Tourism Receives a Coat of Green Gloss

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Is tourism turning towards more responsible and sustainable practices?

I frequently question the moral legitimacy of this concept. It seems that the “sustainable” approach is a moralist approach. There is an imagined notion of sustainability that, incidentally, is often exploited by companies, where we think, “we”re going to protect interesting things”. And what is ”interesting”, according to our criteria? The authentic versus the artificial that we are experiencing in Europe for instance. We want to protect the setting, keep local populations as they are…. We often make the mistake of thinking the older something is, the more authentic it is. But we’re mistaken because “old” and “authentic” can be fabricated to mimic “what once was”. Yet, there is a poverty behind all that which is perceived as being authentic. A human, interpersonal quality of local populations, usually destitute. In the end, all this is very paradoxal because sustainable development can be a sustainable barrier to the development of populations and territories. As if these populations were sentenced to identity confinement. In our minds, they are not supposed to change.

Isn’t tourism, by its very meaning, harmful for the environment?

By developing tourism, we modify the environment, and by affecting the environment, we disrupt the raw material of tourism. However, we have to be wary of the idea that any movement can be dangerous for a stable situation. Movement is considered to be harmful if it destabilizes something. For example, since the Romans, Tunisia has always witnessed the arrival of people, both conquerors and tourists. Local populations want change. Movement is part of tourism, but it’s also part of the societies receiving tourism. Moreover, regarding means of travel, all plane flights are not necessarily for tourism purposes. The current system of tourism is not solely to blame for greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

How has tourism changed over the years?

Today, people are not only going to touristic destinations to have a good time. Tourists are increasingly in search of a meaningful experience. A sort of guilt nags us. We know we have to protect the populations, the surroundings, the resources. Nevertheless, it’s not enough to change behaviors.

Why is it so hard to change behavior?

There is always an irrational side to our behavior when we travel. Vacation is still considered to be leisure; it has to be worth the money. School is out, people have been working all year, they deserve to let loose. But this is gradually changing. I recently participated in an experiment called “Vacation School” in collaboration with Paris Airports. We noticed a shift in ethics. Today, 60% of people state that they want to learn while on vacation. In sustainable tourism, education is severely lacking. Protecting nature is complex, it needs to be learned. You can be contemplating a magnificent, contaminated or polluted site without knowing it. However, those who teach us about the environment rely on tragic arguments that play on our fears. This is detrimental to our imagined notion. Sustainable tourism lacks a little frivolity, a little futility. Tragedy doesn’t shake things up.

Neither does green gloss…

It’s true that we allow ourselves all too easily to have a clear conscience by putting biodegradable bags in supermarkets and by thinking that we’re contributing to sustainable development. At several conferences, I met people who thought they were talking about the same thing – sustainable development – but who in fact had completely contradictory conceptions. Especially tour operators in some African countries. But generally speaking, I feel that this “sustainable development” complicates access to the modernization desired by local populations.

Première couche de vernis vert pour le tourisme

Rachid AMIROU

Interview by LAURE NOUALHAT

Libération, July 28 th -29th, 2007

© Libération

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