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Trials and tribulations

Ari Atoll, Maledives

Ari Atoll, Maledives

Tourism is an economic sector with impressive growth rates. Almost untroubled by global economic and financial crises, this market has been expanding for over 50 years. More than 200 million people work in this sector worldwide – from cleaning staff to the managers of tour operators.

The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates that there will soon be over one billion international trips each year. Such travelling, however, is not spread evenly across the globe. Most of the trips still take place within and between Europe and North America. The people on the move are mainly from industrialised countries, and it is these countries that also benefit the most.

Africa, for example, is only expected to get about four per cent of the global tourism revenue in the next few years. And only a small part of the money will ever reach the average people. Therefore, the debate is hot on whether tourism promotes development or not. Tourism has its pros and cons. Some vacations that are taken as a temporary, relaxing leave from one’s own culture come with a high price tag for people in the country visited. Tourists do not always show respect for the conventions that rule social life at their destinations and, too often, poor people are simply exploited as cheap servants.

Some tourists not only bring along hard currency, but also negative influences. Apart from alienation and loss of identity, risks to local cultures are probably most evident in the phenomenon of sex tourism and even child prostitution. In the Philippines alone, some 60,000 to 100,000 girls and women are estimated to be victimised by the sex industry. Laws that might protect them are often not enforced, and the Philippines is certainly not the only place where corruption ensures that people with money enjoy special treatment.

Air travel is another problem – it causes enormous greenhouse emissions. Demand will hardly decrease, so the issue of how to make flying more eco-friendly needs to be addressed. Beyond that, several other factors determine whether tourism is environmentally acceptable or not:
– Do tour operators, hotels, restaurants et cetera use resources efficiently or do they squander them?
– Are construction materials from the region or have they been brought in from far away?
– Does tourism endanger biodiversity, or does the revenue it generates contribute to funding the protection of nature?
Increasingly, tour operators are accepting their responsibility. It matters, of course, that consumers in rich nations are insisting ever more on issues such as corporate social responsibility and fair trade. In consumer societies, such attitudes apply as much to travel as they do to other things.

According to a German saying, travelling educates. In the era of the packaged tour, it surely does not hold true in each and every case. Nonetheless, tourism certainly offers many opportunities in economic, social and cultural terms. The travellers themselves are the ones who can make the difference. Like other industries, tourism is about keeping customers satisfied.