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Nigel's blog: a global paradox

How can tourism and air travel equate with sustainable development?

Nigel Brown is partner of Peter Brett Associates

In a fast changing world where a blame culture prevails, western tourism and the air travel that ensues is often viewed as one of the 'bad boys' of modern living. However, is this too simple? The question I ask is whether the inter-relationship between air travel, reducing poverty and slowing climate change are sufficiently recognised? We need to consider that air transport can be a conduit for delivering the message of sustainable development, providing opportunity and lifting millions out of poverty. Allowing more people to witness and understand our world, through tourism, both leisure and business, is part of that step.

The tourism industry needs to prepare for a possible change in tourism demand as a response to climate change, and the tax measures now proposed to discourage air travel. With transport as one of the most visible contributors to global warming, increased awareness of climate change might induce tourists to switch from long haul to short haul destinations or in some cases not fly at all. All good you may think, yet this shift could potentially harm least developed countries stopping development plans in their tracks and setting events in chain which would take a generation to resolve.

Tourism in the developing world faces a crucial paradox, whereby the very assets which attract people to tourist destinations are being eroded (in some cases literally) through overuse and mismanagement at the local level in a way that we in the 'developed' world would find completely unacceptable. Seeing things first hand is believing, and provides the basis for a greater, shared understanding of what the priorities should be. Witnessing change through your own senses is the most powerful tool. I personally think those that can, should fly, witness, promote local economies and help to sustain the different environments and cultures around the world.

The concept of sustainable development is only about 20 years old, sustainable tourism is even younger and we are all still learning about it. Have we forgotten in those years that the term sustainability encompasses social and economic factors as well as the environmental factors that are so willingly trumpeted by business leaders and politicians? In my mind, the greater the number of people who understand the value and impact of sustainable tourism and the effects on climate change and poverty, the wider the message will spread.

Why should we support Tourism?

Tourism has grown by around 50 per cent in the past 10 years. It now accounts for approximately 10 per cent of the world's economic activity and is one of the main generators of employment.

Tourism can play a significant role in sustainable development and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Tourism Organization (WTO) encourage all countries to make sure that their policies and actions for its development and management fully embrace the principles of sustainability.

Making tourism more sustainable is not just about controlling and managing the negative impacts of the industry. Tourism is in a very special position to benefit local communities, economically and socially, and to raise awareness and support for conservation of the environment.

Tourism makes people (visitors and hosts) become far more conscious of environmental issues and differences between nations and cultures. This can affect attitudes and concerns for sustainability issues not only while traveling but throughout peoples' lives.

Why is tourism important for poverty?

Tourism is the principal export in over a third of all developing countries, and amongst the 49 least developed countries (LDC); it is the primary server of foreign exchange earnings. In some countries it plays a major part in their sustainable development strategy, remember it was tourism that established Botswana to cease to be an LDC as early as 1994.

The attractiveness of tourism to remote need areas is particularly important since three quarters of people in extreme poverty live in rural areas. It is one of the few industries in which many developing countries actually have a comparative advantage over developed countries in terms of cultural heritage, natural assets, climate etc.

It provides the opportunity to support traditional activities such as agriculture and handicraft and as tourism is a labour intensive industry it provides local people with local jobs.

It can bring pride in local culture and value in the surrounding natural environment in the eyes of local community.

Infrastructure investment driven by tourism benefits local communities as a result of investment stimulated by tourism such the provision of roads, energy supplies, sanitation, clean water, and telecommunications.

So how do we deal with the paradox if abstention is not the answer?

Mitigation - acknowledging and addressing the impacts of travel on climate change.

Innovation - investing in cleaner technologies to facilitate travel whilst minimising the impact on climate change.

Adaptation - changing the ways in which we develop tourist destinations to ensure that more of the money generated through tourism reaches the economies of the host countries.

Integration - adopting a holistic view towards sustainable development acknowledging social, economic and environmental concerns have equal importance in delivering a sustainable future for emerging nations.

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