Tourism, Terrorism, and Tomorrow

As fewer overseas travelers pack their bags this holiday season, millions of tourism industry workers worldwide are losing their jobs. Before September 11th, travel and tourism was the world’s largest industry, accounting for one in every 12 jobs. When the massive $3.6 trillion industry almost ground to a halt after the terrorist attacks, the ripple effects extended well beyond the United States, exposing the vulnerability of countries too dependent on international tourism, reports the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental research organization.

“The aftermath of September 11 has shown us how important travel and tourism are to the global economy, but also how over-dependence on tourism can devastate lives and derail economies,” says Worldwatch Staff Researcher Lisa Mastny, author of Traveling Light: New Paths for International Tourism. “Now, more than ever, it is time to put issues of sustainability at the top of the global tourism agenda.”

In the paper, Mastny discusses ways that countries can redirect their tourism activities to make them more socially beneficial and environmentally sound. She highlights a wide range of positive efforts underway to minimize tourism’s negative impacts and to boost its benefits for local communities and the environment.

Revenues from tourism have been especially important in the developing world, which stands to suffer severe economic losses from the slowdown. “Tourism is the only economic sector where developing countries consistently run a trade surplus,” says Mastny. “It’s especially significant in poorer countries that have few other options: for the world’s 49 so-called least developed countries, tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange after oil.”

Businesses in the developing world are particularly worried about the sharp drop in bookings as the winter high season nears:

  • India and Nepal, which are close to Afghanistan, are already feeling the effects of a drop in demand.
  • In October, resort company Club Méditerranée was forced to close 15 of its holiday villages in the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia.
  • Operators in Costa Rica report a 30 percent decline in bookings from last year.
  • International tourism is now expected to grow by only 1.5 to 2 percent in 2001, compared with the robust 7.4 percent rise in 2000.
  • The International Labour Organization estimates that as many as 9 million of the world’s 200 million hotel and tourism workers could lose their jobs in the wake of the attacks. Nearly three quarters of these positions are outside the United States and Europe, many in countries with weak social safety nets.

Even in the best of times, the consequences of tourism’s rapid growth have not always been positive. On average, as much as 50 percent of tourism earnings ultimately “leak” out of the developing world-in the form of profits earned by foreign-owned businesses, promotional spending abroad, or payments for imported goods and labor. And uncontrolled tourism development-on mountaintops, along coastlines, or in remote jungle areas-stresses many fragile ecosystems and cultures.

“Tourism does not have to have such negative impacts,” Mastny says. “Many governments and businesses, local communities, and tourists themselves are already paying more attention to the social, cultural, and environmental impacts of their activities.”

Such changes can save money as well. Some hotels, tour operators, and other businesses are taking formal steps to restructure their management and operations along environmental lines-often at considerable cost savings. Between 1988 and 1995, for example, Inter-Continental Hotels reduced its overall energy costs by 27 percent, saving $3.7 million in 1995 alone. The Green Hotels Association reports that hotels that have adopted such conservation measures and green practices have been better able to weather the revenue loss, falling occupancies, and higher energy costs in the aftermath of the September attacks.

In the paper, Mastny also examines the role of ecotourism, or responsible tourism in natural settings, in protecting and enhancing environmentally fragile areas. If done well, ecotourism can bring benefits to both local communities and conservation. The ecotourism sector had been growing even faster than the tourism industry as a whole (20% vs. 7%). But Mastny cautions that some businesses are “greenwashing” their operations, slapping on the ecotourism label without actually changing their practices.

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