Tourism that makes the rich richer

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How can tourism become a tool for (sustainable) development? Here are the answers of Georges Cazes, who fights for the application of thresholds, according to the carrying capacity of the destinations.

The more developed the country, the more income from tourism has a positive effect on its economy. How can the countries of the South break out of this model and use tourism as a development tool?

Indeed, tourism mainly enriches the rich. There is a logical relationshipbetween the positive effects of tourism on the economy and the relative prosperity of countries. This model is both discouraging and near impossible to break out of.,. The causes are well-known: when the economies of the South, which are not very diversified, welcome travelers from the North, they must resort to importing expensive foreign goods (food, drinks,

Management staff, entertainment, etc.). In turn, a large part of the profit from tourism leaks out of the host country rather than being reinvested locally. Furthermore, the statistics of the Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and WTO show that the “degree of dependence” is proportional to the size of the host countries: very high (more than 75%) in the small islands, limited in large countries (like Mexico or Tunisia) and in those with diversified economies; of course, it is aggravated by the touristic “monoculture.”

Solutions to this situation are complicated. Is it possible to pull out from world competition where, in tourism as in other sectors, multinational firms have considerable weight in comparison to local actors in the South? Even countries, like Cuba, that have attempted to find their own way have had to resort back to calling on multinationals and foreign investment to achieve rapid growth in tourism. Another solution was previously considered: promote tourism projects that emphasize the use of local products and ensure that profits are reinvested locally, preferably in other economic and social sectors. This solution implies powerful government intervention, whose development is difficult to imagine in the current context of liberalism (the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations weigh on the economies of the South).

Experiences of this kind are still often scattered, often “ghettoized,” and always threatened. This can be seen when they reach a larger scale than that of the micro project. Such was the case for the village tourist camps of Casamance—often referred to under the typical heading of “integrated community tourism” —which conjured up hopes of a fresh model of planning, before facing extreme difficulties that put them in jeopardy.

In response to these challenges that face the poorest countries, international organizations brandish the miraculous solution of “sustainable tourism.” The concept is overused before having even been implemented! In this scenario, sustainable and lasting development would be a national strategy of growth and environmental protection, in which tourism would be added among other economic sectors. But, growth and environmental protection strategies can, in this sector, as in others as well, prove to be highly contradictory. […]

Clearly, we cannot stop people from travelling, even if the spread of tourism gives rise to environmental issues. What can be done in the face of this contradiction and what regulations can be created?

A strong increase in the international influx of travelers is indeed expected over the next few decades, linked to the steady increase of departure rates in countries of the North, but especially in the spectacular take-off of some emerging countries. This is the case for China, expected to quickly become one of the leading countries for in-coming and out-going tourism in the world; it is also the case for many western European countries and “production countries” in the Asia zone. It is a considerable challenge—especially in terms of the environment—and a complicated issue to resolve. Tourism is indeed a finite and limited universe. The record-holding cities in terms of visits (Paris, New York, Venice, etc.) are already over-equipped and becoming living, breathing museums, a process that is unanimously dreaded!

The solution, if one exists, resides in the fine-tuning of flows and territories, with modern, tailored, and flexible tools: operators must have alarm systems, as well as measures to regulate travel and expand it with regard to time and space. One of the essential responses is the creation of “carrying capacities” that the different host destinations will inevitably have to examine at some point in their development. Thresholds are defined in this way in order to preserve the quality of the tourist experience and of the local resources. The idea was that this carrying capacity could be calculated down to the decimal : realistically, this information is likely, at any moment, to be revised and redefined, as long as it is expressed both in socio-cultural terms (respect of local values) and material terms (water and energy consumption).

Important issues are still being debated: can customer selection criteria be defined (by cost, the eventual tourist experience, or even education level), at the risk of creating new inequalities that would be very difficult to justify? What “objective” organization could define these? This would cause a central problem of governance, especially difficult to resolve since the interests can still diverge depending on the degree of development of countries. Tourism is still too subject to the world’s geopolitical realities, which favor the North. The integration of the WTO, until now extremely dependent on large tour-operators, to the general UN system, may change things…

Georges CAZES

Alternatives économiques Hors-série Pratique n°18

mars 2005

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