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OP-ED: The Road Less Traveled

SAN FRANCISCO, California, U.S., Apr 24 2012 (IPS) - The celebrated storyteller Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.”

As more and more people take that advice to heart, and set off to explore and discover, global tourism will surge to heights reached never before with a record one billion visits across international boundaries this year.

In the process they will generate trillions of dollars for investment, create one in 12 jobs worldwide, enhance the lives of millions of people and open massive opportunities for the growth and development of countries, rich and poor, all across the world.

Because of its ability to create wealth, tourism plays a major role in achieving the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals for prosperity, peace and sustainability.

New challenges such as climate change and poverty, hunger and disease make fulfilling these goals more complex and pressing.

Therefore, as the U.N. Summit on Sustainable Development or Rio+20 convenes in Brazil this June, tourism leaders need to forge active partnerships with other sectors of the global economy to reach an inclusive, equitable and sustainable future for all.

Tourism is like fire. If well managed it can serve us; if allowed to master us, it can burn us.

Tourism poses many challenges for the well-being of the global community and the health of our planet – from the cultural degradation of local communities to the complete destruction of their value systems.

What is more, tourists impair the health of the earth by over- visitation of fragile ecosystems and the emissions of CO2 and other pollutants from their modes of transport, from cars and buses to trains and planes.

The global travel industry is now faced with the challenge of making a conscious decision of how it wants to go, where it wants to go – somewhat like Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken”: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…. And sorry I could not travel both…..Two roads diverged in a wood, and I …. I took the one less traveled by….. And that has made all the difference.”

Global tourism seems to have chosen the road “less traveled”. Still, it is stumbling along, not quite sure how it will get to where it wants to go.

Responsible tourism demands that destinations, travel vendors and travelers alike unite in operating tours with a sensitivity to the social, cultural, natural and economic environments of the host communities and of Mother Earth.

Towards that end, the industry has been fostering various forms of what is called sustainable tourism since the 1970s when the environmental movement began.

From this sprang today’s popular concept of ecotourism. It nurtures the desire to travel to natural locations away from the man-made and built-up attractions, allowing the traveler to experience nature in its pristine glory, and to be educated about the culture and lifestyles of lesser known, poorly understood societies, off the beaten path.

Such visits create the beneficial effects of raising funds for the conservation of neglected natural landscapes and cultural monuments, as well as for the economic uplift of impoverished communities.

The flip side of the coin is that the growing popularity of ecotourism has led to abuse and exploitation of vulnerable environments and societies by unscrupulous tour and lodging operators, partly because of the absence of an internationally accepted single definition of what constitutes ecotourism, often interchanged with sustainable tourism, green tourism, nature tourism, etc.

Tourism organisations and conservationist groups have their own definitions of ecotourism. Individual tour operators and governments also muddy the water by promoting their own definitions.

In the broadest sense, however, ecotourism is travel to ecologically and culturally sensitive locations with the least negative impact thereon.

It is, of course, not possible for humans to travel anywhere without any negative impact, because even getting there causes environmental damage by the spread of carbon pollutants.

Airplanes are among the worst emitters of pollutants in the travel industry, although the International Air Transport Association counters that airplanes contribute only two percent of global manmade CO2 emissions – less than the flatulence of the cows in Europe!

Tourism will add 43 million more visitors every year, to top 1.8 billion arrivals by 2030, challenging the conservation of earth’s resources more, even as these resources suffer more damage and become less available.

It is, therefore, critical that travelers be educated to be sensitive to the environments of the places they visit and understand they have a great responsibility to Mother Earth. In today’s world of many interconnections, tourism cannot stand alone, and apart, from the global community.

We need to act together for the collective interest over self- interest. As Nelson Mandela discovered, “after climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb.”

*Lakshman Ratnapala is Emeritus President & CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association.

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