Taming the tourists

Posted: 17 April 2001

Author: Martin Price

Mountains, once visited only by a few climbers and pilgrims, have not escaped the tourist crowds. Mountain tourism accounts for 15 to 20 per cent of the world's largest industry; annual turnover is US$70-90 billion and growing at over 4 per cent a year. Today tourism forms the basis of the economy of many mountain regions, with uncertain consequences, as Martin Price reports.

The era of mass tourism in the mountains of industrialized countries began soon after World War II, the result of many factors including increases in urban populations, income, vacation time, and mobility. There were new perceptions of mountain environments as places to enjoy, and vast improvements in transport systems.

A peat bog near the source of the River Po, Italy,is used as a tourist car park,destroying rare alpine flora and fauna.© Mark Edwards/Still PicturesToday, in the era of cheap, global air travel, almost no mountain region is out of reach. Even the remote mountains of Asia are becoming easily accessible by helicopter. "Adventure tourists" and "ecotourists" are willing to pay well to visit new destinations, and their money is very welcome to poor governments and communities.

Double-edged sword

For many years, tourism has been the largest source of foreign exchange in Nepal and Bhutan. Although tourism is restricted to only a few valleys in these countries, it has become a major force in their economies, and those of many other developing countries. Yet mountain people rarely receive a substantial proportion of the money spent by the tourists: most stays in capital cities or the countries where the tourists originated.

Tourism can help to stem depopulation and increase incomes by bringing new sources of revenue, but it also tends to destabilize societies and environments. This is especially true when the main tourist season is also the prime agricultural or herding season.

Tourism places great demands on local people and their environments, for labour, food, water, and fuel. If Nepalese farmers can earn more in a few weeks as guides or porters than they can in a year from their fields, it not surprising that many leave most of the farming to their wives.

In parts of Nepal, this has led to a decline in farm output and a change in the local diet, because there is insufficient labour to maintain terraces and irrigation systems and tend to crops. The result is that many people have turned to outside supplies of rice and other foods. Yet, as in Ladakh, the story can be the other way round: the arrival of the road and the tourists led to vegetable growing and the diversification of local diets.

Some of the physical impacts of tourism are well-known. Much attention has focused on erosion in ski areas and along trails, but perhaps more important are deforestation and impacts on vital water supplies. In the Alps and Rocky Mountains, water is scarce in winter, and possibilities for treating wastewater and sewage are often the factor most limiting the development of ski areas.

Along the valleys of Himalayan rivers, where large numbers of people move from camp to camp, health problems often emerge from inadequate sanitary facilities. Hot showers, advertised as an attraction for tourists, use much water and fuel. This is usually wood, which is also the main fuel for cooking, typically on inefficient stoves or fireplaces. This further contributes to pressure on slow-growing mountain trees and, often, to deforestation along the narrow tourist corridors.

Yet mountains are also prime sites for small renewable energy projects based on water, sun, or wind. Small investments can have large payoffs by providing reliable energy and decreasing deforestation, as shown by the introduction of micro-hydroelectricity and efficient stoves and water heaters in Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area. Very importantly, these technologies have been partially funded by local people, are produced in Nepal, and can be easily repaired and maintained by local people.

Although stories about the "problems" of tourism have become ever more frequent in recent years, tourism is not necessarily a problem. A more positive approach is to accept that it is probably inevitable, and to consider how best to integrate it into existing economies and cultures, with minimal impact on the environment and without becoming too dependent on it. Indeed, it may even help in reinvigorating local cultures, as with the Sherpas of Nepal's Khumbu Valley and in Greece's Rhodope Mountains. And a growing number of adventure tourism operators are trying to ensure that their activities benefit the local population and the environment over the longer term.

Community approach

In the Alps, communities are increasingly realising that their future depends on integrating tourism in a diverse economy. In the Swiss Pays d'Enhaut, local concern about second home developments led to limits being imposed on their growth. At the same time, a renaissance of communal cheese production began. This has been so successful that the proportion of people in agriculture has increased; and the cheese makers are among the few in Switzerland who are not subsidized by the federal government.

Integrated, community-based approaches have also been developed in the mountains of developing countries. The Monteverde cloud forest is now one of Costa Rica's main ecotourism destinations, accounting for nearly a fifth of the country's tourism revenues. While Monteverde is visited by 50,000 people a year, ten times the local population, both they and the ecosystems of the cloud forest reap many benefits. Many businesses are locally-owned, and local people are employed as naturalist guides. This helps not only the local economy, but also minimizes the impact of tourists on the cloud forest, much of which is protected as public and private reserves.

Ecotourists at a cloud forest in Loja, Ecuador© Carsten Rahbek/Still PicturesA similar approach has been taken in Nepal's Annapurna Conservation Area, visited by over 50,000 people a year. Over 700 tea shops and lodges have been built. Today, the local people are learning to maintain a high level of control over their resources and their future by building an endowment fund from entry fees to the area and working together on education, community development, biodiversity, and energy conservation projects.

One of the greatest concerns of mountain people is that they will lose control over their culture, their economy, and their environment as tourism develops. Merely restricting tourism cannot be the solution to this imbalance, because people's desire to see new places will not just disappear. Instead, mountain communities must achieve greater control over the rate at which tourism grows and the paths it takes, integrating it with other activities based on traditional culture and natural resources. Ever more communities are demonstrating that, with firm communal decision-making, this is possible.

Compiled by Dr Martin Price, Director of the Centre for Mountain Studies at Perth College, within Scotland's UHI Millennium Institute, 'creating the University of the Highlands and Islands', with co-operation from Development and Environment Info Service, a mandate of Swiss Agency of Development Co-operation (SDC). He is also chair of the Board of Directors of the European Mountain Forum, and has edited two books on mountain tourism: People and Tourism in Fragile Environments (1996) and Tourism and Development in Mountain Regions (2000).