In these times, with almost unbridled tourism, it may be interesting to ask ourselves about the sustainability of such a widespread activity. As far back as 1988, the World Tourism Organization said that sustainable tourism was that “that leads to the management of all resources in such a way as to satisfy economic, social and aesthetic needs, maintaining cultural integrity, ecological processes essentials, biological diversity and systems that support life”. The definition offered today is similar although, in any case, compliance with the conditions proposed is very difficult, given the different paths that the sector has been opening up, increasingly further away from taking into account “the current and future repercussions , economic, social and environmental aspects of the host communities”.
Despite the avalanche of so-called “sustainable tourism” projects, which almost overwhelm us, it could be said that traveling for pleasure is one of the most unsustainable activities. And it is insofar as it consists of taking as many visitors as possible, as far as possible, so that they can take a photo, conveniently spread it over the internet, and return them to the starting point. All this consuming energy, polluting, modifying the conditions of the destinations –almost always making their natural or differential values disappear–, or building infrastructures that are generally not very ecological. Changing this dynamic entails problems, above all because in many places it has become the only economic activity that allows the local population to survive.
Tourism is not the devil you have to fight against. The waste of planet it produces can be justified in some cases. Two of the most interesting justifications stand out. The first is the rebalancing of rents between visitors and residents. Generally, the economic capacity of the tourist is greater than that of the local population. Especially when it comes to nature tourism. It is necessary to ensure that part of the profit generated stays in the destination, but it is not easy. Particularly in those low-income countries or territories that tend to keep the crumbs of the business, while the issuers and intermediaries get richer and richer. In some cases, the recipient companies do not benefit even 5% of the total profits. But even this percentage is often considered better than nothing.
The problem is management. It is common for destinations not to have local professionals with enough initiative and vision to bring about a rebalancing of income. So, what happens in the tourist attractions based on the territory? Since the territory cannot be displaced or directly subtracted (like some cultural elements still housed in museums in certain rich countries), a kind of covert colonialism is produced. Thus, it is agents outside the territory who, in reality, profit from the tourist activity, considering the place of reception as their own, which makes it difficult for the desirable rebalancing of income to be fulfilled. But it is something very important.
In some cases, the societies receiving tourism do not benefit even 5% of the total profits
Another noteworthy justification refers to the increase in knowledge. The exchange of ideas, cultures and customs between the tourist and the local population is supposed to result in a better mutual understanding. And, ultimately, in greater tolerance. The problem is that, in many cases, what occurs is an imposition of ideas, cultures and customs by the visitor. To such an extent that, little by little, the local population is accommodating to their demands that, to a large extent, the only thing they are looking for is a selfie to send to their friends. And for that, he requires the comforts he is used to, from meals to transportation to accommodation.
Sometimes, the tourist avalanche is of such magnitude, multiplying the number of the local population, that it is a real invasion. Furthermore, it only occurs at certain times, leaving the rest of the year empty in terms of employment and activity. Sometimes even misery. In certain cases, this is perceived in this way by the host community that manifests itself with protests and a certain tourism-phobia is created. Mutual knowledge is, therefore, a justification that is difficult to comply with. With the aggravating circumstance that the differential (what the tourist is looking for) is gradually erased and it is necessary to resort to a continuous recreation of the tourist product.
Even if some of these justifications occur, it is not enough. Derived from them, it is worth pointing out some conditions that could improve the sustainability of this activity, both in the place of reception and in the planet in general. Mass tourism, transporting many people and traveling long distances very quickly, implies energy consumption and pollution that cannot be assumed.
The consequences of the excessive exploitation of the planet are numerous, but probably one of the most important is climate change.
It is essential to change the model by reducing consumption, pollution and urbanization of the territory. A transformation that would probably be interesting for the sector, since it would imply diversifying a product generally based on extensive tourism for a more respectful one. And diversification is always interesting for business.
The consequences of the excessive exploitation of the planet are abundant, but probably one of the most important is climate change. This is the Achilles heel of some types of extensive tourism such as the so-called “sun and beach”. Concern is already beginning to be felt in some destinations, not only because of the heat waves that partly affect sun tourism (too much sun) and snow tourism, but also because of the rise in sea level, which already represents a threat for some coastal areas.
Some measures should begin to be planned. Not only mitigation, essential so that this does not go ahead, but also adaptation, considering that climate change is a reality, and its impacts are already noticeable. Also in tourist destinations as we know them.
In addition, it would be advisable to start paying more attention to local conditions such as the conservation of nature and cultures, which is fundamental, as the aforementioned UNWTO definition says when it speaks of the maintenance of “cultural integrity, essential ecological processes , biological diversity and systems that support life”. And not only from an environmental perspective, but also from the preservation of the tourism product itself, which is often based on the natural conditions of the site. If these are destroyed, they would cease to be an attractive destination, which would reduce the income they generate and allow the survival of the local population.
Jose Farina Tojo He is a professor of Urban Planning and Territory Planning. Professor Emeritus of the UPM.
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