At tipping point

Booming tourism worldwide has sparked a debate if its undoubted benefits are now outweighed by less quantifiable downsides. Xinyi Liang-Pholsena takes stock of the dilemma and sees what needs to be done

Bali’s Tanah Lot, also known as the Temple of Sea, encounters a daily surfeit of tourists

Can tourism be too much of a good thing? The answer is yes if its stakeholders aren’t careful. A whole session was devoted to this question at the 17th WTTC Global Summit in Bangkok in April, which had a strong focus on sustainability. UNWTO has designated 2017 as International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. In support, WTTC has launched a campaign, ‘Is it too much to ask?’, urging industry players to think about how they could transform their business and make a difference.

Balancing unprecedented tourism growth and protecting vulnerable destinations and valuable tourism goods is an old debate that has become more pressing. Just look at anti-tourism sentiments in Barcelona, or question marks over cruises’ impact on sinking cities like Venice, or countless examples of how arrival increases have outpaced infrastructure growth.

The consensus among panelists and speakers during the session was that a greater emphasis must be placed on the management of tourist destinations to prevent them from becoming a victim of their own success.

Alex Dichter, senior partner at McKinsey & Company and who’s currently working on a report assessing tourism’s impacts on destinations, remarked: “First of all, the 1.8 billion tourists are not going to be a problem per se if the everyone just agrees to swap cities when they travel – we’ll be fine. The issue is that tourists come from everywhere but they don’t go everywhere.”

The effects of over-tourism, whether it’s at historic sites like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu or popular destinations such as Barcelona and Venice, are all too apparent, he pointed out, causing enormous strain on the attractions themselves and the infrastructure and public transport, creating resentment among the locals.

The “tragedy of commons” is hence an issue the tourism sector has to worry about, added Dichter, underscoring the importance of destinations to manage their carrying capacities as only 96 of 229 natural UNESCO sites in the world have tourism management plans.

In South-east Asia, huge inbound tourist numbers have clearly outpaced the development of eco-friendly infrastructure in many places. Halong Bay is a prime example, observed TP Singh, deputy regional director, Asia, International Union for Conservation.

Jamaica’s minister of tourism Edmund Bartlett thinks that “greediness and ignorance” had in the past clouded many governments’ vision as they pursued the economic benefits of tourism without exercising proper judgement and management.

“We just wanted ships to come in, planes to arrive and hotels to be built, but we didn’t pay much attention to carrying capacity and key sustainable issues that will make tourism last,” he said, commenting on the earlier days of Jamaica’s tourism development.

Silver lining
A silver lining in recent years is that more countries are giving recognition to the industry by structuring tourism as a stand-alone ministry or appointing cabinet ministers to lead development and tackle related issues, he noted. At the same time, guidelines, EIAs (Environment Impact Assessments) and legislation have to be developed and put in place, he elaborated.

The onus also lies with governments and corporate companies alike to take responsibility for growth and industry development, said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line, citing public-private “partnerships” as an example of a positive tourism driver in areas like new cruise terminal development.

While cruise lines have often been portrayed as villains in the tourism landscape with their ever-growing portfolio of bigger ships, Duffy insisted that Carnival has been a responsible corporate player by voluntarily bringing a stop to ships exceeding 96,000 tonnes to Venice as it seeks measures to limit tourist numbers.

Cruise lines have also played a part in shifting visitor footfalls to diverse as well as lesser-known spots, such as Bari in southern Italy, which are often included together with marquee destinations like Venice on cruise itineraries, she added.

This view is also supported by Dichter, who agrees that cruise tourism takes pressure off existing ports and introduce travellers to new destinations. As well, the growing quest for “experiences” among travellers, say, through walking food tours organised by small entrepreneurs, will help to spread tourism and wealth from beyond key sites, he added.

Beyond talk, more actions
What’s heartening for Maria Damanaki, global managing director, oceans, The Nature Conservancy, is the greater dialogue and emphasis given to sustainable tourism. “Sustainability was not (considered) a challenge in tourism sector events like this (WTTC Global Summit) 10 years ago. It’s easy to put the blame on politicians and say governments are not doing their job.

“We – and I mean the private sector and citizens – can do our own part and bring the value of nature inside our thoughts. I’d challenge the tourism sector to be the leader and incorporate the value of nature into your investment plans,” she urged.

Damanki suggests that beachfront hotels, for example, could do more to protect the coral reefs fronting their properties not just for attracting guests with diving activities but also an avenue to maintain biodiversity and protect the shoreline.

“Climate change is the biggest challenge to Venice, not tourism. If sea levels go up by two cm, there’s no Venice!” she exclaimed, pointing to the bigger elephant in the room.

Borrowing a line from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the outgoing secretary-general of UNTWO, Taleb Rifai, said that although “we live the worst of times and the best of times”, tourism can be transformative and make the world a better place.

“We all need to ensure that, as our sector grows, it contributes to the wellbeing of the world and not to its peril. Tourism must fulfil its responsibility to contribute to all 17 universal Sustainable Development Goals,” he said at the opening ceremony of ITB Berlin this year.

“Unlike many problems where we are observers, people in this room have the power to effect change,” surmised Dichter, urging travel industry members to become positive forces of change.

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