Tourism is listed high up on the list of revenue earners for most countries of the world but the costs have been equally high to the environment and social fabric of many nations.
In an effort to correct these problems, UN officials and the leaders of the world's tourism industry have agreed on several initiatives to promote tourism that protects the environment while promoting economic growth. But international trade unions and environmental organisations say fundamental changes are needed if tourism is to be truly `environmentally sustainable'.All too often, tourism has resulted in polluted beaches, damaged coral reefs, overused parklands, and low wages for tourist workers, they say.``The global tourism industry just cannot be propelled towards sustainability under the conventional economic and political structures,'' says Anita Pleumarom, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation and Monitoring Team, an advocacy group.
Government officials and representatives from the tourism industry,trade unions and NGOs debated the costs and benefits of tourism during a unique ``multi-stakeholder dialogue'' at this year's meeting of the UN's Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) held recently.
The commission was set up to monitor how countries are implementing agreements made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
``What is needed is real dialogue between all tourism stakeholders'' that leads to ``tangible outcomes,'' says Simon Upton, New Zealand's environment minister who is this year's CSD chair.
International tourism is big business and accounts for more than 10 per cent of the world's gross domestic product (GDP) according to the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation.
Earnings from international tourism are expected to rise from $ 443 billion in 1997 to $ 2 trillion by 2020, it says. The number of people travelling internationally is expected to increase from 612 million in 1997 to about 1.6 billion by the year 2020.
Especially developing countries are becoming a hot touristattraction, says the organisation.
Despite what the brochures say, however, tourism also can have a serious environmental impact thereby destroying the sound environment on which the tourism industry depends, acknowledged Upton.
Furthermore, more than two-thirds of the revenue from international tourism never reaches the local economy because hotels and tour groups and agencies often are not based in the destination country, says Chee Yoke Ling with the Malaysia-based Third World Network, an advocacy organisation.
``It is a lucrative industry, but only for those who dominate it, such as transnational corporations,'' she says.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) points to voluntary initiatives to ``green'' their operations.
Under the Green Globe programme of the WTCC, 500 hotels in 100 countries have made commitments to environmental standards and can receive certification and awards.
``Our central message to the governments assembled at the United Nations -- both national and local--is aninvitation for a genuine 21st century public, private and voluntary sector partnership,'' says Geoffrey Lipman, the WTTC president.
He stresses voluntary industry initiatives in place of regulations. Governments must ensure ``fair and non-discriminatory'' taxes, no ``bureaucratic bottlenecks.''
Anita Pleumarom, however, says that tourism industry's emphasis on deregulation may not be the solution.
``We may find that a stringent regulation of tourism, which involves a stricter limitation of tourist numbers and a halt to the unlimited spatial expansion of tourism, is better than further promoting tourism growth,'' she says.
Pleumarom also criticises the tourism industry's push for the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS)--a multilateral agreement under the World Trade Organisation that aims to abolish restrictions on foreign ownership and other measures that have so far protected the local service sector.
All delegates agree that part of the difficulty with regulations or general standardsfor the tourism industry is that local circumstances vary greatly from place to place.
``All interests need to be pulled together at the local level for tourism to be ultimately sustainable,'' says Upton.
Sustainable tourism will only succeed if it involves tourism workers who feel that they have a stake in it, and that means they must be democratically involved at work, says a new report released by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) and the International Union of Food Workers (IUF).
Workers need a livable wage and better training in the environment if the industry is to truly benefit local communities, adds W Wamba, secretary-general of the Conservation, Hotels, Domestic and Allied Workers Union of Tanzania.
``It's not only a problem of foreign-based hotels, companies based in Tanzania also are underpaying workers,'' he complaints.
Indigenous communities also need to be involved in the planning of tourism ventures if theyare to be `sustainable,' says Raymond de Chavez, a researcher at the Philippines-based Tebtebba Foundation, an indigenous advocacy group.
``Indigenous peoples are paying a high price for tourism,'' he says.What few benefits indigenous peoples derive from tourism are far outweighed by the damage it has caused them, he says. He points to the example of the Masai indigenous group of Kenya who were forced out of their traditional pastoral grounds to make way for mass tourism.
If tourism is to survive as an industry it must not harm those local aspects, such as beaches or local culture, that attract tourists to the area, adds Jeb Brugmann, secretary general of the International Council of Local Environmental Initiatives, a group which works with local officials on environmental policy.
``We cannot forget that the reason tourists come to these places is because they have been cared for by local communities who know better than anyone else what is required to preserve local culture and environments,'' hesays.
Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.