Can sustainable tourism really drive economic growth and promote conservation at the same time? Matthew Humke shares his perspective based on 20 years of experience around the world.
Due to its sheer size and potential, sustainable tourism — travel that attempts to benefit a destination’s economy, environment, and society — has become an essential element of nearly any economic development strategy in emerging economies around the world.
You’ve probably seen the stats: Worldwide, travel and tourism contribute 10.2 percent of GDP, are third in global exports (trailing only fuel and chemicals), create one in 10 jobs, and have outpaced the global economy in terms of growth for the sixth consecutive year in 2016.
But that’s primarily in mainstream destinations like Western Europe and North America, right?
Wrong. 2015 marked the first time in modern history that middle- and low-income countries received more visitors than the developed world — a whopping 550 million people going on safaris in Africa, exploring the Amazon in dugout canoes, and visiting ancient shrines in Asia.
But how much money are they really spending? In 2015, tourists spent $486 billion dollars in emerging economies — about three times the amount of official development assistance that year. Still not impressed? How about the fact that tourism is the number one source of foreign exchange in 83 percent of emerging economies.
In other words, if you’re doing economic development work in emerging economies and not seriously considering tourism as a part of your strategy, you’re missing the dugout canoe.
Yet while sustainable tourism, as a niche market, grows three times faster than the tourism industry overall, the unrelenting expansion of mass tourism’s all-inclusive resorts and ever-larger cruise ships continues to threaten the world’s fragile ecosystems, particularly in the coastal and marine destinations favored by sand and sun seekers. The result has been a loss of coastal mangrove and reef habitats, competition for fresh water and scarce resources, and social problems such as rising real estate prices and the displacement of fishing and farming communities.
The origins of sustainable tourism
It’s no secret that ecotourism, which in turn evolved into sustainable tourism, was born out of the conservation movement. International NGOs like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy poured considerable resources into the ecotourism boom of the ’80s and ’90s. The concept was sexy and the opportunities seemed limitless.
But that interest and investment began to ebb about a decade ago — most likely due in part to the lack of success stories or replicable models illustrating how tourism could reduce biodiversity threats, not just contribute to them. These early challenges are likely due to an underestimation of the complexity and demands of a service-driven industry like tourism, and the inability of governments, development agencies, and NGOs to empower indigenous groups and community tourism micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) with the unique skill sets it takes to meet the expectations of international travelers.