Thursday, March 24, 2011

Love And Hate: Tourism sustainability

Back in 1992, I was forced to wade through innumerable conference papers that were devoted to sustainability. It was the year of the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Everything was being sustained, including an entire sector of the publishing industry that was getting in on the act along with all manner of consultants and advisors, as well as those on the tree-hugging, extreme-beard wing.

Business, which had already been cajoled into social responsibility, environmental audits and the like, was now shouting its sustainable credentials from whatever roof top, with its own solar panels and organic garden, that it could find. Sustainable development had arrived.

Nearly 20 years on, and sustainability has undergone a process of niching. As a consequence, we have sustainable tourism. And the Balearics are claiming its leadership, one that has been boldly stated at the second national conference on social responsibility of tourism businesses in Palma.

The year before Rio, I was on a plane to Madrid, having been on the Costa Almeria in southern Spain as part of a collaboration with a tour operator. The young Spanish girl next to me on the plane, on hearing the words "tour" and "operator", pricked up her ears and proceeded to give me an ear-bashing back to Barajas airport.

The relationship with the tourist in Mallorca and in other parts of Spain has long been one of ambivalence. Of love and hate. Mallorca can't live with or without tourists and tourism. A hatred of tourists has been misguided. The irresponsibility for environmental damage was not that of tourists, but of local planning that sought to exploit them and got into bed with tour operators to ensure this exploitation.

Nevertheless, tourists, as the girl on the plane was keen to point out, several times, have shown scant regard for or interest in the environmental impact of their occupation forces. Or, at least, this was the case in 1991. To what extent the tourist perception has changed remains questionable, but change it has.

This is what tour operators, the previously socially irresponsible ogres of unsustainability, now say. Thomson say so, as an example. They may not be wrong in saying so, but the mere fact of this say-so is intended also as a demonstration of their own newly-found responsibilities. It is one that plays well in PR terms and in audits of corporate governance that have made mandatory companies' environmental righteousness.

In the Balearics, there are, it would appear, 167 companies that can call themselves socially responsible, amongst them the leading tourism businesses, i.e. the hotels. Sustainability has a business benefit, or so it is said. A commitment to environmental quality is key to competitiveness. This is the message that has come from the conference.

Though environmental responsibility may now be proven by tourism businesses, this is only one aspect of sustainable tourism. Tourists, who seemingly crave hotels that can boast of their environmental soundness, may well be smugly tucked up on the sun-lounger in full knowledge of playing a more benign role in the local ecology, but what of the rest of sustainable tourism? The environment is the big-ticket part of sustainability. It is not the same when it comes to local economies.

Sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, call it what you will, deals also in the integrity of local cultures and businesses, in the involvement of local people in decision-making, in minimising economic impacts. Not maximising, minimising.

The market, so the tour operators and other tourism businesses would wish to persuade us, is driving environmental correctness. The market is also, however, driving in a different direction. How, for example, do local decision-making involvement and the minimisation of economic impacts square with all-inclusives? I suspect that the answer is that they don't.

One needs to ask on whose terms tourism is sustainable. Ultimately, it isn't the local economy's. It is the market's. What has occurred is that the environmental harm of 1991 and that airborne ear-bashing and the 1992 prescriptions of Rio have indeed been addressed, but replaced by a different harm. Pre-Rio, it was the market. Today, it is still the market. Just that the symptoms are different.

Sustainable. For whom?

Any comments to please.

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