Gdansk tourism background paper

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Gdansk social economy conference

Cluster 1: Socially Responsible Tourism

Background paper

See also: Gdansk tourism cluster report


From sustainability to social responsibility

Over the last 20 years criticism has been levelled at tourism questioning its real capacity to encourage the process of economic development in a way that also respects the natural environment, local artistic and monumental heritage as well as populations living in tourist destinations with particular reference to their culture, traditions and lifestyles. This is not the appropriate occasion in which to present the vast literature covering this subject that includes studies, research, charters and political documents all referring to the idea of sustainable tourism, or rather, the sustainability of tourism. It is enough to remember that the most recent definition of sustainability, initially conceived only in relation to the natural environment, now includes other content such as social and economic aspects. By now there are many who share the objective of encouraging the development of tourism within a context of not solely environmental sustainability but also economic and social sustainability.

This requires recognising the right of host communities to decide whether they welcome tourism and what kind of tourism they want in their territory as well as their right to be main players in the economic activity generated by tourism as entrepreneurs and labour, i.e. to benefit in financial, social and employment terms from tourism. They should also have the right to expect that the tourism in their territory (i.e. the tourists) respect the natural environment, local artistic heritage, local culture including its beliefs, customs and traditions, all within a framework which allows for equal dignity and regard for both host and guest communities.


AITR, the Italian Association for Socially Responsible Tourism, was set up 10 years ago on the basis of these ideas which it has further developed and expanded with the addition of other principles and practices including the opportunity for in-depth exchanges between tourists and host populations, provision for acts of solidarity, pricing transparency, the appropriate preparation for trips through information and preparatory meetings, harmony in human relations, social inclusion and employment of disadvantaged people through empowerment and social cohesion, etc.

A level of awareness has also been reached regarding the principles and precepts of responsible tourism, originally conceived as applicable only to those more fragile and vulnerable countries in the south of the world, but refer to universal values and can also be carried over to every context including in rich, developed countries with long tourism histories and traditions such as European countries.

At this meeting a variety of participants from differing origins will all have the possibility to present their experiences, the practices and principles they have adopted in their activities, for example the “Le Mat” or the “U pana cogito” systems, This is an opportunity to discuss and verify whether the conditions exist to attempt to create forms of co-operation in the cluster spirit: exchanging experiences; reciprocal training sessions; common promotion and sales; common projects; out reach communication and information; research; monitoring activities.

Developments across Europe

In Italy, and now also in France and Spain - as well as perhaps in other countries (Sweden? Poland?) - there are now responsible tourism initiatives within national territories that are producing significant results and merit attention and consideration. These include bringing tourism correctly and appropriately involving local participation to areas which have previously been marginalised although endowed with unexpressed potential. This involves identifying and highlighting aspects relating to the local identity, to local typical agro-foodstuff production, local cuisine, local arts and crafts, material culture, the spontaneous and genuine traditions of hospitality; the involvement of a broad spectrum of the population, i.e. not just the tourist operators in the strict sense, not just hotels, travel agencies, tourist guides and restaurants but also families (B&B’s), farmers (farmhouse holidays), fishermen (fishing holidays) local sports and cultural associations, the local tourist boards, voluntary associations, retailers and parish councils, i.e. potentially the entire population; the social inclusion and employment of disadvantaged or discriminated people; the increasing attention being paid by local authorities who frequently share these principles of tourism and support it by acting within their areas of competence: services, urban furnishing, making premises available, strong media attention as well which is often critical of mass tourism and the problems it engenders.


There are a number of unresolved problems that require attention and reflection:

  • Is responsible tourism a niche tourism or is it an approach that could also influence forms of traditional tourism?
  • Does it risk becoming elitist?
  • In what way can diverse experiences from far away and differing contexts contribute to establishing a platform for collaboration or a network?

A response could be in the imminent setting up of EARTH; the birth of the association will provide a basis for discussion and in-depth inquiry in order to share missions, objectives, activities and operating methods.