Small Tourism Enterprise Network formation in rural destinations: integrating ICT and community in Western Southland New Zealand
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A critical issue facing tourism destination development is how the industry can be used as a tool to stimulate local economies and generate sustainable livelihoods. As in many parts of the world, small tourism enterprises (STE) lie at the heart of the New Zealand tourism industry and play a pivotal role in the economic development of many regions. As an important conduit between visitor and community, the performance of STE can enhance or detract from visitor satisfaction with the tourism experience as well as affect the competitiveness and sustainability of the destination. There is increasing evidence that STE business performance can be significantly enhanced by the formation of networks, partnerships, alliances and clusters. Tourism policy is focusing increasingly on the development of ‘dense’ networks of STE as a tool to improve the performance of the tourism industry worldwide. Information and communication technologies (ICT) offer considerable potential to facilitate networking among small tourism firms. This PhD research examines rural STE network formation, the processes that underlie it, and how ICT facilitate and strengthen those processes. The thesis adopts regulation theory and the concept of flexible specialisation as tools to understand STE networks and the ways in which they can contribute to regional social and economic development. It adds to these approaches by introducing social network theory, and an understanding of the types of social relations that underpin network formation. A case study involving a community informatics initiative (referred to as ‘web-raising’) in Western Southland, New Zealand is used to evaluate STE network formation and the role of ICT in the development and maintenance of the network. A mixed methods approach is adopted to inform the research with data collected through a series of formal semi-structured interviews, informal conversations, observations, and a review of secondary data. The thesis adds to the available literature on small and medium-sized enterprise networks in general, but more particularly to the sparse empirical research in the area of STE network formation in rural destinations by integrating the important dimension of community. The study reveals the important linkages that exist between STE owners/operators and community that are commonly overlooked in the literature. By broadening the approach to STE network development to consider the social, economic and cultural aspects of sustainable tourism; it is argued that network formation in rural destinations should be guided by social well-being indicators, local economic development and community empowerment. In addition, the study finds that the effective use of ICT can facilitate entry for STE owners/operators to the network by creating ‘points of collaboration’ and are an important element in creating an enabling environment in which collaboration can occur.