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SUSTAINABILITY| 17.08.2021

Stop rural depopulation! Tourism is not the only solution

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Tourism is currently the go-to guarantor to stop rural depopulation, but it should not be the foundation for reaching that goal.

Rural depopulation is one of the main problems faced by different societies around the world. There are rare exceptions of countries that are not experiencing a continuous exodus from rural locations to large cities, with the consequences that these migratory movements entail.

In the article Why should rural depopulation be avoided? we explained the reasons for focusing on reversing a situation that is unlikely to change in the short term. In it we indicated that, according to a report by Julius Baer, rural population worldwide is at 47%. However, forecasts indicate that by 2050 this percentage will have decreased to 30%.

These data are not encouraging in the slightest because the balance between the countryside and the city is essential both for the quality of life of people, as well as for the preservation of the environment and proper financial health.

Key problems caused by rural depopulation

Delving into these problems—in order to subsequently understand the possible solutions—leads to the following conclusions:

  • The standard of living in rural areas is dropping. Faced with a shortage of people, businesses close and services start to become scarce. It is not uncommon for residents to complain about the lack of medical assistance and even bank branches. All this impoverishes these municipalities and their residents, while small farms are abandoned.

At the same time, the standard of living in the cities is also dropping, as, paradoxically, the cost of living is increasing exponentially. In other words, the build-up of people not only causes stressful situations in daily life, but also leads to increased demand and, as a result, soaring prices. So, buying or renting homes ends up taking a significant part of each resident’s income, reducing their purchasing power.

  • In the area of environmental repercussions, they begin when farmers, who have traditionally taken care of the countryside, no longer provide upkeep when they abandon their local farms. This leads to the growth of bushes and vegetation prone to burning in unexpected fires. Additionally, the abandonment of croplands leads to the desertification of many areas as a result of the breakdown of an ecosystem that has been in place for years.

 

  • Finally, the third point is related to the economic repercussions, as local producers are impoverished and the resources that the rural economy can contribute are lost.

Tourism as an immediate solution to rural depopulation

Faced with this situation, one of the sectors that has championed the cause to recover rural areas has been tourism. The growing interest in these environments that has pulled travelers from the more crowded places (beaches, famous cities, etc.) has brought with it the proliferation of rural hotels where guests can get in touch with nature and enjoy the “village” atmosphere.

This has undoubted given a second chance to numerous villages, which have experienced unexpected growth for a couple decades. However, the coronavirus pandemic has opened the eyes of many, who have come to realize that tourism is a solution in the short and medium term, but it should not be the only one, as the moment a downturn like the one experienced takes place, the situation returns to the starting point.

However, it would be unfair not to note the benefits brought by the tourism sector to areas that were “traveling” towards the dreaded depopulation. In particular:

  • The impulse of rural tourism is also an economic injection to other traditional sectors of the area. This is the case for wine tourism, agrotourism, gastronomy, and other industries that benefit from the arrival of new customers.
  • It also promotes local traditions and makes them a brand that attracts more people.
  • The influx of people leads new businesses to open, which in turn revitalize the business structure of the area.
  • This results in an increase in the census, recovery of basic services and the creation of new housing and other types of facilities for the public good.

Clearly, everything is part of a chain whose links are essential for the recovery of rural environments. However, this cannot and should not be the only chain to stop the exodus to the big cities. Other types of short-term solutions must be sought that lead to a long-term strategy capable of halting the growing percentage of urban dwellers.

This is how Arturo Crosby, CEO of Forum Natura puts it in a column published in Hosteltur.com: “It is very difficult to maintain tourism offers with occupancy of less than 50% and, except for specific situations, economic profitability is based on annual occupancies of approximately 25/30% (between 19 and 40%). These figures show us the low likelihood that tourism will be the rural savior. Although it can contribute to salvation, as long as there are basic disruptive social, business and, above all, administrative-bureaucratic changes that contribute to an attractive and productive scenario.”

Proposals to curb rural depopulation

As might be expected, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of proposals around the world to curb the depopulation of rural environments, so it is almost impossible to name them all. However, it is possible to highlight the words of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which states that “[t]he rural economy holds significant potential for creating decent and productive jobs and contributing to sustainable development and economic growth.” It adds: “It accounts for a significant share of employment and output in many developing countries but is widely characterized by severe decent work deficits and poverty, hosting nearly 80 per cent of the world’s poor.”

This leads many people to want to leave this situation and seek a better life in urban areas. That is why the ILO considers that “[t]he promotion of decent work in the rural economy is key to eradicating poverty and ensuring that the nutritional needs of a growing global population are met. This is recognized in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is set to increase attention towards rural development and agriculture and food security in particular.”

As for the proposals mentioned above, they tend to have the following common elements:

  • Reinforcing technological development, starting with offering greater bandwidth to attract young workers and entrepreneurs. In addition to that, technology must reach small farms so that they can compete with products arriving from other parts of the world.
  • Support by governments for entrepreneurial initiatives launched in small towns that are doomed to the continuous aging of their population. Whether with tax exemptions or with support for self-employed workers or entrepreneurs, helping this type of business would make it possible to offer them an attractive situation.
  • Help for working women in rural areas, as they have traditionally been the forgotten ones.
  • Promoting rural areas as ideals of environmental sustainability by implementing renewable energy, as well as healthy places, far from the large polluted areas typical of the megacities.

In summary, the short-term solutions involve conscientious and constant work by public administrations, promoting rural areas as sustainable and healthy environments, introducing new technologies in local industries, and, of course, promoting tourism.