32 SOCIAL TOURISM – Contributions by Anya Diekmann

Since my first contact with tourism as a research area, back in the 1990s, its human dimension has always appealed to me. When I did my PhD on heritage site protection and tourism (my background is in heritage and archaeology), it was the use of terms such as ‘overrun’, ‘hordes’ and ‘masses’ that caught my attention. The tourist as an individual seemed not given much weight and was somehow denied a personal identity. Although there is of course the need for heritage protection and overtourism is a reality to be dealt with, I wanted to understand what people draw from travelling and visiting sites and places and whether there is a deeper meaning or societal role for tourism at all. The 1985 Tourism Bill of Rights and Tourist Code (UNWTO, 1985) insists on the ‘human dimension of tourism’. It reiterates that tourism contributes to the social, economic, cultural and educational sectors of national societies and improves the international community (Higgins-Desboilles 2006: 1198). The human dimension, the social exchange (even if only with peer travellers) and the benefits of tourism for mental and physical health give tourism a societal significance. And this is what it makes it so worthy of academic study.

These aspects of tourism are often the principal interest of research in the field of social tourism and consequently it was that, rather than research in commercial tourism, that triggered my curiosity. My first encounter with social tourism was in 2008, when I learnt through a research project funded by ISTO (the International Organisation of Social Tourism – BITS at that time) that the working conditions and social protection of people working in the social tourism accommodation sector were better than those in the commercial tourism sector and how social tourism facilitated holiday participation.

An under-researched topic

While tourism research has looked into many different areas over the past 50 years, social tourism was not, until very recently, included in that growing corpus of knowledge. Few research projects have been dedicated to the field, and those that have been done have tended to be limited to definitions (Hunziker, 1957; Haulot, 1982; Jolin & Proulx, 2005; Minnaert, Maitland, & Miller, 2006) or to outlining provision in a particular country,or to its contribution to the social economy (Caire 2007). A turning point came when the sector itself saw the need for academic research to support it. Thus, a small increase in research in social tourism was sponsored by organisations such as the Family Holiday Association, ISTO, trade unions, local governments and even the European Commission with the preparatory action for CALYPSO in 2008.

I began by researching social tourism within Belgium in the late 2000s’.  Shortly afterwards, I met – by chance or destiny – two of the most prominent researchers in social tourism: Scott McCabe and Lynn Minnaert. All three of us were acutely aware of the lack of research into social tourism, and even a total lack of awareness by the academic community. We started working together on the first comprehensive collection on social tourism research, later published under the title Social Tourism in Europe (McCabe, Minnaert & Diekmann, 2011). That was the beginning of a sustained collaboration.  Social tourism as a field of research began to develop.

The social in social tourism

Definitions and concepts of social tourism were not clear and differed for the academic world and for the general public and differed also across countries. In a survey funded by the Belgian social tourism sector, of 178 people from various backgrounds and of a range of ages, only 34% had ever heard about social tourism (Diekmann & Bauthier, 2011). But even for those who had heard of social tourism, their perception of the concept ranged from exclusively helping the ‘poor’ through the provision of a holiday, to a certain type of accommodation, or tourism connected to the environment, or to social actions of the tourist (Diekmann & Bauthier, 2011). Discussions over the Trinet network[1] with over 3000 tourism experts throughout the world reflected the same confusion. That confusion was compounded when in the early 2010s the term was linked to migration, as ‘social tourism’ became in some countries a synonym for immigrants allegedly abusing social welfare systems in European countries (Wagner, 2018).

However, tourism with a social objective has been in existence since at least the 19th century, and it has developed in parallel to commercial tourism. Indeed, throughout Europe, various charities have recognised the benefits of holidays and of time spent in the natural environment, and have consequently organised, for instance, trips to the seaside or to the mountains for children. This led to numerous more formal initiatives, such as the colonies de vacances in France, which have offered combinations of sporting, leisure, and social activities for children whose parents could not afford holidays, as well as the creation of the Youth Hostel Association in Europe (Walton, 2013; Diekmann & Jolin, 2013). Most of these early initiatives still operate and indeed constitute the core of social tourism today.

Social tourism aims to include everybody in society, independent of their incomes, education, employment, religion, origin and so on (Diekmann & McCabe, 2017). While in the beginning the focus was on low-income groups, it is now understood more holistically, as expressed in the maxim ‘Tourism for all’; social tourism is seen as ‘tourism with an added moral value, of which the primary aim is to benefit either the host or the visitor in the tourism exchange’ (Minnaert et al, 2006; cited in Diekmann & McCabe, 2017). Thus, today, the values of social tourism relate not only to the travellers but extends also to the host communities.

A myriad of systems

The difficulty in arriving at a clear definition was mainly due to the myriad of national systems for implementing support for holiday participation. The social tourism backed by governments is generally the responsibility not of the tourism ministry, but of the ministry for health or the family and so on.  This made funding for research all the more difficult to obtain, which may partly explain why social tourism did not attract the interest of the academic world (with some exceptions of course).

