15 Jul 2009

Lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between luxury tourism and the local communities. I believe in tourism as a way to improve the life of the locals, and I cringe at the idea of a place that has nothing or next to nothing to contribute to the local economy and environment. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this, as, I admit, I’m very confused.

Luxury travel and local communities

Lately I’ve been thinking about the relationship between luxury hotels or resorts and the local communities. I read about the famous British chef Gordon Ramsay coming to manage the restaurant of the brand new luxury resort in Tuscany called “Castel Monastero”, just outside Siena.  My first reaction was, are Tuscan chefs so bad that we need to “import” a British one?!

I suppose it’s a marketing strategy. At least that gives me an idea of the type of crowd they want to attract (the Russian version of the website gives also a clue about the audience they’re after!). I went to look at the hotel site and I saw that the cheapest room is almost 400 euros per night, which obviously makes it a luxury place for (maybe) many but (definitely) not for all…

I realized there is something that I really don’t like about this kind of tourism ventures.

Let me be clear: I have absolutely nothing against Castel Monastero, Mr. Ramsay or the many other excellent foreign chefs working in Tuscany. I know for a fact that they are good, and probably lovely people. I wish them all the best for their venture: why not? They have beautiful places in wonderful locations. We might even end up staying there when we win the lottery!

It’s just that I would like for these “colonies” to contribute to the local economy in a substantial way. I believe in tourism as a way to improve the life of the local communities besides that of the tourism-related business people, and I cringe at the idea of a place that has nothing or next to nothing to contribute to the local economy and environment (both the flora and the fauna, the people and the places, the plants and the animals…), which might not even be the case of Castel Monastero, I have no idea. I’m just talking in abstract terms here.

I’m a dreamer.

I found an interesting article: Can luxury travel be responsible travel?

The concept of “responsible travel” in the article is mainly about responsibility towards the environment, whereas my main concern is responsibility towards the local people. I suppose I’m more interested in ethical travel than in responsible travel… but shouldn’t it be the same thing?

Ms. Howse, Sustainability Director of CC Africa, says that

The luxury traveler potentially (and certainly in our case) delivers significantly greater positive impact to the cause of environmental protection and the support of communities as a result of how much money they spend than the budget (although very well-meaning) traveler.

And she continues:

Also the income introduced by the high end operations is often the only way the wildlife land can be sustainably defended from other forms of land use. The small amounts of money that can be charged for the “village stay” option is usually insufficient to protect any meaningful tracts of land from other forms of land use.

Now, this might be a positive example of a Luxury travel company, but is this always the case?

I am not sure what my opinion is about this. My gut feeling tells me that there should not be companies that don’t even try to recruit people to put in responsibility positions in the area where they open their  structures. There should not be places that don’t seek out equipment and services in the area where they are located, instead importing all they need. There should not be places that do not bring any improvements to the communities in which they plant themselves.

But can you regulate this? I believe that you somewhat should, but that it is realistically not feasible. Luxury places should be ethical, and invest in their environment at large: finance projects, support improvements, spend part of their big money in the area where they are, so that it stays as charming as they found it and possibly even more so.

Is this wrong or too much to ask? The truth is that I don’t know.

Anyway, here is a list of interesting reading about these matters. A lot of food for thought. However most of these articles are about exotic destinations, but the matter is the same even in a popular and richer destination like Tuscany. And yet nobody talks about it.

I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this, as, I admit, I’m very confused.


  1. Hi Gloria,

    A good article as always. I always have the same gut reaction you do…although in many cases I am not justified in my scepticism. Increasingly people with money are taking care to support local communities / cultures and the environment …. but I do feel they face an extra challenge.

    Luxury is about insulating oneself from the world around…. a process which of itself means it is hard to connect with the local destination in a meaningful way. Experiential and authentic travel are casualties unless extreme effort is taken to mitigate the insulation. Works fine with wildlife type encounters….less well with local people in the local community type encounters.

    Cheers…….. Len

  2. pelumi

    Hi Gloria
    Your article makes some excellent points.
    I for one am not a fan of these types of resorts simply because when I come to Tuscany I want to experience Tuscany not Ramsey.
    There is nothing wrong with luxury travel but my recommendation would be for people to try the simple life (Casina di Rosa where we thoroughly enjoyed our stay last year) and many other places off the beaten track provide a wonderful and affordable refuge far form the madding crowd.

  3. Hi Len and Pelumi! Thank you for your comments. It’s a difficult matter. I understand people have the right to do what they wish with their business and money. Yet it’s painful to watch sometimes. Especially when they open something up in the place you consider home. It’s probably just that I’m jealous! ;o)

