Alternative Tourism and Sustainable Development

In a document released a few years ago (Ministry of Culture and Tourism 2007), the government has stated very clearly its ambitions for Turkey to be one of the top five countries in the world in terms of the number of foreign tourists and tourism revenue by 2023. This target, however, would be difficult to reach without expanding tourism into alternative forms and into other geographical areas. Mass tourism has been determinant for the economic development of the Aegean and Mediterranean coastal regions; however, most of the inland provinces, lacking the type of attractions sought by mass tourists, failed to benefit from it (Seckelman 2002). Recognizing the limitations of mass tourism, the Turkish government is now actively encouraging the development of alternative forms of tourism in the country that would lead to more tourists visiting regions that are considered economically backward, thus reducing development discrepancies (Gezici 2006). By developing alternative forms of tourism, the government hopes to diversify tourism activities, prolong tourism season, and include new destinations (Tezcan 2004).

Mass tourism is being seriously challenged with respect to its sustainability (Gossling et al. 2009b). Many are suggesting Turkey shift to alternative tourism, which is perceived to be more sustainable. However, can we really say that alternative tourism is more sustainable than mass tourism? The answer to this question requires further investigation and depends on how we understand sustainability (Noveli and Benson 2005; Bramwell 2004; see also Chap. 1, by Egresi).

The understanding of the concept of tourism sustainability has changed in time. The main stages in the perception of tourism (as elaborated by Jafari 1989 and improved by Weaver and Lawton 1999) are:

  • 1. During the 1950s and 1960s (also known as the pro-development advocacy platform), scholars advocated a policy of sustained mass tourism development. They believed that tourism may be the only means for developing destinations where other economic sectors cannot be developed. During these years, tourism was perceived as a clean industry (Lane 2009). Indeed, when compared to the heavily polluting manufacturing industry or to chemical-dependent agriculture, tourism promised to be much cleaner. Consequently, the development of mass tourism was embraced uncritically (Gossling et al. 2009a).
  • 2. During the 1970s (cautionary platform), mass tourism was viewed as unsustainable. This is the time when Doxey (1975) and Butler (1980) published their seminal studies showing that, if tourism development takes place unchecked, the costs would eventually exceed the benefits.
  • 3. In the early 1980s (adaptancy platform), deliberate alternative tourism was proposed as a desirable and sustainable alternative to mass tourism. Alternative tourism was supposedly characterized by parameters that were exactly opposite to mass tourism. For instance, Eadington and Smith (1992: 3) defined alternative tourism as “forms of tourism that are consistent with natural, social, and community values which allow both hosts and guests to enjoy positive and worthwhile interaction and shared experiences.” Alternative tourism was also appealing for its small-scale, dispersed tourism development, lower investment demand, and local participation (Cater 1994: 72). Hence, mass tourism was perceived as inherently bad, and alternative tourism was perceived as inherently good. However, a key term here that needs to be highlighted is “deliberate.” This is to distinguish it from circumstantial alternative tourism, which means that the small scale may simply reflect the fact that the destination is experiencing the early stages within the life-cycle model. Unchecked, this could grow into full-blown mass tourism. Using a regulatory framework, tourism operations could be deliberately kept small, or “alternative” (Weaver 2006).
  • 4. Since the late 1980s, the knowledge-based platform has rejected the previous platform as simplistic, arguing that mass tourism can be sustainable if planned and managed properly (sustainable mass tourism), and alternative forms of tourism could also have a negative impact on a destination in certain situations when it represents just the incipient stage of tourism development in that destination (circumstantial alternative tourism). Butler (1998, 1999) criticized the earlier approach to promote alternative tourism as the only form of sustainable development. He argued that “sustainable development is neither always possible nor even always appropriate in the context of tourism” (Butler 1999: 8). Also, Sindiga (1999) has shown that ecotourism (as an alternative tourism form) is not always small scale and is not always locally owned, as previously inferred. Alternative tourism cannot replace conventional mass tourism; it may be an alternative only to the most extreme forms of mass tourism (Butler 1992). The decision on what form of tourism to adopt for a particular destination should be taken after a thorough scientific analysis of the characteristics of the destination (Weaver 2006).

Jafari (2001) clearly specified that the new platforms are not replacing the preceding ones, but rather all four platforms coexist today within the contemporary tourism sector. Similarly, Clarke (1997) argued that sustainable tourism is not an inherent characteristic of a certain place, but rather a goal that all destinations aiming at tourism development should strive to achieve. He identified four different historical positions in the understanding of sustainable tourism:

1. Mass tourism and sustainable tourism perceived as polar opposites.

Alternative tourism (small-scale) was viewed as sustainable, whereas mass tourism (large-scale) was perceived as unsustainable and, therefore, bad (Dernoi 1981; Romeril 1985). To achieve sustainability, the advice was to replace mass tourism with alternative forms of tourism.

2. Mass tourism and sustainable tourism viewed as a continuum. Alternative tourism often uses the infrastructure built for mass tourism. Without this, alternative tourism operations may not be profitable or sustainable (Noveli and Benson 2005; Clarke 2004; Bramwell 2004). Therefore, we cannot state that all mass tourism is inherently bad and all forms of alternative tourism are inherently good (sustainable). In fact, Hunter and Green (1995) contend that it is highly possible to find sustainable tourism between the two extremes.

