22 May 2017 is International day for biodiversity and this year’s theme is tourism. The UN Convention on biodiversity (CBD) is using this opportunity to promote the value of tourism in significantly reducing threats to, and maintaining or increasing key wildlife populations and biodiversity through tourism revenue. It does mention the need to reduce the negative impacts of tourism but, whereas it sings the supposed values of tourism, it merely whispers the negative impacts.
Positive examples of tourism do exist, such as Community Based Tourism projects, which protect territories, livelihoods and cultures. Friends of the Earth has worked with several such initiatives around the world, such as community based eco-curtural tourism in Timor Leste. Self-governance is essential, as are revenues that go directly to the local community and respect for their traditional ways of generating income. Unfortunately many initiatives don’t survive without the help of NGOs.
Sadly few sustainable tourism projects are actually viable. For example many “ecotourism” initiatives, whilst better for the environment, fail local communities by denying them revenue generation and self-determination. On a global scale, positive tourism is minimal. Yet the few examples that exist are being used to suggest that the entire tourism sector could become sustainable.
The biggest culprit of unsustainable and economically unjust tourism remains mainstream tourism. Indigenous peoples are often evicted from their land to make way for tourist resorts. Human rights abuses are rife, with some cases ending in death for people protecting their land. Hotels are often built on valuable ecosystems, destroying them in the process. Proposals such as the El Salvadoran Government’s tourism project in 2013 which threatened both coastal mangrove forests and local communities often fall foul of more than one injustice.
Indigenous people are often banned from their own territories as sacred sites are privatized, so tourists can enjoy them undisturbed. The profit from tourist resorts remains in the hands of transnational corporations. Furthermore local people are often exploited as workers in these resorts and hotels. A person’s water usage in hotels is significantly higher than at home. In some cases tourists use 16 times as much water as locals, causing conflict and disease.
Food waste is a huge issue. Even small resorts waste up to 150 tons of food a year, and a staggering 36% of all food purchased ends up in the bin. Cruise liners dump up to 3.8 billion litres of sewage in the oceans polluting ecosystems. These are just a few of the issues generated by mainstream tourism.
Sustainable tourism initiatives usually mean a mere change in the levels of waste and energy consumption rather than a change of business model. Initiatives are purely voluntary, a practise which has proved disastrous in other economic sectors.
It seems unlikely that tourism can become a green industry. 5% of global emissions are linked to tourism, purely for the benefit of richer middle and higher classes. The aviation industry alone plans 700% growth by 2050. It plans to offset its increased emissions through REDD programs. REDD is a false solution and desperately unsustainable.
Tourism comprises 10% of the global GDP with a projected annual growth of 3-5%. It does not need the promotion for economic development the UN is giving it on this day of International biodiversity.
What tourism needs is policies that respect the rights of local communities and indigenous peoples, including their right to self-determination, the visitors they receive, a fair share of the revenue, and protection for their ecosystems. Official studies on the negative impacts of corporate tourism and tough measures to prohibit the worst practices are desperately needed. Please help us celebrate International biodiversity day by calling for a change in the tourism business model.
Main image: Tourists waiting to take photographs of orangutans during feeding time at Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah, Malaysia.© Center for International Forestry Research