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May 15, 2023

Do international tourist arrivals change residents’ attitudes toward immigration?

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Tourism and migration are known to reinforce each other: migrants’ friends and relatives visit migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries; tourists settle in the countries they visit; and growth in tourism creates labor shortages that businesses fill with migrant labor. Little is known, however, about whether the arrival of tourists makes people in host countries more favorable toward immigrants coming to live and work there. If the answer to this question is positive, would it mean that tourists contribute to more open and inclusive societies in the countries they visit?  

There are at least two ways in which tourist inflows may affect attitudes toward immigrants in tourist-receiving countries. First, tourism may lead to the growth of local and national economies, opportunities for entrepreneurs, and also shortages of labor in sectors catering to tourist demand; if local people are unable or unwilling to fill these labor shortages, they may become more open to immigration. Second, encounters with tourists can make residents more open to other cultures which, among other things, could affect their attitudes toward immigration. 

In a recent study we explored potential links between international tourist arrivals and attitudes toward immigration in Europe. By relating the change in attitudes toward immigration to the change in the intensity in international tourist arrivals in 28 European countries over 2002–2019, we found that tourist arrivals are associated with more positive attitudes toward immigration in Eastern Europe. In Western Europe, the relationship tends to take an inverted U-shape: attitudes toward immigration improve with tourist arrivals up to a certain—very high—level of tourism, and deteriorate thereafter. 

Associations, however, do not imply causality; to uncover the causal effects of tourism on residents’ attitudes toward immigrants we relied on the fact that tourist arrivals vary with the host countries’ weather conditions as well as the occurrence of international sporting events. When predicted by these factors, we found that tourist arrivals still had a positive effect on attitudes toward immigration in both Eastern and Western Europe. 

These findings hold societal and policy relevance, as they imply that tourism may foster a greater acceptance of immigrants. That would in turn affect the formation of immigration policies, actual migration flows, and the integration of immigrants, and it would generally contribute to more open and inclusive societies in tourist-receiving countries. The issue is particularly important for Eastern Europe: in recent years, the region has witnessed not only growing numbers of international tourists and immigrants but also high levels of ethnic nationalism, prejudice, and xenophobia. Our findings suggest that international tourism has fostered a more positive outlook toward immigrants in Eastern Europe and that anti-immigration attitudes in the region would have been more pronounced without tourism. 

These findings highlight incoming international tourism as a useful tool for policymakers to foster openness and tolerance in their countries, especially where tourism is still developing and relatively low. Caution, however, should be applied: excessive tourism may lower residents’ tolerance and acceptance of immigrants, potentially lowering residents’ well-being and reversing the development of inclusive and open societies. 

© Artjoms Ivlevs

Artjoms Ivlevs is professor of economics in the University of the West of England and a Research Fellow of IZA.

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