Tourism has long served as a solution to strengthen a weak industrial economy, by selling a picturesque destination image or cultural treasures to some history-enthusiastic tourists. However, negative impacts of tourism, such as overtourism, gentrification or the disneyfication of heritage sites, have long been neglected. Many international destinations worldwide, like The Great Wall of China, Venice, or the Taj Mahal, but also Rotterdam in a smaller way, struggle in similar ways with balancing the pros and cons of tourism development and the capitalization of cultural heritage sites. 

Growth of tourism from this perspective is not necessarily a positive result as it has consequences for other participants in the system, suffering from overcrowding, and rising housing prices.

Challenges of the destination ecosystem are comparable across cities, urban fringes, and rural areas. Often a handful of key stakeholders formulate and prioritize tourism development goals, with the intention to efficiently use resources to expand tourism to the next level without acknowledging challenges coming with that. For instance, tourism development is mostly a priority for stakeholders active in the tourism system such as conference centers, hotels, museums, tour operators and local policy makers in the economic domain. The main stake for each of these stakeholders is very often growth in visitor numbers and revenue. However, sustainable development of a city requires the tourism product-service system to contribute to a much larger socio-economical ecosystem of the city. Growth of tourism from this perspective is not necessarily a positive result as it has consequences for other participants in the system, suffering from overcrowding, and rising housing prices. Therefore, the question remains: How to make sure tourism contributes to the city towards a conscious destination?

The SmartCulTour project is a four-year project that aims to support sustainable cultural tourism development in European regions with important tangible and intangible cultural assets. In this project a toolkit for sustainable cultural tourism development was created. This toolkit provides tools and methods for stakeholder engagement and decision making. The tools were tested in six Living Labs throughout Europe. One of these Living Labs is in the suburbs of Rotterdam supported by the destination management organization Rotterdam Partners and the local university of applied sciences InHolland. Participants range from the municipality itself, to local cultural institutions, social urban designers, as well as residents and tourism and hospitality related entrepreneurs.

“Each neighborhood has different needs, for instance in relation to job creation, recreation and culture."

The Rotterdam tourism vision states that visitors are welcome in the city, while their presence should contribute to the quality of life of Rotterdam residents, through the creation of preservation funds for local (intangible) cultural heritage, events, talent development and the construction of jobs, to name a few. However, as tourism in Rotterdam is growing fast, the municipality needs tourists to visit areas outside the mainstream places of the city center. Collaboration is needed to ensure tourism contributes to neighborhoods that would benefit from these visitors. Each neighborhood has different needs, for instance in relation to job creation, recreation and culture. Creating attractive places that serve resident needs, but that are also attractive for visitors requires local stakeholders to collaborate, set shared goals and co-design solutions.

A serious game for collaborative design
One of the tools in the SmartCulTour toolkit is a serious game. This hybrid role-playing game uses a combination of a digital dashboard, a mobile app, and physical intervention cards. The game can be contextualized and played in any city or region and is designed to cater for 10-15 players. The setup of the game can be tailored to any local situation to represent a number of different development scenarios. So far, the game has been played with policy makers, cultural heritage managers, community leaders, tourism professionals, residents, and cultural/creative entrepreneurs.

Players take the role of a specific regional cultural tourism stakeholder (e.g. resident, tourist, entrepreneur, environmentalist, policy officer) aiming to achieve their own objectives by creating and proposing interventions or by supporting someone else’s intervention. Typically, players are assigned to a role that is not their own role in the real world, forcing them to change perspective. During the game, support from other player stakeholders is needed, which leads to discussions, negotiations, and compromises. After proposing interventions and negotiating which interventions get executed with the available resources, all players evaluate the chosen interventions against the goals they have as a stakeholder by means of a mobile app. Results of the evaluation are displayed in the form of KPIs on a dashboard, which is also the basis for reflection and reevaluation of the players’ goals and strategy. Players are encouraged to collaboratively reflect on (un)expected impacts of their interventions and the reason behind these changes.

Playing the game, in different destinations, has led to inspiring discussions on how tourism can be developed bottom-up. Playing the game creates awareness among stakeholders on how tourism can stimulate and hinder quality of life in the neighborhood and (intangible) heritage conservation. Many players in the living labs have indicated how playing this game has altered their vision on how tourism could develop.

The SmartCulTour has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 870708