Tourism – Saviour of the world economy or environmental apocalypse

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Champions of the global tourism industry, including UNWTO Secretary General Dr Taleb Rifai and WTTC President David Scowsill have effectively communicated the benefits of responsible tourism growth in conferences all over the world. However, among some tourism academics there remain some “tourism skeptics” who argue that tourism growth will drain scarce resources and lead the world to an environmental apocalypse.
Between Feb 10-13, almost 300 tourism academics and travel industry leaders from 27 countries gathered at the Sofitel Hotel in Brisbane (Australia) for the annual CAUTHE (Council of Australasian University Tourism and Hospitality Educators) Conference. The conference involved over 200 presentations encompassing a wide range of issue in world tourism However, readers will be relieved that the focus of this article is on two keynote addresses which reflected the polar opposites in thinking about world tourism.

UNWTO Secretary General Dr Taleb Rifai made a superbly crafted and delivered presentation which outlined the growth of tourism in recent years. In 2013 1.087 billion tourists travelled internationally. He pointed out that tourism growth had defied wider economic downturns in Europe, North America and Africa. He also pointed out the global shift in outbound tourism was moving from Europe and North America to the Asia Pacific region. This shift was enhancing and empowering the economies of many developing countries. In 2013 China became the leading tourism generating country on earth.

He also stated the UNWTO, WTTC and other transnational tourism organisations including PATA were persuing an enlightened policy of poverty alleviation through tourism and a focus on socially, environmentally and economically sustainable tourism. He argued that the global economy, especially in developing countries stood to benefit from the facilitation of tourism. He claimed that easing of entry visa restrictions and punitive travel taxes would result in governments earning far more income from increased visitation than these taxes would raise. Dr Rifai called on the global tourism to foster ethical and sustainable tourism development and pointed out that such development would enhance and protect rather than damage global biodiversity.

In short Dr Rifai asserted that tourism, properly managed could be a saviour of the world’s economy, especially in the developing world.
The opposite point of view was eloquently expressed by Professor Stefan Gossling of Lund University Sweden, Research Coordinator at the Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism. Professor Gossling argued that in a world in which vital resources such as oil, water, food and clean air were being rapidly depleted, unchecked growth of tourism would be a major accelerant to that depletion. He claimed that long haul air travel was a major contributor to carbon emissions. He also claimed that tourists tended to be far more wasteful of food and water than residents in destination. He also claimed that most tourists were careless about disposal of waste. He added that in many instances tourists were insensitive to an d contribute to the corruption of local culture, customs and mores. In essence Gossling called for less rather than more global tourism. He claimed that the social, environmental and resource costs of mass tourism would cost more to national economies than the income generated from tourism.

He expressed doubt that even those regions designated for world heritage status, making them attractive for eco-tourism could survive the ecological strain of mass visitation. Essentially Professor Gossling asserted that unchecked tourism growth could have an apocalyptic impact on the world’s resources.

These two presentations were in essence the bookends of the conference. Most tourism academics, in common with their industry colleagues, believe that well managed tourism can bring considerable benefit to the world. Professor Gossling’s arguments sound a warning that tourism has to be managed sustainably if tourism is going to be the force for good that most tourism professionals believe it to be.

There was no doubt that the vast difference between these two presentations, were a major talking point of the CAUTHE Conference. They should also be a major issue of discussion when assessing the benefits and costs of global tourism growth.

The Author: Dr David Beirman is a Senior Lecturer in tourism at the University of Technology –Sydney. He attended and presented at the CAUTHE Conference.