Children in European travel destinations think tourism negatively impacts family life

April 3, 2021

Children living in European tourism hot spots don't see tourists as a good thing. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

Children who live in popular travel destinations in Europe view local residents as less powerful than tourists and see the tourism industry as having a negative impact on family life, new research shows.

The study, published March 22 in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, focused on the continent that leads the world in international tourist arrivals: Europe. Researchers chose six cities in six countries that saw an increase in tourist arrivals in recent years. In all of the countries included in the study, children had negative attitudes toward tourists.  

Two of the destinations represent "sun and sea" tourism in warm weather: Opatija, Croatia, is known as the Nice of the Atlantic, and Malaga, Spain, has seen rapid growth as one of the biggest ports in the Mediterranean. Two winter locations are famous for their ski resorts: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, is best known for its mountaineering, and Erzurum, Turkey, boasts a world-renowned ski center. The last two cities offer "health and wellness" tourism, with natural springs and minerals: Bad Gleichenberg, Austria, and Topola, Serbia.

Tourism is known to impact both "the quality of life of individuals and the well-being of communities," said Tina Šegota, a co-author of the study and a senior lecturer at the University of Greenwich. Children recognize the disruption that the travel industry brings to their communities but are often powerless to voice it. And most studies on the social impacts of travel fail to survey young people themselves. 

Only 13 or 14 studies in more than 10,000 papers published on the topic directly asked children their opinions, Šegota told The Academic Times. This gap in the data needs to change, she said, especially since young people "are willing to express their opinions, given the opportunity" and sustainable tourism is important in their lives.  

Šegota and her collaborators put children's voices at the center of the research. They used drawings and questions to measure 498 children's attitudes on hospitality, family life, development and community. The children ranged between the ages of 11 and 16, which is a diverse range compared with existing studies. Forty-four percent of the children's relatives worked in the tourism or hospitality industry.

The study used standardized drawings that can be understood by children who speak different languages. The children were asked to circle the drawing that reflected their feelings about a concept — in this case, tourism and hospitality. 

The drawing test is well suited to children because they can "give their own meaning to [the drawings], based on their own experiences, thoughts, feelings and imaginations," Šegota said. This technique also reduces the amount that children socially conform in a study, since research has shown that they prefer to talk with people who speak like them, and it's more engaging than other written tests. The researchers measured social factors such as potency, which shows whether an object is seen as strong or weak.

The authors found that "children perceive residents as a marginal community group" and see locals as subordinate to tourists. They "consider tourists to be strong, probably suggesting that they perceive tourists to have the power to manage their lives," Šegota said.

She was surprised to see tourism disrupting family life at a very early age, as children do not view the industry "through rose-colored glasses." Instead, "children notice that being employed in the tourism and hospitality industry means one is doing a challenging job," the authors said. And here, "challenging" is not synonymous with respect.

A majority of children in the study did not want to be employed in tourism and hospitality, likely due to concern over low wages. "When it comes to assessing whether industry employees have lots of money, children were almost unanimous in believing that those who work in tourism do not have it," the researchers said. In places where tourism dominates the economy, this puts children at a disadvantage. 

Young people's opinions are also influenced by the perceived wealth of tourists. Those in Turkey are more open to working in the industry than those in Austria, because international visitors are expected to spend more in Turkey.

Overtourism is another big concern among residents of popular tourist destinations. After the hit series Game of Thrones was released, fans of the show flocked to Dubrovnik, Croatia, to see the setting of King's Landing in real life. The coastal city, which has just over 40,000 residents, was visited by 1.27 million tourists in 2018. According to Šegota, children had trouble physically reaching their classrooms because the streets were packed with thousands of tourists. She also noted that Dubrovnik's Old Town has lost a quarter of its residents, many of whom didn't want to deal with crowded streets every time they left their houses. 

Children are the future of any society, and those living in tourist destinations have a unique insider's perspective that offers great insight, Šegota said. If young people's voices are not considered, the researchers said that eventually "the majority of residents [will be] passive observers of the development of their community." But if children are satisfied with their sense of place, they could become destination ambassadors and take a more active role in community planning. Children of all ages can voice their concerns on the impact of tourism by giving feedback online via social media, Šegota said, and schools can host debates with local government officials.

Šegota is continuing to study the perspective of local residents in her next project. She is looking at what affects residents' word of mouth, and how opinions about tourism and hospitality transfer from parents to children.

The study, "Exploring the neglected voices of children in sustainable tourism development: A comparative study in six European tourist destinations," published March 22 in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism, was authored by Marko Koščak, University of Maribor; Mladen Knežević, University of Osijek; Daniel Binder, FH Joanneum; Antonio Pelaez-Verdet, University of Malaga; Cem Işik, Anadolu University; Vladimir Mićić and Katarina Borisavljević, University of Kragujevac; and Tina Šegota, University of Greenwich.

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