  4. Gloria,
    I have to admit that, the first time that, filling a questionnaire for inclusion of my place in a “responsible travel” website, I found questions like “is the hotel locally owned?” or “does the hotel recruit local staff” I thought that they were questions that only regarded hotels in the so called “developing countries”. Thinking about it later on, I realized that the same problem exists everywhere in the world (and probably it’s not only about luxury travel).
    Of course these are not the only relevant questions, there are many factors that determine wether a business is “rooted” in the local reality or if it’s just a Disneyland place where Mickey is replaced by the Chianina cows.
    I think that the point is more about “real” experiences and understanding of a place and culture vs. “the ultimate Tuscany experience: become a Tuscan in 3 days” or “travel (and be able to tell your friends that you’ve been there) but feel like you never left home”.
    I agree with you, responsible travel should not be only about the environment but mainly about people (and the environment considered as the place where people live, that should be respected and kept for future genrations).
    Some kind of tourism can be considered as the new colonialism, where all the profits go to one part of the world and nothing goes to the other part.
    Luckily enough that’s not always the way it works and I read about places (that we may well describe as “luxury accommodations”) where, even if the idea and the money come from abroad, revert quite a lot into local welfare!
    From my point of view being fair, ethical or responsible is about considering the balance between what you take and what you give as a very important criteria. Unluckily this is not often done in many fields, not only luxury travel. Of course people should be free to do what they wish with their businesses and money but other people (the travellers) should be free to choose to spend their holidays and their money somewhere ethical and responsible.
    The only thing we can do is raise the issue, work in that direction and spread the word.

    As you can see, if properly provoked, I can write hundreds of words too…. 😉

  5. Thank you Giulia, you are right. The problem is much more than luxury tourism.

    And I totally agree with you: ethical or responsible is indeed about considering the balance between what you take and what you give.

    For those who don’t know Giulia, she’s the gracious host of La Locanda della Valle Nuova in beautiful Le Marche.

    By the way, are you suggesting that, normally, I don’t provoke you enough!? :o)

  6. I’d like to point out this discussion on the Slow Travel Forum about a recent interesting opinion article on tourism and the global financial crisis published on the whl.travel blog.

    I left a message saying that I disagreed and some people pointed out that maybe my opinion also derives from a different attitude towards interpersonal relations that Italians could have.

    Somebody wrote:

    “The big problem, I think, is that Italians (and actually, from what I’ve experienced, Europeans in general) really do want more of a friendly relationship with visitors than many travelers are interested in (Americans and Germans in particular, and yes I know that’s over-generalizing), particularly when traveling in groups.”

    I replied that

    “if there is not that interest, (not so much of friendship but of mutual interest, curiosity and respect), then that is the worst type of traveler you can meet. They could as well read a guidebook and watch some documentaries and stay home.”

    Of course, just my personal opinion.

    You can read more about the discussion here. And my comment about the whl.travel blog article is here.

    Thank you!

  7. “if there is not that interest, (not so much of friendship but of mutual interest, curiosity and respect), then that is the worst type of traveler you can meet. They could as well read a guidebook and watch some documentaries and stay home.”

    These are the people who ask us over and over, “where is the best place to go in Europe?” They are trophy travelers, just wanting to set foot in all the right places. Nothing else seems to matter.


  8. My ‘favourite’ example of this dilemma is in the Galapagos Islands.

    The Royal Palm Hotel on Santa Cruz Island was built a few years back against the express wishes of the Galapagos National Park Authority. However, given that it was being built outside the park the Park had no means of preventing the construction.

    The precedent it set is that hotels can be built on the 5% or so of the islands that are not National park. This means that there is no effective means for the national park to control visitor numbers (it can and does control the numbers visiting by boat and supervises it closely).

    This raises the prospect of unlimited tourism growth with all the strains on services (water, waste, etc) and pressure on ecosystems that this entails.

    In addition, visitors to the hotel can fly out for one or two nights (cruises are really only 4/5 or 7 nights) meaning an increase in flights to the islands and greater risk of introduction of invasive species.

    So, that’s the bad. A big luxury pad flying in the face of the Galapagos National Park authority and cashing in on time poor luxury travellers.

    However, now that it’s there, they Royal Palm has begun to do some considerable good.

    For instance, they have started to work with the locals on Santa Cruz to reintroduce native species to gardens and farms on the island and eliminate the introduced species of plants.

    They have a very effective and highly regarded training scheme for locals to work in hospitality and catering. It has been a traditional paucity of suitable staff on the islands that have forced hotels and boats to employ staff from the mainland.

    This in turn increases the pressure of immigration on the islands. It is the growth in human population above all else which threatens the stability of the islands’ ecosystems.

    The Royal Palm is working well in training locals and therefore reducing strains of immigration from the mainland.

    Then there’s the fact that even if they do only fly out for one or two nights, guest still have to pay $100 national park entrance fee.

    In summary, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective and at least appreciate that while a hotel/property might be all bad in one aspect, it can still do good.

    I would personally avoid the place at all costs as I think you can visit the Galapagos Islands in a culturally/environmentally better way (see for instance http://www.pura-aventura.com/category/30_galapagos_cruises_holidays) but I must admit that I’m not as rude about the Royal Palm as I used to be.


  1. […] needs a Gordon Ramsay restaurant?”, Ramsay makes another strike in Italy, this time in Tuscany at the Castel Monastero, near […]

  2. […] This post was Twitted by casinadirosa […]

  3. […] Continue reading this article @ At Home in Tuscany […]

  4. […] Have a look at what my friend Gloria writes about responsible (or ethical, as she sais) travel in her blog: At home in Tuscany. […]

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