September 27 is World Tourism Day. It is the day when nations around the world observe the importance of tourism in our economies and its social impact on our culture and environment. This year’s theme is ‘Tourism and Biodiversity’.
Tourism accounts for close to 10% of global GDP and provides employment for every 1 in 9 person around the world. Given its contribution to the global economy, it is an important sector that even deserves the attention of its own UN organisation – United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO).
In a press release prior to World Tourism Day however, it was highlighted that the global aviation industry also contributes to 5% of the greenhouse gases. I won’t be surprised that there are other statistics that show the negative impact of tourism such as environmental exploitation and cultural degradation.
How then can we maintain a fine balance to this double-edged sword? In this year’s theme, the UNWTO advocates the preservation of biodiversity. The assumption is that people travel to enjoy nature due to geographical differences between countries. We travel to experience a different climate, ecology and culture, to understand how people evolve their way of life to suit their environment.
So by preserving biodiversity, a country’s main natural resource to attract tourism, it will bring in economic benefits to alleviate poverty for third world nations.
On the surface, it sounds like a viable proposition to solve three problems at the same time. Preserve the environment, implement sustainable tourism strategies, make visitors happy, keep the dollars coming, provide jobs for the locals and alleviate poverty. I would like to think so as it turns out that these three issues are very dear to my heart.
Unfortunately, I live in a country that is bare in natural resources, history and culture but very rich in man made recreation. It seems that being brought up in such a surrounding has not made us more inclined to find natural or cultural hotspots but a people who will instantly trade them for air-conditioned shopping malls, culinary delights and all night entertainment right in front of the TV or computer.
I don’t know if this too characterise visitors from urbanised communities and if so, whether they can appreciate what nature has to offer and to pay for it. I think people who are used to certain levels of comfort expect the same from their vacations no matter the context of the holiday. The development of 5-star hotels in the Thai national parks to attract affluent visitors who want to experience nature in comfort is one such example.
I honestly applaud the efforts of the tourism boards around the world who are trying to make a difference. Coming up with innovative ways to promote sustainable tourism practices that are friendly to the environment and viable economically. But I think the issue lies not just with the supply side but with the demand side of tourism.
What also needs to be done is to educate visitors about their expectations and behavior when they are away from home. We can be real idiots when we are in another country. We don’t respect other people’s culture, etiquette and environment. And we bring with us a condescending attitude when in a less developed country. It is as if we paid for the right to be arrogant and inconsiderate.
And for goodness sakes, if you are there to appreciate nature, leave your your 5-star notions at home!