My initial steps towards the approach to tourism and governance concept and issues

It was whilst attending my degree in Tourism Management and Planning (1990-1995), at the University of Aveiro (Portugal), that I developed a particular motivation to study tourism issues related to international institutions and sustainability, public policy and planning. Two authors inspired me significantly at the time, Edward Inskeep and Colin Michael Hall. Issues of sustainable development seemed inseparable to those of international policies and collective engagement, subsequently, in the early 1990’s, my interest began to focus on the international dimension of tourism. Years later, I had the opportunity to share, through a book chapter (Borges, 2007), my first reflections on the concept of governance and the network of actors in Portugal engaged towards sustainable tourism. At that time, the concept was still hardly investigated in the area of tourism, especially in Portugal where there was a lack of empirical studies on tourism governance concerning the tourist destinations. As so, expectations for future investigation regarding its theoretical and empirical relevance were very promising.

As part of my doctoral thesis, I found a good opportunity to start a more in-depth investigation in the knowledge area where governance, tourism, sustainability and destination management go interwine. In this way, I carried out a thesis entitled “Governance for the sustainable development of tourism destinations: The case of the Alentejo region (Portugal)”. The investigation focused on the design of a public governance model for the sustainable development of tourist destinations, grounded on the existing recommendations of international organizations (Borges, 2016). Based on Valentina Danica’s research into these matters (2006, 2009 e 2013), exploring the perspectives of international institutions recommendations on public governance for sustainable tourism became a very interesting arena of investigation to me. The empirical study was developed in two levels. On the first, I organized an international panel of experts to select the most relevant documents at a global level for the purpose of the study and, from that point on, new horizons opened up with this international new integrated vision in developing synergies, at different scales, for good public governance. A theoretical model based on international recommendations was developed, and on the second level the empirical study was focused mainly on the perceptions of Alentejo region stakeholders (public sector, private sector and civil society) regarding the requirements needed to develop a governance framework to improve sustainable tourism at the Alentejo destination level.

Has the political discourse been demagogic when using the eclectic governance concept? My current (in)formal perceptions and arguments on tourism governance

After having conducted that empirical research, and in regards to tourism destinations, I sometimes ´played around` with some of the many governance concepts to explain and reflect on the political good will and attitudes to change the paradigms needed for a truly more sustainable development. It seems that this ´golden` concept is often used like a mantra, to rename institutions, to serve as an essential pillar in discourses that promise the desired change, to strengthen ideas of official documents regarding tourism political strategy, besides other purposes. Based on my perceptions, I sometimes wonder how often this ´golden´ concept is intentionally used for speech elaboration (a kind of political wash governance) and how many years are needed to clarify the objective meaning in order to leverage the necessary changes for an integrated management towards sustainability. Although in a fragmented way, some answers have been provided by scientific research, but the inputs take too long to be applied to the sector dynamics.

I’m in continuous reading on governance approaches in regards to recent scientific outputs. In addition, in the last years I have also been participating in some projects related with destination management for the development of sustainable tourism, based on the identification of the best governance models and monitor tools (e.g. SuSTowns, PANORAMED Governance Platform, ASTO approach to the identification of indicators for monitoring governance in Alentejo tourism destination). So, the more I reflect on the concept, the more I question whether the political games are stronger than the governance multiple assumptions and how younger generations are prepared to cut with old vices. Most of the times, so far, it appears to me that the theme is often used to support a demagogic speech performed by most of the politicians and public managers.

Will it follow the same path as the concept of sustainable development? In fact, there are too many definitions of the concept and with very different scopes, as has already happened and been observed within the concept of sustainable tourism. Somewhere, years ago, I read that the creation of the concept of governance marks a new worldwide new encouragement (or reason) to unite all the actors around a common project, whose application of principles and objectives were slow to produce results – sustainable development. I consider that both concepts have many similarities. For example, they advocate a goal of global interest, depend on other concepts to be operationalized, are very handy to support demagogic promises for changes, civil society has some difficulties in understanding the objective meaning that its application can have, can create strong synergies with other concepts and complement each other to foster sustainability.

Governance multifaceted concept – presenting the figure of a puzzle to aggregate important conceptual dimensions

Often, I address to explain the meaning of the governance concept in a sustainable development context. Depending on the audiences, I explore general concepts which are more complex to operationalize (such as the one presented by Lowndes & Skelcher, 1998), as well as the more extensive and objective concepts (such as those presented by the United Nations Development Program, European Commission or World Bank (Sudders & Nahem, 2007)). More recently, in November 2021, I presented a communication entitled ´Experience in the context of Governance for measuring the sustainability of tourism` at the UNWTO-INSTO Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories 2021 Global Virtual INSTO Meeting (Borges & Serra, 2021). In this international forum, I shared some of my first reflections established to identify the informative dimensions for the governance area of the indicator system of the ASTO – Alentejo Sustainable Tourism Observatory. In fact, the reasoning presented translates the multifaceted dimension of this eclectic concept. It assumes that governments are still important in the process of governing these matters because they represent collective interest (like Becken & Loehr recently reaffirmed), but they should share responsibilities with other stakeholders (e.g. private sector and civil society). This should be planned in the appropriate ratio, either choosing destinations centered on hierarchical, network, market or community models, or making a choice based on a composed model according to the collective objectives that were agreed to achieved.

To facilitate the sharing of these reflections, I created a scheme to graphically present the various key dimensions that should revolve around the concept of governance (Figure 1), without which it wouldn’t assume the meaning for which it was originally created, as far as my perception is concerned based on the knowledge I have acquired.


Figure 1. Public Governance Puzzle: Dimensions that generate synergies in an integrated way. Source: Borges & Serra (2021)

Working fully on the concept of public governance implies valuing participatory structures and processes (Borges, Eusébio & Carvalho, 2014; Hall, 2011ab; Wang, Zhang & Qiu, 2022), based on the articulation between different dimensions (see each of the 33 pieces presented in the puzzle), whose concepts have been addressed for many years in various disciplinary areas. Figure 1 also shows 2 pieces that are directly related to the commitments of the 2030 Agenda that, in the scope of governance, all agents and destinations must assume. The remaining 5 blank pieces refer to other dimensions, which must be specified depending on the context in which it is intended to implement a public governance policy for a tourist destination. This was the most telegraphic way I found to convey how complex it is to conceptualize and operationalize the concept of public governance in the context of sustainable development of tourist destinations.

Although the UNWTO has a guide to support the development of the indicator system for governance (Duran, 2013), there is a need to additional analyse the concrete reality of each destination and understand how governance structures and processes models are usually conducted, in terms of the dynamics of the public, private and civil society sectors, as far as matters of common interest are concerned. Recently, ISO released the ISO 37000: 2021 standard on governance of organizations, which is applicable to all organizations regardless of type, size, location, structure or purpose. In terms of planning and managing tourist destinations, it is necessary to investigate further how these guidelines can be operationalized to ensure the governance of issues of common interest in tourism.

It will be useful to continuously develop theoretical and empirical studies to discuss more specifically the synergies that can be created between the concept of governance and others that converge with it (a systemic approach), in order to improve the design of successful models of development that ensure that tourism contributes to the achievement of the 17 SDGs. It is suggested more studies that allow comparing destinations with common and differentiating characteristics (for example, considering the territorial scale, political regime, level of development, offer of products) to ascertain what are the common and differentiating factors that can contribute to the definition of successful governance models.


This work was funded by national funds through the Foundation for Science and Technology, under the project UIDB/00057/2020.


Written by Maria do Rosário Borges, CIDEHUS-University of Évora, Portugal
Read Maria’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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