Interview: Lynn Minnaert, Lecturer, University of Surrey

"Social tourism, if it is done well, is certainly socially progressive...On the other hand, the term 'social tourism' is sometimes used too liberally, to justify initiatives that are mainly concerned with the profits and employment levels in the tourism industry"

Lynn MinnaertDr  Lynn Minnaert is a Lecturer in Tourism and Events at the University of Surrey, and Programme Leader of the BSc Tourism Management. Her main research area is social sustainability in tourism (social tourism for low-income groups) and events (social legacy initiatives and the Olympic Games, community engagement in business events). Lynn started her career as a programme executive for a group of social tourism accommodations in Belgium. Her interest in the topic was born and she pursued her PhD studies at the University of Westminster. In the following years she was involved in a range of research projects in the UK and Europe. In the field of social tourism she conducted studies with target groups such as teenage mothers and women who have experienced domestic violence. In 2010 she was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to co-organise a series of six seminars on social tourism and its regeneration potential in a British context. Lynn was also funded by the International Olympic Committee in 2009 to cnduct research into the impacts of the Olympic Games on socially excluded groups in host communities. Her comparative study, investigating the Games from Atlanta 1996 to Beijing 2008, was published in Tourism Management in 2011. First of all, what made you choose Social Tourism as a main research interest? Have you personally experienced a social tourism holiday?
Lynn Minnaert: I certainly chose the research topic out of a sense of personal engagement. After graduating from my Masters course in Tourism Management, I started working in Brussels as a Programme Executive for a group of social tourism accommodations. When I started this job I was astounded that during my studies in the UK, the topic of social tourism was hardly ever mentioned – yet it seemed that in Belgium and many other European countries it plays an important role in the tourism sector. It was my job to make recommendations to social tourism providers, and as such I searched for research that could inform these recommendations. When I found that there was a real lack of recent research available, I made the decision to pursue my PhD studies in social tourism.
On a more personal level, I have been active in children’s summer camps and play schemes throughout my youth. I grew up in a rather working class area, where lots of small associations are active to provide access for all to tourism and leisure activities. The reason I studies tourism in the first place was my conviction that tourism and leisure are integral to human wellbeing – during my studies I was often baffled at how this aspect of tourism was largely neglected in favour of the economic impacts of tourism.
...during my studies in the UK, the topic of social tourism was hardly ever mentioned. You have recently co-authored the first English language book of its kind on "Social Tourism in Europe - Theory and Practice" So, is Social Tourism a European invention and a largely European phenomenon?
Lynn Minnaert: On a global level Europe is definitely very active in terms of social tourism. There is a wealth of different programmes, initiatives and management structures, each with their own specific history and context. Countries like France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Belgium are often seen as front-runners of current social tourism, but its history reaches much wider: the former Soviet Union had an extensive social tourism system, and Germany had a well-developed network of social tourism accommodations under the Third Reich. Several countries in South America also have social tourism policies, and Korea has a social tourism strategy for the elderly. Research into the historical development of social tourism is on-going, so it is hard to see where the phenomenon first originated. Currently however, Europe is the only continent where extensive international coordination and cooperation of social tourism is a political objective. The European Union, via its ‘Calypso’ programme, is currently attempting to build mechanisms for international tourism exchanges between countries – thereby trying to maximise the social and economic benefits of social tourism. As such, Europe can still be seen as a leading region in the field.
Europe is the only continent where extensive international coordination and cooperation of social tourism is a political objective. At a time of crisis in Europe, is there a danger that we will end up with less, Social Tourism due to budget cuts or are you optimistic that it will be recognised, even cynically by some governments, as an important tool against social instability?
Lynn Minnaert: It is certainly so that the current economic climate has made many governments re-evaluate their public spending in areas that can be seen as non-essential. At the same time however, many governments are looking for innovative social policies that combine social and economic benefits; and that rely on co-operations with the private sector. The tourism sector has suffered in many countries and has had to rely on discounting strategies to deal with spare capacity. The increased pressure on the market has made some entrepreneurs more willing to look at alternative ways to fill up their attractions or accommodation facilities – social tourism could be one of these strategies. In the UK for example, an All-Party Parliamentary Group has recently published a report on social tourism – it is the first time that the subject has been proposed for discussion. So on the one hand the crisis is a threat, on the other hand it is an opportunity. What is clear however is that the economic impacts of social tourism (access to new markets, counter-seasonality, impacts on revenue and employment) are now often key political arguments for social tourism, whereas the social arguments are sometimes a mere justification to look into strategies that stimulate the sector. Is there anything worth keeping from the Social Tourism model developed in the Eastern bloc countries?
