Travelling Light

New paths to sustainable tourism

Posted: 18 December 2001

Author: Lisa Mastny
Worldwatch Institute, Washington DC, 2001
US$5.00

"The aftermath of September 11 has shown us how important travel and tourism are to the global economy, but also how over-dependence on tourism can devastate lives and derail economies," says Lisa Mastny, in this December 2001 Worldwatch Paper. "Now, more than ever, it is time to put issues of sustainability at the top of the global tourism agenda."

Mastny discusses ways that countries can redirect their tourism activities to make them more socially beneficial and environmentally sound. She highlights a wide range of positive efforts underway to minimize tourism's negative impacts and to boost its benefits for local communities and the environment.

Revenues from tourism have been especially important in the developing world, she says. "Tourism is the only economic sector where developing countries consistently run a trade surplus. It's especially significant in poorer countries that have few other options: for theworld's 49 so-called least developed countries, tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange after oil."

But the fall off in travel is hurting badly, she says. The International Labour Organization estimates that as many as nine million of the world's 200 million hotel and tourism workers could lose their jobs in the wake of the attacks. Nearly three-quarters of these jobs are outside the United States and Europe, many in countries with weak social safety nets.

Even in the best of times, she says, as much as 50 per cent of tourism earnings ultimately "leak" out of the developing world - in the form of profits earned by foreign-owned businesses, promotional spending abroad, or payments for imported goods and labour. And uncontrolledtourism development - on mountaintops, along coastlines, or in remote jungle areas - stresses many fragile ecosystems and cultures.

"Tourism does not have to have such negative impacts," Mastny says. "Many governments and businesses, local communities, and touriststhemselves are already paying more attention to the social, cultural, and environmental impacts of their activities."

Such changes can save money as well. Some hotels, tour operators, and other businesses are taking formal steps to restructure their management and operations along environmental lines - often at considerable cost savings. She instances Inter-Continental Hotels, which reduced its overall energy costs by 27 per cent, between 1987 and 1995, saving $3.7 million in that year alone.

According to The Green Hotels Association, she says, hotels that have adopted such conservation measures and green practices have been betterable to weather the revenue loss, falling occupancies, and higher energy costs in the aftermath of the September attacks.

Mastny argues that if done well, the fast-growing ecotourism sector can bring benefits to both local communities and conservation. But, like others, she cautions that some businesses are "greenwashing" their operations, slapping on the ecotourism label without changing their practices.

For more information contact Worldwatch Institute