Beyond attractive destinations

OUR PLANET 10.1 - Tourism

Beyond attractive destinations


describes how sustainable tourism can both reduce poverty and become the most important economic incentive for environmental protection

woman on beach

Tourism - soundly, responsibly and sustainably developed - can become a powerful force for creating more jobs, combating poverty and, simultaneously, protecting the natural and cultural environment.

As we approach the new millennium, questions about the harm done to our planet during this century provide cause enough for serious reflection and debate. The 178 nations attending the 1992 Earth Summit accepted Agenda 21 as a Magna Carta for sustainable development, ushering in a new vision of the world, in which environment, development and poverty are no longer regarded as separate and unrelated.

This year's meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development has special significance. In April 1995, a World Conference on Sustainable Tourism, held in Lanzarote and co-hosted by the World Tourism Organization, adopted a Charter asserting that tourism development should be based on criteria of sustainability: 'It must be ecologically sound in the long term, economically viable, as well as ethically and socially equitable for the local communities.' The Charter on Sustainable Tourism stresses the vital importance of recognizing that protected areas cannot long co-exist with communities that are hostile to them. It also acknowledges that local people are important stakeholders with whom managers of protected areas must seek to cooperate.

Challenges to be met

The challenges identified by both the Earth Summit and the Conference on Sustainable Tourism loom as large as ever. This is particularly true of sub-Saharan Africa, the region where I have my roots.

The world is experiencing the most rapid increase in human population ever witnessed. Africa has the world's highest fertility rate and the lowest prevalence of contraceptive use. In sub-Saharan Africa, fertility has only just begun to decline, and then only in certain countries. The region's fertility rate stood at 6.7 in 1960, and was still at 6.4 in the early 1990s.

High population growth increases demands for water, food, energy, housing, employment, medical services and education. Economic development is urgently needed to foster growth and employment, alleviate poverty and raise hopes for the future. Tourism has proved to be a powerful vehicle in providing countries, particularly poor ones, with the resources they badly need to reduce their debts and pay for their imports. It has the potential to create jobs without the long lead times needed for major capital projects - and it is most accessible to young people, women and small entrepreneurs.

Tourism is an important engine of economic growth and job creation. The industry continues to expand faster than average world economic growth, as disposable income and free time increase in developed countries. By the year 2020, a recent report by the World Tourism Organization (Tourism: 2020 Vision) forecasts that there will be 1.6 billion international tourist arrivals, compared to the 613 million recorded in 1997.

Taking nature into account

Sustainability concerns both tourism's effect on the environment and the distribution of its economic and social costs and benefits. The challenge is to convince decision makers that (like all other human development initiatives) tourism cannot continue to grow unless they consider the impact it may have on nature's life-supporting systems - the ecological processes that form the climate, clean the air and water, regulate water flows, recycle essential elements such as nitrogen and oxygen, create and regenerate soil and generally keep the planet fit for life.

We depend on the Earth's resources to sustain our lives - from the most basic requirements, such as air, water and food, through to the materials we use for shelter, transport, job opportunities and recreation. Most of the Earth's resources are renewable. But they cannot be stretched beyond certain limits: they cannot be depleted to less than critical levels or consumed faster than they can regenerate or reproduce themselves. They must be utilized sustainably if we are to continue reaping their benefits.

Far too few people seem to understand the importance of environmental conservation. There is a widespread perception that those who plead for it are anti-development and anti-tourism. That perception is wrong. The way to provide for the growing needs of people (and for the increasing numbers of tourists) lies in sustainable development. It will involve securing a broader environmental base to cater for the numbers of people that the future will thrust upon us, and their needs.

boys with tires

Common ground

We need to convince governments and decision makers at all levels, as well as the general public - and particularly the members of poor and deprived communities - that this is not an elitist subject. Ways must be found to help society understand that there is a complex interaction between poverty, human population growth, economic development and environmental degradation. If we can succeed in this, we will move environmental conservation from the perceived realm of the privileged to centre-stage in the lives of the under-privileged, to whom it is even more crucial.

Impoverished and overcrowded rural communities have no alternative but to impair, and eventually destroy, the common resource base on which their survival depends. Africa's forests, woodlands, grasslands, soil and estuaries have been caught up in an accelerating spiral of degradation, a cascading series of environmental catastrophes. These, in turn, have seriously depleted and damaged surface and groundwater sources, thereby exacerbating human deprivation.

The continent must find appropriate forms of development that will break the vicious cycle of poverty, population growth and the degradation of renewable resources - and reduce the continent's rapidly increasing environmental debt. Impassioned and idealistic campaigns will not halt the loss of Africa's natural wealth or unique biodiversity. Such crusades have no relevance to those who live in poverty. Development programmes that add economic value to the environment stand a much better chance of being accepted by disadvantaged communities. Developing sustainable tourism affords a splendid opportunity to meet people's material needs, while facilitating the preservation of the environment.

Tourism has probably become the single most important economic incentive for environmental protection. It is a dynamic, market-led phenomenon.

Wise and forward-looking planning will be needed to optimize the economic impact of tourism, create new jobs and continue the fight against poverty, while protecting and enhancing the natural and cultural environment. Governments will have to rethink their role in setting guidelines and policies suited to enhancing the development of sustainable tourism. They will have to reach beyond their traditional commitment to promoting and marketing their countries as attractive destinations. Only governments can produce the policies needed to achieve balanced and sustainable tourism development. Then, hand in hand with the private sector, they should implement and enforce them - using planning guidelines, building regulations, density limits and other tools.

If governments neglect or abdicate their responsibility to provide for sound and sustainable tourism development, destinations will be nibbled away by special interests with scant regard for the environment or communities' socio-economic needs. The benefits will be short term, and will be eroded, over time, by negative impacts. Neither the quest for more jobs nor the fight against poverty will be advanced. Many examples across the world demonstrate how the lack of proper land use and planning policy has created developmental chaos and depleted fragile resources.

Governments cannot escape responsibility for protecting the Earth's fragile resources. This is closely linked to population growth, poverty and quality of life - the main challenges facing us as we approach the next millennium.

Dr. D. J. de Villiers is Deputy Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organization, and a former minister for tourism of South Africa.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel: Making a difference (Small Islands) 1999
Francesco Frangialli: Preserving paradise (Small Islands) 1999
France Albert René: Let action speak louder than words (Small Islands) 1999
B.H. Holomisa: Healing past scars (Human Settlements) 1996

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