3. Sustainability perceived as a goal rather than an existing state (movement).

Using current knowledge, the sustainability of mass tourism could be improved. It was acknowledged that large scale is not necessarily a factor of unsustainability, meaning that just because mass tourism is large scale and alternative tourism is small scale does not mean that alternative tourism is sustainable, whereas mass tourism is not (Beaver 2005; Van Egmond 2007). In fact, at the same number of tourists, mass tourism could be considered more sustainable than alternative tourism because in the latter case, tourists would be spread over a larger geographical area (Shaw and Williams 2002), even to areas which before tourism were nearly pristine (Bramwell 2004).

4. Sustainable tourism and alternative tourism converging. This position sees sustainable tourism and alternative tourism as in position 1, except that sustainability is viewed as a goal rather than a fact.

Weaver (2012b) argued that all tourism is already mass tourism, due to the globalized corporate tourism that connects all travel. In this context, Weaver (2012a) positions sustainable mass tourism (SMT) as the desired outcome for most destinations rather than focusing on the development of niche forms of tourism, which are labeled as “sustainable,” While these forms of tourism may be more sustainable due to their smaller scale, it is not clear how the development of these niche forms will make the entire tourism system more sustainable (Peeters 2012). “Therefore, sustainable tourism should not be regarded as a rigid framework, but rather as an adaptive paradigm which legitimizes a variety of approaches according to specific circumstances” (Hunter 1997: 851).

To be fair, all tourism, mass or alternative, will have negative impacts (Marson 2011). It is unreasonable to believe that alternative tourism activities will have no environmental impact (Spilanis and Vayanni 2004). Alternative tourism can be just as problematic as mass tourism. In certain circumstances, it could, in fact, generate even more intense environmental and sociocultural pressures (Bramwell 2004). On the other hand, when managed properly, mass tourism could be more sustainable than various forms of alternative tourism (Swarbrooke 1999; Mowforth and Munt 2009). It generates economic revenue and provides a great number of jobs to local communities that may lack other economic resources. Although the ecological and cultural impact could be considerable, this could be mitigated with the right infrastructure in place. Moreover, the impact of mass tourism is limited in time and space. Seaside resort tourism, being a seasonal activity, exerts considerable pressure on the local ecology and community over a period of three to 6 months allowing for recovery during the rest of the year (Bramwell 2004). In many situations, when resorts are built outside local settlements, the sociocultural impact on the local people is limited. Mass tourists are generally not interested in exploring outside the resort. Locals may work in the resort but do not live there, thereby minimizing contact. At the same time, any form of alternative tourism, if not managed properly and not regulated, could become more harmful than mass tourism because these tourists like to explore, they like to see new destinations and to mix with the locals (Swarbrooke 1999).

Liu (2003) has also critiqued the weaknesses of the literature on sustainable tourism. He pointed out six issues that are generally overlooked in the sustainable tourism literature: the role of tourism demand, the nature of tourism resources, intra-generational equity, the role of tourism promoting sociocultural progress, the measurement of sustainability, and forms of sustainable development (Liu 2003: 459). He argued that sustainable tourism includes conventional and alternative forms of tourism that follow the principles of sustainable development (Liu 2003).

Most case studies focus on small, alternative tourism projects where the principles of sustainability are easier to analyze and implement, yet these may not provide the best solution to a tourism industry dominated by conventional mass tourism (Wheeller 1991). The opposite is also true. Often times, alternative tourism is operated by small (ideally local) companies, which could raise the question of profitability. They may require a tailored management approach that is beyond standard business practices and may not be available locally (Noveli and Benson


Often times, small firms are preferred because it is generally believed that large businesses are not local - and, therefore, have fewer linkages with local suppliers - whereas small business are more likely to be local and to be more embedded in the local economy (Andriotis 2002). However, while this may be true for some destinations, we do not have sufficient evidence to generalize (Bramwell 2004).

Alternative tourism is also often preferred because it is reckoned to allow for more community participation. However, things may get complicated when there are different, often conflicting, interests in the community. In this case, it is difficult to find a common denominator approach on how the community should develop (Noveli and Benson 2005).

The question that needs to be asked is this: Will alternative tourism increase in demand to become as significant as mass tourism? Or, even more so, can alternative tourism metamorphose into mass tourism if demand increases? Based on motivation, alternative tourism can, in general, appeal to a small group. However, there are some forms that may in the future appeal to a larger market. In this case, alternative forms of tourism may further fragment into “micro-niches” (Marson 2011). Certain niche products, however, may become so popular that they could take a more mass tourism form (Marson 2011). In fact, Butler (1989: 16) warns that “alternative small-scale tourism can change to mass conventional tourism and perhaps will inevitably do so without strict management and control.” This “massification” of alternative tourism could then create a new form of modern mass tourism (Marson 2011: 1).

Will or should these new developments lead to a decline in the popularity of (classic) mass tourism? Whether or not we see a decline in the popularity of mass tourism is debatable. Williams and Shaw (1998) opined that the claims of decline in mass tourism have been exaggerated, and we can, at most, talk about a relative decline when contrasted with the rise of other forms of tourism. While some analysts argued that tourism demand is shifting away from mass tourism products toward new forms of tourism (Urry 2002), evidence from mature tourism markets does not support this claim (Shaw and Agarwal 2007).

Throughout this book, we support the argument that replacing mass tourism with alternative tourism would not be desirable and agree with others that the future can only be some combination between mass tourism and forms of alternative tourism (Weaver 2006). Many analysts maintain that developing alternative forms of tourism in the Mediterranean Basin would be necessary not to replace the dominant mass tourism, but to diversify it, in order to make it more competitive in relation to newer “sun, sea, and sand destinations” (Bramwell 2004). For example, in Egypt, people can stay in a Red Sea resort, Sharm el Sheikh, and from there, they can take daily trips to visit the historical attractions (Marson 2011).

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