Asking the right questions

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Asking the right questions


lists requirements for sustainability

One day perhaps, we will be able to dispense with labels like 'sustainable' and 'environmental'. We would no longer need them to differentiate between desirable and prevalent practices and products - because profitability would depend upon responsible production and consumption. Today, however, we still need to ask the right questions.

Tourism, as one of the world's largest industries, has a responsibility to take leadership in sustainability. Fortunately, its profitability and longevity depend on the authenticity, clean environment and safe conditions of a destination - and all these are components of sustainability. Unsustainable tourism has adverse environmental, economic and social effects such as unplanned growth, environmental degradation, loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity, inflated property values and the export of economic benefits.

At present, tourism development programmes assume that it is the sole option for economic development. Some experts say that the adverse impacts are inevitable and increase the risk that tourism will be exploitative. But conducting a 'community tourism assessment' before developing a programme can avoid this.

Finding the right answers

The social impacts of tourism are most visible at locations with indigenous populations. Their authenticity provides part of the destination's popularity, but then that very popularity threatens the authenticity. The inflow of new money invariably transforms the pace of their economic growth, and leads to the infusion of foreign cultures. Who should decide what the pace of this transformation should be? Tourism assessment would have to follow an education programme designed to develop community skills to take informed decisions. Could developments wait?

Voluntary codes and guidelines for sustainable tourism must go beyond local regulations dealing with urban design controls, pollution control and suchlike. It is not enough to reach poorly defined 'low-impact' thresholds for sustainable tourism - and they can be misleading. Guidelines should go much further to address the issues of education and outreach, appropriate community development, reinvesting profits into natural habitat and wildlife protection, social impacts, heritage conservation programmes, infrastructure development, using alternative energy, rainwater harvesting and waste management.

The government, private sector, media, consumers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and host communities need to adopt supportive roles. Policy makers at the highest level must initiate tourism programmes in conjunction with community development. They must shepherd various agencies to work together, facilitate informed community decision-making, develop guidelines, create systems to disseminate information and develop supporting infrastructure.

Businesses and industry must act responsibly in good faith. If their voluntary initiatives are to be taken seriously, they will have to follow guidelines and ensure transparency, accountability and the involvement of local community stakeholders. They must meet clearly stated environmental and social objectives within specific time frames, adopt indicators and bench-marks for monitoring and measuring effectiveness, and espouse independent verification and adequate reporting. Their sponsorship is essential for achieving consumer awareness, training guides and steering advertisements to reflect the sustainable tourism guidelines.

A growing segment of tourists seek to contribute to the environment and to understand the heritage of the areas they visit. Consumers create the demand, hence the need to increase awareness. If they provide information directly to a credible reporting organization, this can be an effective monitoring tool and can help to ensure accountability.

tourists hiking

Vision and revision

NGOs can help create visions of what could happen, and can conduct community assessments and provide independent verification. Their opinions can do much to decide whether or not particular initiatives are perceived as viable.

The host communities must participate in the decision-making process as stakeholders. They need to establish which resources can be shared, with whom, and when - and to ensure the maintenance of their environment. They must define the image of their area and target a segment of the market that is compatible with their needs.

If tourism is to be sustainable, limits must be set on the number of visitors and on the changes they bring. Issues need to be resolved or revisited while a healthy and responsible tourism industry is gradually developed.

Meenakshi Varandani, Environmental Planner, is based in New York, United States of America.

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