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ENVIRONMENT: Can Ecotourism Be More Than an Illusion?

Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

QUEBEC CITY, Mar 24 2009 (IPS) - More than ever before, global tourism must play its part in sustainable development and poverty alleviation, stated experts at an international symposium in this Canadian city.

Tourism helps preserve Kruger Park in South Africa.  Credit: Public domain

Tourism helps preserve Kruger Park in South Africa. Credit: Public domain

But others wonder if tourism can be truly sustainable when it involves flying thousands of kilometres to reach some “carbon-neutral” eco-lodge in the jungle.

Climate change is a major concern and air transport makes a significant contribution, sustainable tourism expert Costas Christ told more than 500 attendees of the International Symposium on Sustainable Tourism Development, Mar. 16-19.

However, Christ said, it is also important to tell the public that international tourism has played a major role in preserving biodiversity and in conservation in general.

“Without tourism, the Pantanal (in South America), the world’s largest wetland, would have just turned into a major cattle feed-lot for McDonald’s,” said Christ, a former board chair of The International Ecotourism Society.

If it weren’t for tourism, Africa would not have its game parks and nature preserves, and the Coral Triangle (which encompasses the waters of Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste) would have been devastated by overfishing, he continued.

“Tourism is not the problem; the challenge is how to do tourism right,” Christ told Tierramérica in an interview.

As an industry, tourism has made many mistakes over the years, but has come to realise that with climate change and other environmental concerns there is no future for tourism without becoming more sustainable, he believes.

Indeed, the very essence of tourism is selling culture and nature, and those must be protected or there will be no industry: “Business and political leaders have to understand this,” he said.

Even mass-market tourism – sometimes called beach tourism – depends on nature, although he believes people are moving away from that type of vacation in general.

International tourism has undergone phenomenal growth in the past decade. In 2008 there were more than 920 million international tourist arrivals, up two percent from the previous year, despite a slowing global economy, reports the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).

In 2007, the industry generated five trillion dollars of economic activity, or nine percent of global gross domestic product.

Tourism is also directly or indirectly responsible for more than 200 million jobs around the globe.

This year the UNWTO expects a modest decline of less than two percent. But many attending the symposium reported that their markets are already seeing empty hotel rooms. Christ says this can be a good thing: “The economic crisis is an opportunity to reflect and consider how to do tourism right.”

That’s just what the 100 largest tourism companies are doing, he says. Last month their business association, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), announced that its members pledged to address climate change and reduce their carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2020.

If tourism can become “greener,” can it also alleviate poverty? “Absolutely, it works,” Francesco Frangialli, former UNWTO secretary-general, told attendees.

Frangialli was specifically referring to a particular effort called Sustainable Tourism – Eliminating Poverty (ST-EP), which UNWTO announced at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

There are now 70 ST-EP projects around the world. The programme brings practical benefits to the poor by finding ways to channel visitor spending and associated investment into improved income and quality of life for people in poverty.

In the Mekong River Delta in northeast Cambodia, a ST-EP project brings visitors to view the endangered freshwater dolphin. Tourists stay in local villages, eat local produce, buy local crafts and are taken to the dolphins by former fisherfolk.

This economic and environmental circuit empowers locals to protect the fewer than 100 dolphins that are left, said Frangialli. “Tourism is saving a species that would likely disappear otherwise.”

This type of tourism, sometimes called ecotourism, makes up at most three to four percent of the industry. Mass-market tourism constitutes more than 50 percent, and now must evolve and become sustainable, he said.

Sustainable tourism, like sustainable development, is “such a vague concept that no one disagrees with but can mean anything you want it to,” says Richard Butler, professor at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland.

As a result, there are many policies on sustainable development but not much action, Butler told Tierramérica following his presentation at the conference.

From the climate change perspective, it doesn’t matter if an eco-village in the Amazon rainforest is carbon neutral when tourists fly thousands of kilometres to get there, said Butler.

And while such a project may help alleviate like poverty, as do the ST-EP projects, he wonders, “How do you get the tourists to such places on a sustainable basis?”

Tourism is a huge global economic and social force, a great economic achievement to be proud of, he said. But to move towards sustainability it is important to look at what tourists are doing and where they are going.

“Some places like Antarctica should be off-limits to tourists,” he said.

Setting limits isn’t easy, but Butler suggests “no net negative impacts” as the overarching goal.

Monitoring is crucial – and no destination can call itself sustainable without effective monitoring systems in place, he said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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