Technical Note
World Tourism Day

Tourism and Rural Development

UNWTO has designated 2020 as the Year of Tourism and Rural Development. This Year is an opportunity to promote the potential of tourism to create jobs and opportunities. It can also advance inclusion and highlight the unique role tourism can play in preserving and promoting natural and cultural heritage and curbing urban migration.

The theme is shared with this year’s World Tourism Day. World Tourism Day, commemorated each year on 27 September, is the global observance day fostering awareness of tourism’s social, cultural, political and economic value and the contribution the sector can make in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of the first World Tourism Day.

‘Tourism and Rural Development’ is more relevant than ever as the global tourism sector faces up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism in rural areas offers important opportunities for recovery, making supporting rural communities facing the economic and social impacts of the pandemic is critical.

A renewed focus on the benefits of tourism to rural communities is timely and important:

The Case for Rural Development

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Urbanization is a prevalent trend across the world. By 2050, 68% of world population will live in urban areas, while 80% of all people living in ‘extreme poverty’ live in rural communities, not cities.

young people in the world live in rural areas

Globally, most of the 1.8 billion young people in the world live in rural areas of low and middle-income countries. “It tends to be the better-educated, the more highly skilled, the more highly motivated mobile people who are leaving and that is certainly a drain of the human capital.”

Youth in rural communities are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Without work, young people are forced to migrate to cities, either in their own countries or across borders. Youth migration to the cities harms rural communities, often irreversibly. As well as towns and villages dying out, local customs and heritage become lost.

Tourism, Rural Development and COVID-19: Facing up to an unprecedented challenge

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Communities in rural areas are, in general, much less prepared to deal with the direct and indirect impact of the COVID-19 crisis. This is due to a variety of factors, including population age, lower income levels, relative lack of economic diversity, the ‘digital divide’, and distance from health centres.

Tourism is a lifeline for many rural communities, most notably in the developing world. According to UNWTO scenarios on the impact of COVID-19, international tourist arrivals could fall between 60% and 80% in 2020. This will have a massive impact on livelihoods and businesses.

The UNWTO World Tourism Barometer: International tourism down 22% in Q1 and could decline by 60-80% over the whole year

UNWTO foresees that domestic tourism will return before international tourism. Managed well, this could benefit rural communities, most notably through protecting livelihoods and boosting local economies.

To help both governments and the private sector mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on tourism and to drive the sector’s recovery, UNWTO has made available Recommendations for Action and Guidelines to Restart Tourism. This action plan for a sustainable and resilient future emphasises the importance of tourism to rural communities, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.

Tourism driving rural development: Opportunities and challenges

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UNWTO is committed to guiding the tourism sector as a driver of sustainable economic and social inclusion and ensuring that tourism can contribute to ‘leaving no one behind’.

Tourism has a unique ability to support the revitalization of rural communities, both in the short-term as they recover from the impact of COVID-19, and in the long-term to promote sustainable and inclusive growth:

Rural communities can benefit from tourism
  • In many areas, economic returns from agriculture are diminishing. At the same time, traditional ways of life are under threat from climate change. Travellers’ demand for new experiences around nature, local culture and products, as well as community engagement, offer immense opportunities for economic revitalization.
  • Yet creating new opportunities for jobs and economic activities in rural areas requires proper connectivity, investment, supporting the promotion and preservation of natural and cultural heritage, fostering digital transformation, developing adequate skills and products as well as strong public-public cooperation.
  • The creation of value through tourism needs to be approached from an holistic perspective that engages all other sectors and activities in the tourism value chain
  • National policies and programmes such as the ‘Magical Towns’ of Mexico are a good example of how rural communities can benefit from tourism.
  • Promoting tourism in rural areas spreads the benefits of the sector but also helps reduce pressure on more visited locations in cities.

Infrastructure and education – the role of the public sector

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Infrastructure and education

The public sector has an important role to play in boosting tourism’s contribution to rural development. At the local level, it is hard to attract private sector investors and retain population if there has been no public sector investment.

The public sector also has a role to play in ensuring the hard infrastructure is in place to provide well being for communities and allow tourists to easily visit and experience rural areas. Education is also key. Without the “human capital”, rural development will be impossible.

Creating ‘More and Better Jobs’ in rural communities Infrastructure and education

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Tourism can create jobs in rural and remote areas, not only directly but also indirectly through the preservation and restoration of traditional activities. Often it is one of the few viable economic sectors in these areas. The sector is particularly effective at providing employment opportunities for women and young people.

Tourism is particularly effective at providing employment opportunities for women and young people

However, the tourism sector has a responsibility to ensure that it doesn’t just provide work, but also offers decent and fair jobs. This is particularly relevant in rural communities where employment may be less formal and more flexible. Temporary and part-time jobs are particularly common among women, young people, and the less-skilled who are employed in tourism. They can often lead to decent work deficits, including inadequate social security coverage, low wages and income inequality, and poor working conditions.

New opportunities – technology & innovation

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Access to technology is also critical to provide local business

Tourists will expect to have access to the same technology in rural areas as they enjoy in urban destinations. This includes access to fast, reliable wireless internet and the ability to make cashless payments. Access to technology is also critical to provide local business access to the market place and promote the inclusion of providers of all sizes in the tourism value chain. Ensuring rural destinations enjoy the same technology as urban areas and are not ‘left behind’ is a challenge for the public and private sectors to address.

Innovation and entrepreneurship can help drive rural development, by accelerating the access of local providers to global markets, creating new experiences and fostering networks. Attracting talent and innovation to promote rural areas will be central. The use of big data to better understand consumers will also help craft marketable experiences, monitor impact and promote rural areas.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation of economies. The rise in remote working, including in tourism-related jobs, as well as distance learning, can help create more opportunities for rural communities around the world.

Skills development, access to finance, infrastructure development, digital transformation, economic diversification, new governance and impact assessment, should be placed at the heart of the recovery plans for tourism in rural communities in order support them navigate through the crisis and emerge stronger.

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