Interview with Frans de Man, a life dedicated to Sustainable Tourism

Frans de Man
Frans de Man

Frans de Man, is a Dutch sustainable tourism expert, linked to from the beginning. I was lucky to meet him in London some time ago, during a conference on tourism and local development organized by Harold Goodwin.

After knowing the amount of experience and knowledge that this man had, I asked if he would answer some questions by email.

Frans, now  people increasingly talk about responsible tourism. However, since already in 1986 you founded Retour, a foundation to promote responsible tourism when the concept as «sustainable development» had not been released yet by the Brundtland Report (1987).

What ideas inspired you to found Retour?

Frans de Man, is a Dutch sustainable tourism linked to from the beginning. I was lucky to meet him in London a couple of months, during a conference on tourism and local development organized by Harold Goodwin.

After knowing the amount of experience and knowledge that this man was home, I asked if he would answer some questions by email. Today I share the first question will come later as follows.

Frans, now increasing talk of responsible tourism. However, since in 1986 he founded Retour, a foundation to promote responsible tourism when the concept as «sustainable development» had not been released yet by the Brundtland Report (1987). What ideas inspired you to found Retour?

Frans, ahora se habla cada vez más del turismo responsable. Pero en 1986 tu fundaste Retour, una fundación para promover el turismo responsable cuando el concepto como «desarrollo sostenible» no se había difundido aún por el  Informe Brundtland (1987). ¿Nos podrías explicar qué ideas y personas te inspiraron para fundar Retour?


In the 80’s I studied political science with an emphasis on Third World issues and I volunteered for an organisation that organised workcamps in Africa. After having spent 4 months in Liberia, the organisation expected me to volunteer and train future workcamp participants to prepare them for a stay in Africa. This was an important difference with the nowadays hyped voluntourism: we believed that this type of tourism was not a type of ecotourism but (as any form of tourism) egotourism, in which the interest in an interesting adventure has a higher priority than the interest of the people living in the destination (which by the way we refused to call the hosts, because most of them never had invited us).

So for our participants it was obligatory to take a course of 15 three-hour sessions in which we wanted to convince them that their intentions were not better than those of a hard-working bluecollar worker who, after 11 months of slavery in a factory, decides to spend 3 weeks sunbathing, drinking beers and dancing in Benidorm. We wanted to show that the consequences of this voluntourism are just as negative to the interests of people in the Third World as those of mass-tourists, both economically and socio-culturally. For this purpose we wrote a brochure, critically approaching tourism, based on the dependencia theories (which when I read it today has not lost any of its power).


Thus we got involved in TEN (Tourism European Network) and until this day, this network is my inspiration. From the beginning it has been a loose collection of tourism-experts-with-a-mission, who meet once a year for fundamental debate (and, just as important, an excursion and a beer). Most of those experts have been in the forefront of the critical tourism-debate from the 80s until now (Heinz Fuchs, Tricia Barnett, Christine Pluess, Armin Vielhaber). The raison d’etre of this network was to support the ECTWT (Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, nowadays known as Ecumenical Coalition for Tourism – ECOT) a group of missionaries who, from their practical work in Asia, saw the need for changing and, in some places, abolishing tourism. They asked for help from the tourism sending countries in awareness raising and structural change. 

Bad Boll

In 1986 TEN and ECTWT organised a conference in Bad Boll Germany, where they invited “victims of tourism” who could present their case to an audience of government officials and industry leaders. A large and impressive event with presentations offering hope but also radical contributions threatening to destroy tourism business (which probably nowadays would have led to an arrest by anti-terrorism forces). There I met people like George Pfäfflin and Ron O’Grady and Peter Holden, who were my guru’s then. These people also started a campaign against child sex tourism, which became ECPAT, one of the best tourism campaigns ever, resulting in the, in my opinion the most tangible example of CSR in the tourism industry until today.

Information vs Change

In the Netherlands we found that the kind of information that we prepared for workcamp volunteers, would also be useful for other types of tourists and we started an information center for tourists, offering a better image of destinations than e.g. the Lonely Planet, because is was based on respect for the local communities. Starting this center, from the outset it was clear that there were two potentially conflicting interests involved. One is to inform tourists about holidays, showing them how to behave BUT without questioning the rationale for tourism and without spoiling their holidays. And the other is to inform all stakeholders, including tourists, on tourism and its consequences, offering suggestions for improvement but also critically questioning it. Doing the latter you look at the reality and the needs of the people living in the destination areas, inform thém about the pros and cons of tourism, asking them what they want from tourism and assisting them in assessing whether tourism for them is a road to sustainable development, all based on respect and informed participation. Only after you have a clear view on these issues, you inform tourists about whether or not to go and if so, how to travel. Within the Information Center, these two approaches clashed continuously, and a need grew for a new initiative, concerned with a more structural change in tourism. Therefore, in 1986, we created the Retour Foundation.

Responsible Tourism

Retour is short for REsponsible TOURism. Concepts of sustainable development, corporate responsibility or ecotourism did not exist yet but the fashionable concepts were: justice, equity, respect and diversity, for people and environment. We chose for Responsible Tourism because however you call the process of change (sustainable, responsible, ecological, alternative etc), the bottom line is that all stakeholders take their responsibility. Still valid today I guess.

The mission of Retour from the beginning has been to assess the contribution tourism can make to the empowerment of local people. We look at tourism from a political-economic perspective, as a means for sustainable development, not as a goal. The starting point of the work of the foundation was a paper that we called the myths of tourism. Next time I will present this.

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