Sustainable tourism

The real cost

Despite continuing economic problems worldwide, the tourism industry is going strong. Developing countries are becoming popular destinations. Tourism products must be sustainable and generate work for locals in order to serve inclusive development.
Tourists at Kakum National Park in Ghana. Sheila Mysorekar Tourists at Kakum National Park in Ghana.

According to the latest annual report by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), tourism’s contribution to global GDP grew by 3.2 % in 2012. This was higher than the entire world economy’s rate of growth. Especially in developing countries, tourism is no longer a mere niche product. In 2012, Latin America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa were among the fastest evolving destination markets, as the WTTC reports.

In absolute figures, Africa only plays a minor role in international tourism, but the contribution of tourism to the African economies is significant. This applies especially to South Africa, as Simba Mandinyenya from the Regional Tourism Organization for Southern Africa (RETOSA) recently said at a symposium held by the Global Partnership for Sustainable Tourism (GPST) in Bonn.

In his view, it is a great challenge for Southern Africa to close the considerable gap between South Africa and its neighbouring countries. He appeals to Southern African decision makers to specifically turn their attention towards stepping up cross-border tourism. Mandinyenya argues that Southern African tourism should promote “growth with a focus on rural development, women, youths and the environment.”

Mass tourism in particular has been blamed for exploiting poor people and endangering biodiversity due to inefficient use of resources. According to Arab Hoballah from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the tourism industry must play a key role in green growth. In many holiday destinations, climate change is threatening the area’s potential for tourism. Tourism products must be environmentally sustainable, and provide long-term livelihoods to the local population, Hoballah says: “We need to discover how tourism can transform from being a problem to serving solutions.”

Susanne Dorasil from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) agrees that tourism must be a major driver of an inclusive green economy. To make that happen, she wants to see more capacity building for local people in developing countries. On the other hand, she points out that the tourists are responsible for their ecological footprints.

Trend towards green travel

Recently, a market trend towards more sustainable tourism can be observed. According to Jenny Rushmore from the online travel service TripAdvisor, 71 % of travellers want to go on a “green” trip, but only less than 15 % actually stay in a place which is managed in an environmentally conscious way. “Travellers are interested, but confused,” Rushmore explains. Hotels fail to communicate their green efforts to guests, she bemoans.

Compared with other economic sectors, tourism is quite labour- and capital-intensive. In developing countries, the travel industry constitutes the second most important source of foreign-exchange revenues after commodity exports. Nevertheless, salaries and working conditions tend to be poor. Wolfgang Weinz from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) cautions against the “green washing” of alleged ecotourism products: “Sustainable and inclusive tourism is nothing without good working conditions.” So far, a considerable amount of jobs in the supposed “ecotourism” sector are informal and offer no social protection, he complains.

Sutsan Suttipisan from the Thai Ministry of Tourism and Sport says that tourism should serve as a means to bridge social inequality. “We do not know the real cost of tourism,” he argues, “because we are not able to calculate the environmental or the social cost.”

Floreana Miesen

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.