Lynn Minnaert: Currently there is a great dearth of research that discusses social tourism in the former Eastern Bloc in English. I am currently working with a research student in Kazakhstan, Zhanna Assipova, to try and reduce this gap. Many of the examples we have found so far of initiatives during Communist times cannot be easily transferred to current times – not only has the political situation changed greatly, society in general has also developed greatly. Many of the Western European social tourism schemes have gone through extensive changes over the past decades too, after all. Although our research is in the early stages still, it seems that social tourism in the former Eastern Bloc was often based on a highly organised and well-structured network of voluntary organisations – we see that this level of organisation and coordination is often lacking now. In times when volunteering and the social economy are highly praised (think of the UK Conservatives’ idea of the ‘Big Society’), this could be a useful action point for the future. seems that social tourism in the former Eastern Bloc was often based on a highly organised and well-structured network of voluntary organisations Does Social Tourism need to be administered and organised by the state? Can it not be devolved to regions and municipalities or, indeed, the Social (Third) sector given the large number of social tourism NGOs and networks?
Lynn Minnaert: In most countries the public functions as a coordinating body for social tourism indeed. In some countries this coordinating role is played by national governments, in others the responsibility is regionalised. In Flanders, a region of Belgium, a team in the regional tourist board negotiates voluntary discounts with private partners in the tourism sector: these businesses thus offer discounts (some the whole year, others at certain times only) for people who would otherwise be unable to afford a holiday. The role of the public sector (and the amount of public funding needed) is thus limited – still, its role as coordinator is crucial for the scheme to run in an efficient and professional manner. The Tourism Flanders scheme offers holidays and day trips to just under 100,000 people per year. The third sector also plays an important role in most countries. They provide support and information for low-income
people who would like to travel. People often underestimate the challenges involved in travelling for people with very little travel experience and financial means: a single mother with three children for example, who does not have a car, may be rather intimidated by taking the train with her children and luggage to go on holiday – and understandably so! Social tourism is about much more than providing a holiday – often the support and help social organisations (public or voluntary) provide is essential. The result is also that social tourism can produce impacts that outlast the holiday – it can be used to introduce low-income people to forms of support they may be unaware of, and build skills and capacities. So in brief, I personally think the public, private and the social sector have a role in social tourism. A good social tourism system combines the strengths of all three groups and brings them together in a professional and cost-effective way. Social tourism needs to be a win-win-win situation, particularly in tough economic times like this. The Tourism Flanders scheme is only one example of where this has been achieved successfully.
I personally think the public, private and the social sector have a role in social tourism. Do you consider alternative forms of tourism such as couchsurfing, wwoofing, voluntourism, solidarity and justice tourism, or even the odd small hotel that offers great discounts to the unemployed and pensioners as forms of Social Tourism?
Lynn Minnaert: Some I would say can be social tourism, others I would say are not necessarily. Couch-surfing and wwoofing for example certainly democratise travel, but are travel forms for experienced and confident travellers. If I go back to my example of the single mother with 3 children in the last question – these forms of travel are unlikely to appeal to her – even a camping trip may be rather too frightening. It is tempting to assume that everyone in modern society is up for couch-surfing or house-swapping, but many of the people I have interviewed would not be confident or independent enough for this sort of travel. Often they have more traditional tastes – a caravan park by the coast with entertainment for the children for example. Holidays are there to build confidence, not to cause anxiety – and for many participants of social tourism the ‘newer’ forms of tourism would certainly cause anxiety.
Voluntourism and solidarity tourism can be seen as forms of social tourism that aim to benefit host communities. Here it is not the tourist who is excluded from the benefits of travel (these forms are travel often attract a middle class market) but the host community. In previous work I have called this host-related, rather than visitor-related social tourism. In justice tourism both the visitors and the visited can benefit – this form is thus certainly host-related, but can also be visitor-related social tourism if the participants in the scheme would not have the financial means to travel otherwise. The hotel offering discounts to low-income groups is certainly an example of social tourism. There is no reason why private businesses could not offer social tourism – in the Flanders example highlighted above the private sector is a key partner. Often the private business would need the help of a social organisation (for example a charity) to reach certain target groups. Pensioners are an interesting group I think as not all pensioners are financially excluded from travel! To make the distinction between who deserves a discount and who does not, the help of charities, NGOs or social organisations is often beneficial.
...for many participants of social tourism the ‘newer’ forms of tourism would certainly cause anxiety Is it usual or realistic that Social Tourists enjoy the same hotels in the same season at lower rates than independent or package tourists? Or do they always end up in the not so popular, semi-failed, sleepy hotels and resorts in the low season - a form of social segregation?
