Towards a poststructural political economy of tourism

A critical sustainability perspective on destination development in the Finnish North

  • Outi Kulusjärvi Geography Research Unit, University of Oulu

Abstract

Tourism has developed into an important field of economy in the northern sparsely populated areas of Finland. State bodies of different spatial scales continuously put efforts to foster tourism growth and tourism is viewed as a prosperous economic path for the future. The prevailing tourism development is resort-oriented, which has transformed rural geographies in the North. Critical tourism geography research highlights that such market-driven tourism development has negative social and environmental consequences. Thus, tourism change needs to be examined from a broader perspective than economic benefits alone. It is required that tourism economy serves people and not vice versa.

To increase sustainability in destination localities, collective economic agency in destinations is encouraged in tourism research and development. To date, tourism research has tended to draw on multiple, often contradicting, theoretical perspectives in an attempt to clarify how collective agency in tourism destinations should be best organized in order to foster social justice and ecological sustainability. The aim of this thesis is to understand how sustainability can be facilitated through local economic relations in resort-oriented destination development contexts. Sustainability discussions in tourism research are advanced by drawing on economic geography and its critical takes. The thesis consists of three studies that each examine sustainability in tourism destinations from a different viewpoint.

The thesis first examines how (un)sustainability currently manifests in local economic relations and then discusses what changes are required to move towards more sustainable tourism futures. Ethnographically oriented case studies and a contemporary variant of the grounded theory method enables approaching tourism economies from the perspective of everyday tourism realities. The empirical part of the research is conducted in the Ruka and Ylläs destinations in the Finnish North. Insights were gathered by semi-structured in-depth interviews with local tourism actors in 2012 and 2015.

The study introduces a poststructural political economy approach to sustainability transformations in tourism destinations. The less growth-focused economic thinking that exists in destinations is brought to light. Tourism actors’ motives and aims can differ drastically from the rationales of growth-focused tourism destination development that dominate in networked tourism governance. Many of the tourism actors desire conservation of natural and cultural environment in destinations. This creates conflict between the coexisting tourism paths. In the thesis, it is argued that economic difference in tourism should not be conceptualized merely as a source of diversification of tourism supply and thus as beneficial for destination growth; it should be recognized as political agency in tourism economy. Tourism networking is already now often value-driven, and this needs to be encouraged. That is, transformative agency for tourism change can be gained and new tourism paths created also through incremental changes ‘from below’, not only via policy actions.

To contribute to the critical (economic) geography research on social and economic change, this thesis highlights that it is central to understand not only what new economic futures look like but also how to work towards them in everyday politics. Although the alternative and critical voices are valuable as they accurately state a socially just view of how things ought to be, these voices may not be the best way to bring about a change. This is because power hierarchies are not easily recognized in everyday tourism work. Each actor interprets the social from their subjective point of view. Even actors with the most power can have personal experiences of powerlessness. Thus, to foster change, it is necessary to facilitate the transformation of the existing conflictual inter-group relations. Dialogical everyday politics could work as a means to foster understanding of different groups’ tourism realities and their mutual influence. Conflict could be regarded not solely as an innate feature of capitalist economic relations but also as moments where mutual understanding can be facilitated. This is a way to establish local economic relations that enable community building.

Destination sustainability touches not only firm-level practices but the mode of economic organization in tourism destinations. The thesis highlights that to advance social justice and environmental sustainability in destinations, destination development and planning should account for the possibility for a less growth-focused destination development path. As alternative tourism paths do not, as a rule, depend on new, large-scale tourism construction, they would likewise not foster growth in international tourist numbers and air travel. This unconventional view on economic path creation is to be encouraged as it is better in line with climate change mitigation needs and critical sustainability theorizing.

How to Cite
Kulusjärvi, O. (2019). Towards a poststructural political economy of tourism: A critical sustainability perspective on destination development in the Finnish North. Nordia Geographical Publications, 48(3), 107. Retrieved from https://nordia.journal.fi/article/view/85805