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How Sustainable is Tourism?

By Shreya Ramchandran

Travel and tourism were the most affected sectors due to the COVID-19 pandemic with planes never taking off, hotels and tourist destinations shut down and travel restrictions imposed across the world. International travel fell by 1 billion people from 2019 to 2020, and this led to a loss of about 1.3 trillion dollars in export revenue. In many developing countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka etc., tourism revenue makes up a large portion of the GDP, and is an important tool to aid in the development process through improved supply chains, increased local firm productivity and demand as well as creating jobs for many people. The recent improvement in health and well-being of people due to the COVID vaccines has resulted in an upshot of travel. People are making up for the lost time, with a new found intensity to remain outside of their homes. While it is great to see the world jump back to normal, climate change and global warming are still a massive threat to life and the environment. The governments in these tourist spots are taking steps towards ensuring that ecotourism and sustainable tourism becomes the bulk of their revenue and helps their economy recover from the pandemic in the right way.

Ecotourism can be defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education”. The important aspects of ecotourism include building environmental awareness and cultural respect for local and regional cuisine, language, value etc., providing direct financial benefit for conservation, delivering memorable interpretative experiences to visitors that help raise sensitivity to host countries’ political, environmental, and social climates etc. Destinations that fall under ecotourism include Tanzania, Masai Mara, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica etc., making up  around 7% of the world tourism market.

Sustainable tourism, the parent of ecotourism, refers to “a balance between the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, which plays an important role in conserving biodiversity. It attempts to minimize the impact on the environment and local cultures so that it will be available for future generations, while contributing to generating income, employment and conservation of local ecosystems.” The revenue generated is normally channeled back for conservation measures.

Costa Rica (located in Central America) was named “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations in 2019, for its leadership in sustainability practices in the tourism sector. It successfully increased its forest cover from 26% in 1983 to around 52% in 2021. About 25% of its territory is protected lands, ranging from tropical rainforests and rugged mountain ranges, to stunning coastlines and volcanic landscapes. They target those tourists that understand the uniqueness of their country and appreciate the biodiversity and environment that the country has to offer. This has allowed them to preserve their country and its rich natural resources. In 1997, the Costa Rican Tourism Institute developed a country-wide Certification for Sustainable Tourism (CST), guiding businesses on how to make their business model sustainable. The use of the CST mark allows tourists to identify which attractions, accommodations and tourist operators are following sustainable practices. The programme was recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council and the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Attractions that echo sustainable tourism and ecotourism include the Manuel Antonio National Park, which limits its visitors to a maximum of 600 on weekdays, and 800 on weekends so as to reduce the consequences of over-tourism; the Tortuguero National Park, which is  the largest green turtle nesting sight and focuses on conservation of these beautiful species, etc. The revenue generated from these national parks is useful to finance the protection and management of the natural reserves.

Unsustainable tourism is driven by overcrowded hotspots, where unregulated entry of tourists has resulted in the degradation of the land, the natural resources and the people who live there. For example, the tourism in Leh and Ladakh has  reached new heights of unsustainability, as nearly 700 hotels receive a quarter of a million tourists every year. This puts a lot of pressure on the water resources, and results in unsustainable means by which to feed the tourist industry. The local people are the most vulnerable, as the increasing number of borewells directly affect the springs that the local population depends on for both drinking water and agriculture. In Kodaikanal, the rapid growth of tourism has led to water scarcity, sewage management problems, worsened air pollution, deforestation for the development of roads and worsening of plastic pollution.

In these areas, local communities become the driver for sustainable practices, and ensure the preservation of culture, identity, environment and heritage. It provides the opportunity for inclusive growth, allowing those in the margins of the country to share their story and home. Sustainable visitor strategies based on art, craft, cultural & natural heritage and environment care can contribute significantly to conservation. In Masai Mara, Africa, many safari lodges offer Maasai cultural interactions and traditional experiences in order to inform people about the culture of that area, as well as preserve the cultural heritage. The people live on the Masai Mara reserve itself, and a close association with the wildlife has resulted in a symbiotic relationship, where wildlife and people intermingle with each  other on a daily basis. The Masai tribe and landowners living in the reserve lease their land to the safari operators for eco-tourism practices. They are paid a monthly fee,contribution is made  to their community programmes and the tribes are hired as wildlife trackers due to their wide range of knowledge on wildlife.

To ensure the well-being of nature and the local communities after the pandemic, an emphasis on sustainable tourism and ecotourism is important. However, there are potential threats to these practices too, and without regulation it will add to climate change and global warming rather than help mitigate it. Over-tourism in protected areas can be harmful to the environment, and can add to the environmental stress that comes from accommodating these tourists. It can lead to an increase in the population that lives in these areas as more jobs are available due to ecotourism, and this can be harmful to the natural reserve. It can also lead to the extensive resettlement of the local people as tourism increases, thus, affecting the very principle of sustainable tourism. It is up to the government to create policies that enable the private sector as well as the various tourists to operate sustainably. The policies must ensure that over-tourism doesn’t affect nature, and that tourism after the pandemic is moderated efficiently.

As the world comes out of the pandemic, the old ways of living have to change and we have to take into consideration the threats facing us. The pandemic has put economies in set-back, but it has also allowed us to rethink our path of growth and development so as to ensure sustainability and inclusivity. The tourism industry is a large portion of economic growth and development, and adding sustainability to it will not only ensure our well being, but also the well being of the entire world community. 

Shreya Ramchandran is a second-year undergraduate Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

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