Is the Concept of Social Entrepreneurship Applicable to Tourism Studies?

Given that social entrepreneurship focuses on producing social change beyond the profit-seeking motive of private sector entrepreneurship, a question of enduring interest is whether tourism plays a role in this emerging arena. Little has been written in the scholarly literature about tourism as a vehicle for social entrepreneurship (Boluk, 2011; Hall, Matos, Sheehan, & Silvestre, 2012; Kline, Shah, & Rubright, 2014; Lamari & Menard, 2012; Mody & Day, 2014). Extant research on this matter does not appear in mainstream tourism journals thereby limiting impact as well as access. Additionally, most studies focus on singular case studies and as a result, cross comparative exercises that juxtapose various SE activities or geopolitical locations are rare. Lastly, there is a proliferation of conceptual papers on SE and no comparative growth in empirically based work on this topic.

It is important to note that there are a number of parallels between the goals of social entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship, and sustainable development, as well as current views regarding the benefits of sustainable tourism development for various communities. In their discussion of sustainable development, Hall, Daneke, and Lenox (2010) note that, in general, the need for a fundamental change to reduce the negative social and environmental impacts of businesses is becoming increasingly evident. One advocated avenue is the transition to sustainable business practices, products, and services to alleviate social and environmental concerns via entrepreneurship and innovation. Drawing on Schumpeter’s (1934, 1950) concept of creative destruction, Hall et al. (2010) argue that sustainability challenges create market failures that then pave the way for new entrants into the market. Entrepreneurship, then, is viewed as a panacea for social and environmental challenges, with “heroic” social or environmental entrepreneurs providing a solution to societal ills (Hall et al., 2010). Similarly, social entrepreneurship (SE) is concerned with the economic, social, and environmental well-being of communities (Urbano, Toledano, & Soriano, 2010) and has been promoted as a strategy for addressing poverty in the developing world (Dees, 2008; Hall et al., 2012). Where the two concepts diverge (i.e., sustainable development through entrepreneurship versus social entrepreneurship), is that social good is the primary goal of social entrepreneurship while sustainable development entrepreneurship tends to put economic, social, and environmental concerns on equal footing. Furthermore, social entrepreneurship may or may not have sustainability as its focus (Hall et al., 2010). Thus, sustainable development through entrepreneurship may be SE, but not always; and SE may focus on sustainable development, but not always. Despite the ubiquitous nature of discussions on sustainable development, there has been limited research on the intersection between entrepreneurship and sustainable development (Hall et al., 2010).

Tourism development scholars have endeavored to examine enterprises related to sustainable development and they have allowed for a broader discussion that accounts for economic, social, and environmental dimensions. In the past, tourism was often promoted as panacea, a means by which communities and nations at large could experience positive economic impacts particularly in impoverished regions with few viable industries (Bianchi, 2009). However, contemporary tourism literature increasingly cautions against economic reductionism and rather promotes multifaceted approaches that incorporate social and environmental dimensions (von der Weppen & Cochrane, 2012). While one goal of sustainable tourism is the reduction or elimination of negative social impacts on communities, this is not enough for a business to be considered a socially entrepreneurial venture; tourism enterprises must go beyond mitigation of negative social consequences and create social value. An entrepreneurial social venture, whether for-profit, nonprofit, governmental, or a hybrid, is explicitly designed to serve a social purpose; it deliberately aims to create social value and serve the public good. A socially entrepreneurial venture is not simply a socially responsible organization or an organization that operates in the social sector; rather it must have positive social change at the core of its mission (Dees & Anderson, 2003). It is important to note that some types of socially entrepreneurial tourism ventures could be considered examples of sustainable development, however the reverse may not always be true.

Within academia, discussions on tourism and social entrepreneurship have remained scarce. An exception includes a study by von der Weppen and Cochrane (2012) that investigated several for-profit tourism ventures to understand how they balanced commercial with social and/or environmental objectives, and determinates of success. The authors found that, based on Alter’s (2006) framework of social enterprise models, tourism enterprises were generally similar to other social ventures. However, the operational models often adopted by tourism enterprises tended to include: the Market Intermediary Model that focuses on assisting producers with access to markets; the Employment Model, which centers on providing employment opportunities; or the Organization Support Model that deals with unrelated business activities geared towards supporting the social program. The authors noted that success depends on leadership, strategy, organizational culture, and success implantation of strategy. From an organizational theory standpoint, this particular study is instrumental given its contribution to explicating how tourism businesses have configured the creation of social value within their day-to-day operations. Arguably, such socially driven business endeavors benefit from the existence of policies that favor a social value driven entrepreneurial climate (Hall et al., 2012). However, the existence of such policies does not necessarily yield nor foster growth of social enterprises.

Within the tourism industry, discussions on policies that directly address social outcomes have gained traction as is indicated by, for instance, the United Nations World Tourism Organization’s (UNWTO) global call for tourism enterprises to start contributing to social change (Buzinde, Xue, & Yarmenko, 2013). The UNWTO advocates for social change directed towards accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals (previously the Millennium Development Goals), which focus on social issues like: basic quality education; reduced inequalities; poverty reduction; sustainable cities and communities; and, responsible consumption and production, to name a few (see Buzinde et al., 2013; Maarten et al., 2015). Sustainable tourism companies that respond to UNWTO’s call for tourism businesses, particularly those located in the global south are in many ways examples of Alter’s (2006) organization support model. For instance, Xel-ha, a tourism park resort in the Mexican Caribbean, abides by all the models mentioned by von der Weppen and Cochrane (2012) through its social programs, which contribute to building roads, libraries, and residential communities while providing employment for locals Buzinde et al. (2013).

Like Xel-ha, most alternative forms of tourism have the potential to positively affect social change. For example, ecotourism (Cho, 2006; Dees & Anderson, 2003), cultural and heritage tourism, community-based tourism (Kokkranikal & Morrison, 2011), and volunteer tourism may all positively influence social welfare for various communities in a deliberate way. However, according to Cho (2006), there are notable challenges in defining the ‘social’ in social entrepreneurship and perhaps even more so in tourism than in some other kinds of social ventures. Cho (2006) notes ecotourism as a particularly good example of the difficulty in defining the ‘social’ aspect of social entrepreneurship given the negative social impacts of ecotourism development and competing visions of what constitutes the social good. As one considers the notion of social value, it is important to question the involvement of (or lack thereof) the population for whom social value is designed. von der Weppen and Cochrane’s (2012) study provides a strong foundation from which to understand the organizational models adopted by tourism related social enterprises. However, there remains a gap in tourism scholarship related to how tourism social enterprises collaborate with community members to co-create that which a community perceives as social value. Accordingly, future investigations related to tourism and social entrepreneurship that focus on issues of community agency and involvement are necessary to theorize and problematize the notion of (co) creating social value.

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