Tourism Destination Development Evolution and Lifecycle


This chapter focuses on how destinations evolve through various lifecycle stages as the tourism sector develops and grows before eventually entering a stage of stagnation or even decline if not managed effectively.

Destinations are at different stages of the lifecycle from emerging to high-growth destinations and from mature destinations to destinations in decline due to, for example, overtourism and lack of investment in tourism-related infrastructure. As described in previous chapters, overtourism can affect all types of destinations including cities, coastal, rural, countryside, and protected landscapes as well as in developed versus developing countries at different stages of the lifecycle. Although, overtourism most frequently affects mature urban destinations that are close to reaching a saturation point or their carrying capacity.

Destination Evolution and Lifecycle

The idea of destinations entering decline due to overtourism is not new and was highlighted by Butler in his Tourism Area Life-cycle Model in 1980 (see Figure 5.1). Butler not only described how the authenticity and quality of the visitor experience declines in line with rapid growth in visitor numbers, but also how the local host population’s attitude to tourists is likely to change over time. This is particularly true when a destination is close to reaching its carrying capacity or saturation point.


Figure 5.1 Butler’s tourism area lifecycle model

Source: R W Butler, Canadian Geographer, 1980

As may be seen from Figure 5.1, Butler’s model identifies five key destination lifecycle stages:

1. The exploration stage—an emerging destination with its tourism industry in a state of infancy with limited tourism-related infrastructure and most tourists may be described as “explorers” (Butler 1980). There are very few of these remaining today as tourism has grown exponentially since 1980, but perhaps the Pitcairn Islands may be considered to fit into this category.

2. The involvement stage—a destination with an increasing number of tourists that attracts local and public investment in infrastructure (Butler 1980). The small island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic has a population of just over 6,000 and may be described as being in the involvement stage, given the public sector investment of circa GBP286 million in the airport (St. Helena Enterprise 2019). Until 2018, St. Helena could only be accessed by a monthly ship from Cape Town, which involved a trip lasting at least three weeks including the roundtrip journey to and from South Africa. The island now has an airport offering a couple of flights a week via Johannesburg or Cape Town. In 2018, St. Helena attracted around 3,000 overnight staying visitors with the number of future tourists currently capped at 30,000 per annum. The future of tourism in remote destinations such as St. Helena is inextricably linked to the capacity, frequency, reliability, and cost of flights to the island, so in theory the number of tourists can be controlled with relative ease. With no scheduled flights to St. Helena owing to the coronavirus pandemic, tourism is currently on hold as of January 2021.

3. The development stage—a period characterized by increased foreign direct investment and a range of visitors and market segments, driven by heavy marketing and promotion. The population in the destination accepts tourism (Butler 1980). Myanmar is an example of a destination in the development stage. Compared with its neighbours of Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia there are relatively few international visitors at just 4.5 million in 2019 ( 2021). This means there is significant untapped potential, which to date has attracted some foreign direct investment. However, unlike in Butler’s description Myanmar has not been heavily promoted at this stage, but this is partly due to the changes in how emerging destinations are marketed in an increasingly digital world, which did not exist in 1980, as well as the increase in global mass mobility.

4. The consolidation stage—the main income of the local economy comes from tourism, and visitor levels continue to increase but at a decreasing rate. Extensive marketing and promotional efforts are made to overcome seasonality and to develop new markets. The local people fully appreciate the importance of tourism. The growth rate begins to slow (Butler 1980). Boracay in the Philippines is an example of a destination that had nearly reached saturation, but where the local authorities decided to take decisive action before it was too late and closed the island for six months to carry out a comprehensive environmental clean-up. Since reopening, the number of tourists has been restricted to a maximum of 6,400 people on island per day and they are obliged to stay in accredited accommodation only (Jennings 2019).

5. Stagnation stage—occurs when visitor numbers peak, carrying capacity is reached, and the area is no longer trendy. There are fewer first-time visitors, and the destination relies on repeat visits and conventions for business. At the stagnation stage a destination either enters a decline or is rejuvenated subject to appropriate intervention and effective destination management (Butler 1980). Barcelona is a good example of a destination having reached the stagnation stage or its carrying capacity with the city experiencing the effects of overtourism owing to a large influx in cruise passengers and MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences & Exhibitions) visitors. However, the authorities have started to take action to rejuvenate in order avoid the city’s tourism industry declining. However, owing to the exponential growth in tourism, in particular, the increasing number of tourists from emerging economies, the number of first-time visitors was still growing until the coronavirus pandemic took hold in 2020.

Jost Krippendorf’s The Holiday Makers (Krippendorf 1984) also discussed the issue of the local host population and the difference between what they expect and what they get from tourism. In line with the rapid growth in global tourism an increasing number of popular destinations have reached the critical consolidation stage including some of Europe’s most visited cities: Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Lisbon. As discussed earlier, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, tourism had already reached unsustainable levels in many destinations. Regardless of the potential economic benefits, the negative impacts of overtourism on local residents were increasingly alienating host communities. However, owing to the increased number of travelers from the BRIC countries and other countries with emerging economies, it may be argued that fewer destinations are entering the stagnation stage than originally envisaged in Butler’s tourism area lifecycle model.

It is evident that mature destinations that should have reached the stagnation stage or started to decline are those that are frequently faced with overtourism. The anticipated stagnation or decline has not happened as envisaged by Butler and Krippendorf. Instead, the number of tourists has continued to increase at a rapid rate driven by a growing world population, rising affluence, and global mass mobility. Newly affluent travelers from emerging markets are continuing to visit destinations on their bucket list that are already overcrowded, replacing those tourists who no longer find the destination attractive or satisfactory to visit.

However, it is clear that continuous investment in visitor-related infrastructure and management is required by the public and private sectors if destinations are to avoid overtourism in the future and in order to change local people’s increasingly negative perception and experience of the tourism sector. Thus, there is an urgent need for destinations to consider how they may recover from the coronavirus post pandemic and regenerate in a more sustainable way that is socially inclusive and place local people’s quality of life at the center. Tourism played a key role in economic recovery and growth post the 2008 global crisis and indeed has the potential to do the same post the coronavirus pandemic, but this time sustainability and resilience should be at the forefront.

Investment in tourism-related infrastructure is a joint responsibility between the public and private sectors. Investment in alternative product development and new visitor itineraries in mature destinations can be a successful way to disperse visitor flows and spread the benefits of tourism across a wider geographical area. This route is currently being pursued by Wonderful Copenhagen as a means to avoid overtourism from occurring in the most frequently visited parts of the city center (10xCopenhagen 2020).

Furthermore, investment in smart city technologies and artificial intelligence to monitor congestion and traffic flows can help local authorities and DMOs to better manage visitor flows and avoid overcrowding during peak times by controlling these electronically. Such technologies are already successfully used by theme parks who are continually investing in crowd control in order to accommodate growth and increase visitor spend, while at the same time implementing yield management and improving infrastructure capacity. In essence, the major theme parks have an effective crowd management plan in place at all times to ensure a high-quality visitor experience resulting in high spends and less crowding, something DMOs can learn from. The coronavirus pandemic and the sharp reduction in tourism demand has provided destinations with an opportunity to prepare for a more sustainable recovery and put plans in place aimed at managing future growth.

Key Takeaways

1. Mature destinations that should have reached the stagnation stage in the lifecycle or even experienced a decline in visitation have frequently been faced with overtourism due to the rapid growth in international tourism, especially from emerging economies.

2. Investment in tourism-related infrastructure and smart technologies is required on an ongoing basis by the public and private sector to ensure destinations are able to plan for and accommodate future tourism growth.

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