Tourism is one of the most profitable industries in the world, third only to oil and drug trafficking. It generated around US$850 billion in 2009 and in spite of recent ups and downs due to the global financial crisis the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) predicts an annual growth of 6.5%. It also predicted that by 2020, we will see the number of tourists around the globe increase from 1 to 1.6 billion. Not bad. So, for the many developing countries that have based their economic development plans on tourism, this is welcome news.
Tourism creates opportunities. In a globalised world where any airline can offer daily flights to more of the places your family wants to go, mobile technology connecting people, and easy access to credit to pay for such, travelling for a vacation has become part of the routine for many people in developed countries. It would be a fair supposition to think that local communities receiving tourists should be able to benefit from a responsible integration of this activity in their economies.
However the equation is not as straight forward as it would appear and economic growth through tourism doesn’t necessarily equal development. As a consequence there isn’t much consensus on what the implications of promoting tourism are for developing countries and local communities.
Most Governments remain optimistic regarding tourism’s contribution to local economies. For this reason, in October 2009, tourism ministers from all over the world endorsed the UNWTO ‘Roadmap for Recovery’ presented to the United Nations Assembly entitled “Tourism & travel: a primary vehicle for job creation”. In this document the members positioned tourism as:
• One of the world’s top job creators
• Leading export sector
• Key development agent
• A means for the transition to a Green Economy
However, many activists remain skeptical and report abuses of human rights attributable to tourism. They are asking institutions with influence to carefully define and monitor the rules of the game. They see how tourism could and has become a burden to local development. The enormous amount of resources invested, the increasing social disparities, the cultural invasion, the impact on the environment and the intrusion of multinational companies are supporting evidence for their arguments.
There is no question that tourism stimulates local and national economies, creating temporary and permanent jobs and increasing investments in new or improved infrastructure. However it isn’t always the case that local people and communities benefit from the economic injection or are hired by the companies investing in tourism. Moreover, major events that draw tourists inevitably end and fashionable destinations rotate, driving tourists to depart or look for other countries leaving a question mark on the usage of the infrastructure built under the assumption of sustained tourism.
Governments also fail to find solid regulatory methods for such a crucial activity. The World Trade Organisation General Agreement on Trade Services (GATS) set up the framework for the liberalisation of services trade over a decade ago. The pressure from developed countries demanding developing nations to open up their financial and tourism markets to foreign investors and to remove all regulations that could be a barrier for trade has led tourism to be the most liberalised sector within the GATS. All to the benefit of stronger economies and multinationals which have seen many doors opened at once: high revenue opportunities and low risk to exit.
This has aroused world-wide concern. A number of local governments, trade unions, NGOs, parliaments and developing countries’ governments all call for reflection and claim that deregulation and one-side deals drive in dependency, inequity and unsustainability. Codes of Ethical Conduct, certifications, eco-labels or best practices guidelines are not enough in an industry that is defined as an economical and social phenomenon by the UN.
Cancun, Mexico has seen how most of the public investment is oriented towards the development of only tourism-designated areas and how the tourist seasonal invasion has ended up in a disruptive society that follows the tourism calendar and directs its aspirations towards the tourist’s behaviour and culture. Thanks to focused and sustainable policies, Zanzibar has doubled its income generated by tourism in only ten years. The country has been able to achieve such economical growth thanks to the participation of private and foreign investors. However, far from telling a success story, Zanzibar finds itself totally dependant on foreign capital and labour. From food to goods, everything is imported from the continent which implies a lower purchasing power from the local population.
Johannesburg is worried about children sex trafficking during the World Cup.
In the Maldives, fresh food goes directly to tourist islands, bypassing the local people who live on just over $1 a day and the industry workers endure appalling working conditions.
During the last couple of decades, tourism has gone from an exclusive market to a multi-billion dollar centralised business in which 80% of international travel is performed by citizens from only twenty countries. Overcrowding and the notion of ‘getting off the beaten track’ has motivated travellers to be in a continual search for difference, an authentic experience and virgin destinations. Whether rural communities are prepared to offer and control the provision of the required products and services is a question we should well ask ourselves. Are we making tourism a unidirectional business if we accept a system in which our holidays are subsidised by a low cost labour force and low cost resources? Sustainable and ethical tourism is not the sole responsibility of those who draw up the laws or have the means to invest.
In cooperation with international and community development policy, tourism has a great challenge ahead which will test its capacity to contribute to poverty alleviation. As one of the biggest and fastest-growing sectors, tourism has the potential to position itself as a positive force for the socio-economic progress of participating self-sufficient communities. It is still to be proven. Developing countries will not only need acknowledgement and protection from those who have the power, but they will also have to count on responsible and ethical actions and decision-making from visitors.