A load of greenwash?

Rita Payne

According to the Worldwatch Institute, tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for over four fifths of developing countries, and the primary export of one third of the world’s most distressed economies. Under the leadership of Mexico’s President Felipe Calderón, this year’s G20 communiqué saw its leaders highlight for the fi rst time the importance of tourism as an engine for growth.

Given that the sector has fared better than most in the global financial crisis, who could blame governments for chasing, in these straitened times, a quick buck from a ready market? In this issue of Global, we seek to answer that question by asking another: who’s really picking up the tab?

While some might accuse Mark Watson, executive director of Tourism Concern, of wishful thinking in making the claim that people would enjoy their holidays more if they were assured that no one had been displaced from their land or that local people were not being exploited, there is a perceptible and increasing demand for that ‘once in a lifetime experience’ to come with a clear conscience as standard. There is some way to go, however, warns Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent at the Guardian, who urges us to look beyond the blurb of self-styled ecotourist destinations. An independent assessment of the environmental, social and cultural impact of tourism in the developing world is long overdue, she says.

Against this pessimistic backdrop, it might seem odd to claim that tourism can drive conservation. But with the launch of the Kalahari-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, Africa’s largest, the early signs are that five countries – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – have managed to align the interests of local people, wildlife, the environment and tourists. Steve Felton of the World Wildlife Fund explains how this collaboration is allowing elephants and other wildlife to move freely between park and communal land and across national borders. It also recognises that small-scale farmers have a deep-rooted and realistic fear of wildlife which might devastate their crops or prey on their domestic animals. The hope is that tourism will begin to tip the economic balance by creating alternative jobs and providing benefits from tourism-related activities.

India, with its vast population and diversity of terrain, plant and animal life is having to deal with the impact of rapid urbanisation and other effects of modernisation. Aline Dobbie, author of Quicklook at India, reports on pioneering resorts and hotel owners who are prepared to take on the challenge of providing eco-sensitive facilities and reducing their contribution to urban pollution. Dobbie detects, however, a degree of political lethargy in the country, and suggests that arguably the largest national tourism industry in the world would benefit enormously if the government adopted a more methodical and vigorous approach to both regulating and promoting ‘Incredible India’.

Meanwhile, there is concern about growing instability in the Maldives, which has long been a primary tourist destination in the Indian Ocean. In an interview with Global, the ousted former president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, warns that the country is in danger of losing its authority in advocating action on climate change. Mr Nasheed was removed from power in February this year and replaced by his vice-president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan. In response, the current vice president, Mohammed Waheed Deen, shows the other side of the picture. His government is anxious to reassure foreign tour operators that, despite the political uncertainty, the tourism industry can continue to flourish in the Maldives.

Whatever their political persuasion, it seems that successive leaders of this developing country, long regarded as a successful high-end tourism model, can agree on one thing: the tourists and their dollars (and, increasingly, their yuan, rupees, roubles and reals) must keep checking in. The challenge for the Maldives and many countries like it is to ensure that local culture, vulnerable communities and fragile ecosystems do not check out.

About the author:

Rita Payne is the Editorial Director of Global: the international briefing


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