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Sustainability gains attention in sport tourism

This is an excerpt from Contemporary Sport Management, Fourth Edition, edited by Paul Pedersen, PhD, Janet Parks, DA, Jerome Quarterman, PhD, and Lucie Thibault, PhD.


Over the past five years the concept of sustainable development has become more commonplace. In general terms, sustainability takes the approach of balancing the needs of today with those of the future. Much of the focus has been placed on the environment and the conservation of natural resources. But the environment is only one prong of the three-pronged approach to sustainability, the other two being economics and social (cultural) well-being. The phrase “triple bottom line” is frequently used to describe the interrelationship among the three prongs of sustainability. In the tourism realm, the topic of sustainable development has been receiving a lot of attention in recent years (From Davos to Bali, 2007). Without paying attention to the long-term sustainability of a tourism destination, the effects of a large number of visitors can quickly destroy the attractiveness of a destination. In the realm of sport, less attention has been paid to sustainability, and we argue that it is time to start thinking about the long-term sustainability of sport, particularly for those sports that rely on certain climate conditions such as skiing or golf or those that can have negative effects on the environment or local communities, both socially and economically. Thus, as sport tourism continues to grow in popularity, we need to be aware of the potential negative and positive effects of this sector on the sport and tourism industries and to work on the sustainable development of this particular niche. We will now look at each of the three prongs of sustainable development in turn.

Social Dimensions

Tourism studies have produced abundant evidence that tourism can have both positive and negative effects on a host community. Some of the positive effects relate to economic benefit or community pride and excitement among residents (Garnham, 1996). This pride in community results in what Burgan and Mules (1992) called the psychic incomeassociated with hosting an event. Tourism has also been shown to open societies to new ideas and even bring about a liberalization of values in more rigid or closed cultures (Dogan, 1989). Tourism may provide the funding and the impetus to preserve historic buildings, traditional practices (e.g., dances, crafts), and natural settings.

In recent years, there has been a growing focus on the social benefits of event sport tourism for communities. Many believe that the social benefits are the true legacy of hosting a megaevent. Waitt’s (2003) study of the social impacts of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games found that despite protests and negative attitudes in the lead-up to the event, during the 16 days of the Games there was “a reason to celebrate rather than protest” (p. 200) and residents reported an increased sense of community. In a similar study of the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea, Kim and Petrick (2005) found that although the fervor does seem to diminish after the event, it does not disappear totally.

Another social benefit of hosting sport events is the legacy of urban regeneration. Indeed, hosting the America’s Cup in 1987 has been credited as being the catalyst for the renovation of the downtown area in Fremantle, Australia (Longley, 2001). Soutar and McLeod (1993) found that the fears about congestion and crowds were unfounded. Instead, residents thought that infrastructural improvements and potential for increased tourism would contribute to the increased quality of life in the years after the event.

Positive outcomes, however, may not always result from sport events. In a study of the potential costs associated with the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Hall and Hodges (1996) found that a megaevent affected different segments of a host community unequally. Low-income residents often suffer the most because they are frequently displaced from their homes by plans to redevelop their neighborhoods with high-priced residences. This displacement of low-income residents has been a common practice in relation to the Olympic Games, as host cities face decisions over where to build stadia, athletes’ villages, and so forth (Whitson & Macintosh, 1993). For more information on this topic, see the later section on ethics and the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games.

Event sport tourism is not the only type of tourism to have an effect on a host community. The crowding and congestion experienced by small ski towns or golf resort areas such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, also need attention. In most tourism regions, host communities experience a love–hate relationship with tourists. On the one hand residents realize that their economic well-being often depends on tourists, yet the high prices, traffic congestion, and sometimes increased crime that accompany living in a tourist destination may lead to resistance and even hostility among community members (Dogan, 1989; Fredline, 2005). All these effects need to be carefully thought through in any proposed tourism development. But as many of us argue, emphasis is too frequently placed on the potential economic benefits. The voices of the community are often unheard, and the social legacies are often ignored. The sustainability of most events may lie in the social dimensions, particularly enhanced community spirit, increased patriotism, and even an experienced event volunteer labor force that has the skills necessary to help with future events hosted by the community.

Economic Dimensions

When community leaders attempt to raise money to build a new stadium, secure a professional franchise, or host a sport event, they often point to the projected economic benefits arising out of these projects. But research has shown, particularly in relation to professional sport, that as many as 70% of spectators come from within the metropolitan area (Crompton, 1995) and therefore are not event sport tourists according to any definition of a tourist. Thus, although using sport as a tourist attraction is a valuable strategy for economic and community development, we need to be sure when we read studies about the tourism-related impacts accruing from sport events that locals were not included in the people surveyed or the economic estimates generated.

We also need to be clear about how economic impact is measured. As Crompton (1995) explained, at least 11 common mistakes can occur when communities estimate economic impact, including using the wrong multiplier, measuring time switchersand casuals, and including people whose primary motivation was not to attend the event but who happened to be in the vicinity or switched the timing of their visit to coincide with the event. Another phenomenon that appears to be associated with hosting the megaevents is the displacement effect. Some potential visitors avoid a host city and region in the years leading up to, and during, the event, dissuaded by fear of congestion, construction-related hassles, and terrorism. Mules and Dwyer (2005) suggested that there is no accurate way to estimate how many visitors are displaced. But in conversations with various business owners, we have been told that “regular tourism” disappeared in Victoria, British Columbia, when the city hosted the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Similarly, in 2008, in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, hoteliers in the host city were already reporting a decline in the number of visitors compared with previous years. High prices, the difficulty of obtaining visas, and fears about terrorism were cited as reasons for the downturn in number of visitors (Steinmetz, 2008). This scenario is more common in the months leading up to most megaevents and exemplifies the displacement effect noted earlier, although since 2001 perceived risks associated with megaevents appear to have heightened the displacement effect (Neirotti & Hilliard, 2006).