Lynn Minnaert: Again this is an interesting question. In most countries, particular care is taken not to segregate travellers. In France for example, voluntary organisations may receive support from the ‘Cheques Vacances’ agency to organise a small group holiday – they would have the same choice in accommodation as other tourists. Many trade unions still have holiday accommodation for members – many of these prove to be highly popular and are by no means inferior to other establishments. In the UK, the Family Holiday Association works with holiday parks such as Haven and Butlins – again the treatment of social tourism users would be the same as that of other users. The only exceptions are facilities for children’s holidays, or specialised holiday centres for people with severe disabilities – here there may be a form of segregation due to the specific needs of the two target groups. Is there something 'socially-progressive' / 'socialist' about Social Tourism, in terms of prioritising solidarity and human welfare over corporate profits in Tourism, or is it just one more tourism sector or 'tourism market'- a sort of 'pro-poor tourism for pensioners' ?
Lynn Minnaert:  This is really a fundamental question, and strong disagreements about this exist. My personal opinion is that social tourism, if it is done well, is certainly socially progressive. The impacts of holidays outstrip the very limited costs, and I am often touched to see business (both in the private sector and in the social economy) making a huge difference to people’s lives. On the other hand, the term ’social tourism’ is sometimes used too liberally, to justify initiatives that are mainly concerned with the profits and employment levels in the tourism industry. I don’t think social tourism should be a way to fill up flagging hotels in unattractive locations that are no longer competitive. I also think the target groups for social tourism should be much more strictly defined. The Calypso programme for example distinguishes between 4 target groups: youth, seniors, people with disabilities and families in difficulties. The first 3 groups are in my view way too broad: not every young person, pensioner or disabled person needs financial or other support to travel. I do not disregard the economic benefits of social tourism: we live in a time I think when social tourism needs to professionalise, and if it can support employment and income, then that is great. What we have to avoid however is a situation whereby people who do not need social tourism take up the spaces of people who do need it because they are in a better position to pay and need less support. Do we perhaps need a different type of social tourism accommodation and social tour operator and if so what could be the criteria, social ownership, active participation of social tourists (and disabled tourists) in the design of the holidays?
Lynn Minnaert: I think social tourism is a sector that shows great innovation already. Many people think of social tourism as the holiday centres of the 1950s – 1980s, but the sector has moved on a long way since. Many of the new initiatives however do not class themselves as social tourism, because they are unfamiliar with the term or because it sounds pejorative. In Bournemouth (UK) for example, a cancer charity (MacMillan) has recently opened a specialised hotel for people who are in remission from cancer. The benefits of a stay here on mental health, confidence and social contact are impressive.
A small Bed & Breakfast in Blackpool (UK) offers social tourism for children in care. Veritas Holidays is a charity that organises short breaks for families with multiple social problems that include activities such as music therapy and massage, with astounding results. Many of these initiatives are small-scale and highly specialised – at resent there is no network that represents this ‘new wave’ of social tourism and the impacts it can have.
Many of the new initiatives however do not class themselves as social tourism, because they are unfamiliar with the term or because it sounds pejorative Finally, you have also researched social sustainability in tourism and events, indeed for the International Olympic Committee and the possible impacts of the 2012 Olympic Games. So, aren't mega-events the antithesis of Social Tourism and doomed to be unsustainable, exclusive, pro-corporate and anti-ecological? How optimistic are you that the mistakes of, say Athens 2004, will not be repeated in London 2012?
Lynn Minnaert: I am not convinced that mega-events necessarily HAVE TO be the antithesis of social tourism – yet I agree with you that in the great majority of cases their social sustainability record is appalling. The starting point in my research has never been if we should have mega-events or not – it starts from the question that seeing we do have them, how can we spread the benefits more widely than the developers and the corporations? Mega-events like the Olympic Games bring with them public scrutiny, and I feel there is an increasing awareness of the public about legacies and who they benefit. My research into London 2012 has found a number of examples of good practice in skills development and employability of hard-to-employ groups – many of these have been funded (or funded more generously) because they were linked to the event. This is a difficult question because of course on a bigger level the question remains if the millions spent of the event could have not been spent better if the money had gone to social regeneration initiatives. The answer is clearly yes. However, even without the event those millions would not have gone to social projects, and the economic crisis would have put extensive pressure on social policy. London 2012 has put social inclusion much more central to the Olympic Games than for example Athens 2004, which focused almost exclusively on infrastructural projects – even though the results may still not bring a positive legacy for all, I would propose that at least it has brought positive impacts to a greater number of socially excluded people in the host city. As long as the IOC does not make social legacies more central in its requirements for host cities, I fear that progress in this area will be slow and haphazard.
London 2012 has put social inclusion much more central to the Olympic Games than for example Athens 2004 Thank you very much.