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Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model: A simple explanation

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Prof. Richard Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model is a core theoretical underpinning for many tourism research and analyses. It is also a core component of many travel and tourism management curriculums. But what does it mean?

In this article I will give you a simple explanation of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model. I promise, by the end of this short post you will understand exactly how this model works and why it is so important in travel and tourism management….

So what are you waiting for? Read on to find out more..

What is Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model?

Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model provides a fundamental underpinning to travel and tourism management of destinations. Not sure what that means? Well, basically, it is the theory underneath the story.

It sounds complicated on the outside, doesn’t it? But actually, it really isn’t complicated at all!

Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model is a simplistic linear model. Using a graph, it plots the different stages in tourism development in accordance with the x and y axis of tourist number growth and time. Within this, Butler’s model demonstrates 6 stages of tourism development.

OK, enough with the complicated terminology- lets break this down further. What is Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model in SIMPLE language?

To put it simply; Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model is a line graph that shows the different stages in tourism development over time.

How did the Tourism Area Life Cycle Model come about?

Whilst sustainable tourism has been a buzz word for a while now, it wasn’t always the focus of tourism planning and development.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s many tourism entrepreneurs and developers were not thinking about the longevity of their businesses (this still happens a lot, particularly in developing countries, where education and training may be limited). These business men and women simply saw Dollar signs and jumped right in.

The result? Ill-thought out plans and unsustainable tourism endeavours.

Examples of unsustainable tourism with ill-thought out long term plans include: Overtourism in Maya Bay, Thailand, littering on Mount Everest and the building of unsightly high-rise hotels in Benidorm.

Professor Richard Butler wanted to give stakeholders in tourism some guidance. Something generic enough that it could be applied to a range of tourism development scenarios; whether this be a destination, resort, or tourist attraction.

This saw the birth of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model.

Butler's tourism area lifecycle model

Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model: How does it work?

OK, lets get down to it- how does this theory actually work?

Well, actually it’s pretty simple.

Butler created a visual, graphical depiction of tourism development. People like visuals- it helps us to understand. You can see this below.

Butler's Tourism Area Life Cycle Model

As you can see in the image above, Butler identified six stages of tourist area evolution.

The axis do not have any specific numbers, which means that this model can easily be applied to a number of different situations and contexts.

The intention is for those who are involved with tourism planning and development to use this model as a guide. This can encourage critical thinking and the development of alternative and contingency plans. It helps to develop sustainable tourism practices.

The six stages of tourist area evolution

Butler outlined six specific stages of tourism development. Well, actually it’s five specific stages and the last ‘stage offers a variety of outcomes (I’ll explain this shortly).

Butler wanted to demonstrate that tourism development, like many things in life, is not a static process. It experiences change. Changes happens for many reasons- growth in tourism numbers, changes in taste, marketing and the media, external influences such as natural disasters or terrorism.

Butler’s model demonstrates that tourism destinations or attractions will typically follow the path outlined, experiencing each of the six stages. This will happen at different paces and at different times for different types of tourism development.

Below, I will explain which each stage of tourist evolution is referring to.

#1 Exploration


The exploration stage marks the beginning.

Tourism is limited. The social and economic benefits are small.

Tourist attractions are likely to be focused on nature or culture.

This is the primary phase when Governments and local people are beginning to think about tourism and how they could capitalise and maximise their opportunities in this industry.

This is the start of tourism planning.

#2 Involvement

gray airliner

The involvement stage marks the beginning of tourism development.

Guest houses may start to open. Foreign investors may start to show an interest in development. Governments may be under pressure to develop transport infrastructure and community resources, such as airports, road layouts and healthcare provision.

The involvement stage may mark the emergence of seasonality in tourism.

#3 Development

black and white ferris wheel

During the development stage there will be lots of building and planning.

New roads, train stations and airports may be built. New tourist attractions may emerge. Hotels and hospitality provisions will be put in place.

During the development phase there will likely be an increase in marketing and promotion of the destination. There could be increased media and social media coverage.

During this time the tourist population may begin to out-number the local population. Local control becomes less common and top-down processes and international organisations begin to play a key role in the management of tourism.

#4 Consolidation

woman on rock platform viewing city

During the consolidation stage tourism growth slows. This may be intentional, to limit tourist numbers or to keep tourism products and services exclusive, or it may be unintentional.

There will generally be a close tie between the destination’s economy and the tourism industry. In some cases, destinations have come to rely on tourism as a dominant or their main source of income.

Many international chains and conglomerates will likely be represented in the tourism area. This represents globalisation and can have a negative impact on the economy of the destination as a result of economic leakage.

It is during this stage that discontent from the local people may become evident. This is one of the negative social impacts of tourism.

#5 Stagnation

brown haired woman sitting on brown wooden chair on patio

The stagnation stage represents the beginning of a decline in tourism.

During this time visitor numbers may have reached their peak and varying capacities may be met.

The destination may simply be no longer desirable or fashionable.

It is during this time that we start to see the negative impacts of overtourism. There will likely be economic, environmental and social consequences.

#6 Decline or rejuvenation

The final stage of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model represents a range of possible outcomes for the destinations along the spectrum between rejuvenation and decline.

The outcome of this will depend upon the plans and actions of the stakeholders of said tourism development project.

Complete rejuvenation can occur through major redevelopments. Perhaps new attractions are added, sustainable tourism approaches are adopted or there is a change in the target market.

Modest rejuvenation may occur with some smaller adjustments and improvements to the general tourism infrastructure and provision.

If changes do not occur, there may be a slow continuation of tourism decline.

In severe circumstances, there may be a rapid decline of the tourism provision. This is likely due to a life-changing event such as war, a natural disaster or a pandemic.

What happens after complete decline?

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many tourism destinations and attractions experiencing the drastic decline identified in Butler’s most pessimistic scenario.

These areas will likely either experience one of two possible outcomes-

1- Tourism infrastructure will be used for alternative means. Hotels may become retirement homes and tourism attractions will be replaced with non-tourism facilities. The area may become run down and impoverished as a result of the economic loss.

2- Tourism development will start again. Many destinations have taken this opportunity to re-evaluate and reimagine their tourism infrastructure. Improvements can be made and more sustainable practices can be adopted. The destination will start again at the beginning of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle.

The positive aspects of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model

Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model is great because it provides simplistic theoretical guidance to tourism stakeholders.

Those who are just starting out can use this model to plan their tourism infrastructure and development. It encourages critical thinking and long-term thinking.

The negative aspects of Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model

However, Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model can also be criticised for its simplicity.

Without sufficient knowledge and training, tourism stakeholders may not understand this model and therefore may not adequately utilise it.

The linear approach taken with this module does not account for unique and unaccounted for occurrences. In other words, not every destination or attractions may follow these stages in this way.

Lastly, being developed back in 1980, Butler’s model fails to account for many of the complexities of today’s travel and tourism industry. The biggest downfall is the redundancy of references to sustainability.

Sustainability is at the core of everything that we do in today’s world, so it is perhaps outdated thinking to assume that all destinations will reach consolidation in the way that it is represented in Butler’s model.

To conclude

Wow, who knew I would be able to write 1500 all about Butler’s Tourism Area Life Cycle Model? Well, in actual fact, I could easily write another 1500! This theory is an important part of the tourism curriculum and is important for travel and tourism students to understand, as well as a variety of tourism stakeholders.

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