Episode 1: Tourism: a model to re-invent?

Episode 2: Can eco-tourism be the solution to over-tourism?

We belong to a time of extreme movement facilitation, openness to the world and cultures. We profit from the economic competition applied to the international flights, and from the advantages of the low cost companies. More and more tourists are crisscrossing the streets of the most important worldwide touristic capitals every minute, and we always expend our destinations in search of exoticism and change of scenery. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, the industry of tourism not only generates over $8.8 trillion in annual revenues, but also supports 319 million jobs. Put another way, if the travel and tourism industry were a sovereign nation, its output would rank it third in the world behind the U.S. and China, and more than the combined GDP of Australia, Spain, Russia and South Korea. Impressive, right? However, how many examples can I quote, of absurd and disrespectful tourist’s behaviors during these travels that do not always feed the local economy, but the multinational chains and big structures?

The tourism that we need to talk about today is therefore the mass one. Mass tourism, simply said, is a massive displacement of tourist populations to a single place (a city, a country or a geographical region) for a short time. A priori, nothing wrong, but it is necessary to consider more closely what are the implications. One could imagine that a massive influx of tourists induces a massive influx of revenue, hence the growth of the tourist industry and, logically, more work, but mass tourism often has a negative impact on people and the environment. Waste is mass produced, a lot of energy and water are needed. Water, a scarce commodity in hot countries, is particularly wasted in large hotel complexes, to the detriment of local populations.

For decades destinations spent millions of dollars competing against one another trying to attract travelers. Today, how many locals in touristic cities are rebelling against over-tourism and its consequences, making charters, policies and strikes more and more to chase tourists away and recover tranquility and clean immediate environment. Therefore, we are forced to put an eye on this evidence: tourism nowadays has a serious problem in its application, its practices, and several shades can be underlined. Indeed, we speak about tourist’s behaviors towards human entities, but also material entities, and natural entities, and their impacts on it. The constatation is very clear: they are all in a very bad shape, as well as going in a very bad direction.

In that sense, a trend emerged about 20 years ago: eco-tourism, and more generally responsible tourism, or solidary tourism. A vague expression for a vast concept, which seems a priori utopian. Then, what does this idea contain, what would it mean to adopt an eco-touristic practice? Why would we need it so much, as much as there is the need that I write this little and small-scale article to ensure it’s clear to you?

Let’s first first focus on the concept of tourism in itself, its definition and its applications, as well as the need of precisely re-defining its model, and the reasons why we need to.

Tourism is flourishing with beauties; it includes the concept of travel, which in itself is a bridge between cultures, synonymous of discovery and openness. But today, we are seeing its deviation due to the facilitation of which tourism is concerned, with the rise of low cost and e-tourism. The result is the very accused… mass tourism. The dehumanization of the sector and its interactions, which are now done over the internet, may lead to a less important impression of its impact on the visited site. Yet the impact is huge.  As tourists, we impact the economy, local life, the historical and natural heritage, and the spirits.  I specify the impact that the tourist have on the minds, although it often results from the sum of the impacts on the previous aspects, because it is from the local populations that emerge any resistance, and rebellion.

Touristic pressure is one of the factors of resistance: in Phuket, for example, a seaside resort in Thailand receiving more than 9.3 million tourists a year, there is an average of 5000 tourists per square mile (the city is only 12 square kilometers).  Its 300,000 inhabitants are the first victims, but the country is currently focusing on tourism as a path of development, and dissidents are only weak voices against the country’s politics.  However, Thailand has had to react and curb its mass tourism, when it comes to the preservation of a common good: the natural heritage.  Maya Bay, the iconic bay of the film The Beach, was closed to the public in the summer of 2018 because of the damage done to the corals, due to too many tourists making the round trip for a few minutes and a selfie by boat.  But this behavior, it will be granted, starts from ignorance and not from a desire to harm.

© BELGAIMAGE

The mass tourism has, we have to say it, a lot of harmful aspects to evoke. Among others, there is the capitalistic appeal, and the financial vicious circle that the attractivity of the place create. However, the concept of attractivity is inter-dependant with the one of demand: indeed, the more people chose to go to some place, the more it will develop under this effect and attract far more people, as well as if the power of attraction increase, more people will chose to travel there. In that sense, the tourism sickness today is a matter of choice, and that’s why people conciousness should be awaken. Cape Verde is a shining example. More than 50% of the tourist financial windfall is captured by mass hotels and not a dollar passes through the local economy. The hotels have their own shops, their own diving centers, their boats, and they only make the locals work for miserable salaries. There is only one tarmacked road, the one that goes from the airport to the big hotels that disfigure the beaches formerly covered by turtles and wild donkeys. Electricity is often cut throughout the city because all the flow is captured by the hotels: a social, economic, environmental disaster. Yet there are many small local guest houses, local cuisine, local shops, and local guides… And how many exemples can we quote around the world ! Brac and Bol, small croatian islands invaded by hotels that impeach the local inhabitants a free access to the beach? The tarmacked  coastline and the buildings of the seaside machinery of Benidorm, in Spain?

Tourism can thus seem the illusion of an unbridled pleasure, engendering inappropriate behavior.  These behaviors are not only an affront to local people and their good living, but also, and all too often, to nature and heritage. And it is this trend that is the new challenge of the tourism industry: one can take the example of the tourists swimming in the fountains in Italy, which are works of art and not swimming pools, or visitors in Venice (the epicenter of tourist overpopulation), where bridges and sidewalks turn into benches, and where tourists for a day come by ferries flock from all sides. The tourist has become a privileged consumer, a child king having all the rights, thanks to the wealth and the opportunity that it constitutes for the countries. In high places of tourism, like Venice for example, the locals are tired of it, and make it heard. In Barcelona, left-wing nationalist activists have taken matters into their own hands: their graffiti now decorate the city of “Migrants welcome, tourists come home”.

The building of a cultural association in Berlin, claiming "NO PHOTO!"
(© Clémence Maquet)

But the key role that tourism looks like can be a virtuous asset to send instead a positive and sensible impact to the world, through travel and pleasure. There is therefore precisely a need for a sustainable tourism, and a re-evaluation of consumer codes today, both for the population and for cities and nature. This is too big a challenge: indeed, tourism involves nature, the city, the human, civilizations, communities, cultures… And sustainable tourism itself is based on many pillars, including respect for the population, local culture, and the environment, for a climate and physical impact respectful of existing entities before the invention of the concept “tourism”: the land and its inhabitants. I evoked at the beginning of this article the “tourism sickness”. Because indeed, regions, places among the most beautiful in the world are sick. They have a disease that gradually disfigures and weakens them by devastating the environment and overwhelming populations. Its symptoms are the ecological and cultural pollution, the dispossession of the populations of their territories, the exploitation of these and the disproportionate use of the natural resources, and all this is partly and in a certain way generated by the tourism of mass.

In the next part, we will focus on the mere concept of eco-tourism, that is claiming to be the solution to this striking need of respect and moderation in the travel industry, exploring  the historical developement of  touristic eco-practices, the mains initiatives made by some countries to tackle their own issues, and defending a low-budget, accessible and respectful way of traveling the world.

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