Studies associated with the 2002 men’s FIFA World Cup (Kim & Chalip, 2004; Toohey, Taylor, & Lee, 2003) have documented perceptions of risk associated with attending an event. As a result of the perceived risks involved, security costs associated with hosting an event have become a major part of an event budget. But in a study of the perceived risks associated with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Qi, Gibson, and Zhang (2009) found that among their respondents there was less perceived risk associated with attending the Olympic Games than with visiting China as a regular tourist. Similarly, Taylor and Toohey (2006) found that attendees at the Rugby World Cup in Australia tended to downplay safety and security issues. Thus, the issue of perceived risk and event sport tourism needs more study. Refer to chapter 15 for more information about how strategies to manage security threats are a major part of contemporary event planning.

Nonetheless, the lure of the potential economic impacts associated with sport tourism will continue to grow as countries around the world rely more heavily on tourism to boost their gross national product. Members of the Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism in Australia suggested from their studies of the 2000 Olympic Games that conducting a cost–benefit analysis may be more appropriate than emphasizing economic impact (Chalip & Green, 2001; Mules & Dwyer, 2005). Indeed, some of the preliminary lessons learned from hosting a hallmark event have been not to focus on the effects of an event but to use strategic leveraging to maximize the legacies and thus the sustainability of the event (Chalip, 2001).

Environmental Dimensions

As the popularity of sport vacations increases, we must consider the effects on the environment. Over the past 15 years, those in the tourism industry have begun to realize that the environment is the core of the tourism product. The growth in ecotourism has been one outcome of this environmental concern. More recently, however, there has been a push toward extending sustainable development practices to all segments of the tourism industry. This new focus includes adopting a more comprehensive approach to sustainability that not only includes the social and economic dimensions (as discussed earlier) but also recognizes that forces such as global climate change may in turn affect the long-term viability of some tourism activities such as snow sports and scuba diving (From Davos to Bali, 2007).

Take, for instance, scuba diving. The growing popularity of the sport and recreational activity has resulted in increasing pressure on the environment (Tabata, 1992). Pollution of the water, littering, anchor damage, trampling, and specimen collecting by divers can destroy the natural resource base. Moreover, from the perspective of global climate change, as temperatures increase, the health of the coral reefs is declining because of the increasing intensity and frequency of major storms, coral bleaching events, and other occurrences (Wilkinson, 1999). Hence, the long-term viability of many diving locations around the world is being questioned.

Controversies surrounding skiing provide another example. Tensions have grown between environmentalists and the alpine skiing industry in recent years. In Vermont environmentalists have raised an alarm over the amount of water being taken from rivers for snowmaking. In Colorado an activist group called the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition produces a scorecard that ranks resorts on their environmental friendliness so that skiers can choose to ski at mountains that employ sustainable practices (Janofsky, 2000; Ski Area, 2009). Yellowstone National Park has limited the use of snowmobiles because of the noise and air pollution that they cause and because conflicts have arisen between snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in the western part of the park.

Around the world, ski resort development is causing alarm among environmentalists (Hudson, 1996). As Buckley, Pickering, and Warnken (2000) explained, ski resorts are among the most intensive forms of development in mountain regions, requiring tree clearing for ski runs and water for snowmaking and servicing the resorts. A longer season may reduce the economic effects of seasonality, but it leaves little time for grass and plant regeneration and relief from the noise and air pollution caused by the sheer number of people using the mountain roads to access the resorts. From the global climate change perspective, warmer winters and less snowfall may cause many of the lower-elevation ski resorts to close within 30 to 50 years (Connor, 2003; From Davos to Bali, 2007).

Some of the same concerns have been raised in relation to the golf industry (Palmer, 2004; Pleumarom, 1992). Golf courses are land intensive, and the use of chemicals on the greens and the use of water in desert areas have been of particular concern. Some golf courses have adopted strategies to protect the ecological balance of their courses with programs to protect wildlife sponsored by partnerships between the United States Golf Association and the Audubon Society, among others (Audubon Cooperative, 2010). More needs to be done in this area, particularly in the lesser-developed countries where national governments have identified golf tourism as a source of much-needed foreign currency while ignoring the severe socioeconomic and environmental consequences that golf courses have for their citizens (Palmer, 2004). On a more positive note, Scott and Jones (2007) noted that some golf courses could benefit from global warming. With less snow and cold weather some golf courses may have longer playing seasons.

The IOC has charged host countries with implementing environmentally friendly practices in relation to the Olympic Games. The 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer were called the first Green Games (Chernushenko, 1996). The Norwegian Parliament mandated Project Environment Friendly Olympics to protect the fragile ecology surrounding the small host city. Chernushenko argued that the Lillehammer Olympic Games provided a good example of event sport tourism and environmentalism that future events could copy to produce not only a better event but also satisfied tourists and a reputation as a clean and attractive destination.

Although the Sydney Olympic Games were also called the Green Games, Sparvero, Trendafilova, and Chalip (2005) contended that Sydney did not keep all its promises, citing the failure to detoxify Homebush Bay, where the main Olympics complex was located. The scholars questioned the traditional approach of using environmental guidelines mandated by sport governing bodies. They suggested that consensus-building approaches in which the local organizing committees and host communities are integrally involved in establishing environmental policies and practices for their events might be more successful.



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