Developing world tourism ‘not living up to its promise’

Tourism often fails to deliver improvements such as roads and clean water. Ines Nastali reports.

Tourism is developing unsustainably in many poorer nations and so is failing to deliver major economic gains, according to researchers speaking at a conference. 

The sector is often lauded as a valuable source of income for developing countries with beautiful environments. But it is not creating better infrastructure such as roads and clean water, as its representatives often claim, the audience heard last week at the annual international conference of the United Kingdom’s Royal Geographical Society.

Vishal Singh, a researcher at the Centre for Ecology, Development and Research in India, told the event that “not enough is invested in local development” through tourism companies. 

Singh gave the example of a lake near Sukhatal, a tourist attraction in the Himalayas. The lake has halved in size in nine years due to pumping and irrigation, but no local tourism revenue has ever been put into its conservation, he said. 

According to sustainability NGO the Worldwatch Institute, tourism is a crucial source of foreign currency for the world’s 40 poorest countries. But research presented at the conference showed that tourism also directly harms the environment while generating ever-higher carbon emissions through international travel.

The conference, which ran from 1 to 4 September, heard that carbon dioxide emissions from tourists’ travel are expected to quadruple by 2100, making a significant contribution to climate change, which disproportionately affects developing countries.

Tourism contributes five per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, UN agency the World Tourism Organization reports. 

This goal of a “clean sector” is not being achieved, said Paul Peeters, who researches sustainable tourism at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. He is urging the travel industry to make tourism more sustainable by reducing air and car travel and becoming less wasteful.

He told the conference the tourism sector was under increasing pressure to reduce its environmental impact from agriculture and electricity companies, which also have to cut emissions in countries with strict legislation.

But to Melanie Stroebel, who researches environmental governance at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, it is important to discover exactly which firms in the tourist sector are causing environmental harm so they can be held accountable. However, because of powerful interests, “a radical change in the tourism business context seems unlikely”, she said.

Stroebel also argued that proposed sustainability measures such as reducing air travel could harm developing countries. Stroebel said that tourism supports local retailers and creates jobs, mostly in the hotel and restaurant sector.

“There are economic benefits involved,” she told the event. 

In the Maldives, for example, tourism generates 42 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product), business forum the World Travel & Tourism Council reports.

But Peeters told SciDev.Net that tourism is a poor way to drive economic growth because it mainly offers basic jobs such as working in hotels or restaurants.

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