a fragmented industry that needs to be monitored, managed and regulated at different spatial, temporal and geographical scales. Its impact on civil society is beginning to attract more intense attention from society leaders.
The transition to a new economic model will be painful. Most countries overinvested in mature tourist facilities no longer appeal to today’s vacationers. Quality accommodation alone will not alleviate the inconvenience caused by overcrowded destinations that, intentionally or not, charge higher prices for a poor vacation experience.
Nor is it realistic to expect the governments of Mediterranean countries to assume the strategic risks associated with outdated economic models. The hidden socio-economic costs of the mass tourism model are ultimately borne by taxpayers and the community.
Cooperation between Mediterranean countries to agree on shared good practices that would promote socio-economic benefits would be ideal. Yet the reality is that today most countries continue to focus on price competition. Smart decision makers will want to rethink their business models to beat the competition.
Next week’s article will discuss the evolving strategies that some Mediterranean tourism experts are suggesting for countries wishing to inject new dynamism into the way they manage their tourism.
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