Each country has its own systems to implement support for holiday participation. The diversity of systems and underlying values make social tourism difficult to understand. The target groups vary from one country to another, and the funding schemes differ: some governments provide direct support to individuals, while others support social tourism structures and still others use vouchers. In some countries but not others the commercial tourism sector provides accommodation for social tourism. Nevertheless, what all the systems have in common is the recognition of the right to a holiday. So, one of the first requirements of social tourism as a field of academic study was to provide a comprehensive analysis of the different systems at European level, and in particular the degree to which they have been able to include all members of societies (Diekmann & McCabe, 2011). 

Tourism benefits and rights

Ironically, the clearer academic understanding of systems, policies and funding schemes brought with it threats to social tourism. In the last decade, many governments reviewed funding and claimed that existing schemes were addressing the wrong target groups. Across Europe, people who should have benefited from social tourism did not necessarily have access to it any longer, for a number of reasons. For instance, in some countries the state-backed, unionised holiday voucher did not necessarily include unemployed and other marginalised members of society. Social tourism was on the verge of losing its distinction from commercial tourism, particularly in countries with a social tourism accommodation scheme (building subsidies); in others, such as the UK, social tourism was still struggling to receive any government support. Our research therefore shifted to understanding the benefits for the target groups. The aim was twofold: to contribute to research but also to provide the sector with arguments, and with empirical evidence of the benefits for holidaymakers. First of all, we needed to convince policymakers that holidays should not be seen simply as a luxury for the happy few but constitute a social right. Scott McCabe and I argued this in the paper ‘The rights to tourism: reflections on social tourism and human rights’. The article analyses two interconnected issues: how to ensure that opportunities to participate in tourism exist for everyone in society, and whether access to opportunities can or should be considered a right (McCabe and Diekmann, 2015).

Having a break from daily life (and its problems) constitutes not only one of the key values of social tourism, but it contributes to the social, mental and physical wellbeing of all individuals and consequently to health. The current COVID-19 crisis has led to a sharp increase in the prevalence of mental health problems and that increase has been related by many to the drastic reduction in any form of mobility during the lockdowns implemented in many countries at the height of the pandemic but also to the longer-term restrictions on travel more generally, including holidays.

Quality of life and wellbeing

Well before the advent of COVID-19, together with Melanie K. Smith, we had looked into the effects of tourism on wellbeing. We analysed the various philosophical and psychological approaches and highlighted the definitional and research challenges. We suggested a spectrum and a model which outlines the relationship between various types of wellbeing, destinations and tourism experiences (Smith & Diekmann, 2017). In another chapter on social tourism and health (Diekmann & McCabe, 2017), we looked more specifically at the mental health issues, drawing on multidisciplinary literature. We concluded that research should seek to be integrative and cut across different social tourism segment groups. It is important for research ultimately to be able to inform policy development in health, social affairs and tourism; findings should be able to be transferred between policy areas, as this may well lead to a more integrated approach to social tourism (Diekmann & McCabe, 2017, p. 104).

With the research findings on tourism and health benefits in mind, my colleagues and I have begun to look for evidence of whether the same benefits apply to older people and maybe even work as a form of preventive ‘medicine’. We still needed to understand how these benefits are generated, what type of practices and activities are associated with the benefits of holidays and whether they are age related. In a multidisciplinary research project (BEST) funded by the Wallonian government, we have collected data from over 4000 seniors in French speaking Belgium. The research shows that seniors give progressively higher scores for wellbeing as they get older, with a significant difference between the retired and the not-retired. Only a limited number of holiday practices were found to have a significant association with age. However, the results show a first transition at retirement with an increase in holiday participation, holiday duration and social activities and a threshold after 70 years onwards with the emergence of health constraints, as well as an increase of participation in organised holidays (Diekmann, Vincent & Bauthier, 2020). Moreover, the results indicate a positive association between frequency of holidays and wellbeing (Mélon, Agrigoroaei, Diekmann, & Luminet, 2018).

Again, as in previous social tourism research, the research was intended to support social tourism providers and policymakers and allow them to adapt their offers for seniors and consider the benefits as preventive policies for the elderly worth funding.

Moving forward

Thus, over the last decade, research in social tourism has expanded to include, for example, the psychological and physiological effects of tourism on consumers (Diekmann & McCabe, 2017). More and more researchers are now investing their time in looking into benefits for different target groups and studying the role of social tourism in societies more widely. The results have been compiled in books such as the Handbook of Social Tourism (Diekmann & McCabe, 2020) and Social Tourism: Global challenges and approaches (Lima & Eusebio, 2021), as well as special issues of journals (Diekmann, McCabe & Ferreira, 2018 and Annals of Tourism Research curated collection on social tourism, 2020).

Social tourism evolves with changing needs and new challenges, notably climate change and the ever-increasing inequalities within and between societies, with consequences for access to holidays (Diekmann & McCabe, 2020).  The coming years will bring new challenges, but new research will hopefully lead to an expansion of inclusion and holiday participation for all.  And I’m grateful to be able to contribute to it together with my colleagues.


Written by Anya Diekmann, Université libre de Bruxelles, Belgium
Read Anya’s letter to future generations of tourism researchers


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  1. https://tim.hawaii.edu/about-values-vision-mission-accreditation/trinet/


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