Opinion: Stemming the tourist tide

Posted: 11 July 2001

Author: Paul Gonsalves

As one of the world's largest economic activities, second only to trade in armaments and perhaps oil, the debate on its future growth and sustainability is fierce. Here Paul Gonsalves, Acting Director of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism, expresses a personal view.

That tourism impacts society and the earth is common sense: the question is, can the benefits outweigh the costs? Arguments about development (not just tourism) often state that nothing comes without a price. However, are we selling our souls for a mess of pottage? Do ends always justify means?

The impact of tourism in Southern countries is different from that in the developed world: differences in economic levels, cultural patterns, legal systems, and public awareness being some. Many poorer countries see tourism as the only way to earn valuable foreign exchange to import consumer products and industrial technologies, often ignoring social and ecological considerations.

Nevertheless, given that a major part of the investments in and profits from tourism take place in the North, the role of multinational corporations cannot be ignored. Contrary to what the proponents of the industry would have us believe, the jury is no longer out. The facts have been presented and examined, the arguments heard, the verdict returned: Guilty, as charged.

Let's examine some of the evidence, starting with societies and culture.

Tourists and tourism are symbols of 'modern' Western values, which are seen as better, and which have a 'demonstration effect'. These include the disintegration of traditional value systems and the breakdown of family and social structures. Personal achievement is seen as more important than personal relationships. Agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry are seen as lower status than service sector work, and movement away from these brings about a dependency on import of basic goods.

The relative wealth of the tourists also leads to increases in personal crimes, the prostitution of women and children, the narcotics trade and indeed drug addiction. The large number of outsiders (tourists and migrant workers) results in a loss of identity and in distrust, suspicion and conflict between 'Us' and 'Them', alienation and anomie. Traditional social sanctions and controls cease to operate.

Tourist inside a Maasai cultural manyatta village© Adrian Arbib/Still Pictures

In short, culture and society are on sale for profit without concern about its long-term impacts. Money becomes the key to a good life, the hell with faith, hope and charity.

Let's go on to nature and ecology. Today, industry's buzzword is 'Tourism is essential to conservation', its promotion all-important, its growth unquestionable. The World Travel and Tourism Council, for example, exists to 'eliminate barriers to growth of the industry'.

This ignores the reality that people and nature have lived in harmony for centuries, based on principles of nurturing and compassion. These fundamental ethics have been subsumed, ever since the industrial era began, by a relationship between man and nature rooted in the rhetoric of consumption, resource management and profit. It ignores the fact that the future of humanity and the earth are intimately bound up: one cannot survive without the other.

Although the tourism industry wears an eco-friendly face, and pays lip-service to environmental concerns and good practice, it has on the contrary served the cause of environmental destruction, particularly in the developing world.

In Hawaii, traditional burial grounds have been razed to make way for new resorts. In Bali, devout Hindus are horrified that their temples are overshadowed by monstrous, ugly marinas and condominium-style hotels. In Goa, farmers and fisherfolk have been forced off their lands, forced to seek new livelihoods which they are ill-equipped to handle.

In Costa Rica and Belize, coral reefs have been blasted to allow for carefree, unfettered watersports. In Phuket, Thailand, the yacht club has constructed over a public road, effectively denying local people access to their homes beyond.

The world over, golf courses - all the rage today - take land away from local communities, consume enormous amounts of scarce freshwater, leaving in their wake hazardous chemical effluents. It is estimated that the water needed to water a single new golf-course can supply a village of 5,000.

The bottom line here is that tourism brings with it a form of urbanisation, in conflict with nature and the human habitat.

It is not just destination areas (or host communities) which are affected by the untrammelled growth of the industry. Concerns about the destruction of the ozone layer, for example, cannot be separated from the inexorable demand for long-haul aircraft which pollute the skies in ways which are not even beginning to be understood.

Environment is not just about trees and animals, it is about the liveability of the human habitat. We need look no further than London's West End in the summer months to see the truth.

It all boils down to a question of numbers. Good practise is not good enough. There must be, as the Club of Rome said, limits to growth. Regulate, rather than throw wide the floodgates. That is the key to the future.

Dr Paul Gonsalves is founder of the Indian NGO, Equations, (Equitable Tourism Options) and Asia Programme Co-ordinator of the Ecumenical Coalition on Third World Tourism.