2017: International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

 

In the UN’s list of International Days[1], there are more than 100 celebrations throughout the year and they literally cover all types of subjects: from cancer to poetry, from sport to copyrights and from jazz to tuna (yes even tuna has its own international day, the 2nd of May).

Every year, the UN chooses a specific topic about which it wants to raise public awareness: 2016 was the year of pulses, 2015 was the year of soils and of light and light-based technologies, 2018 will be the year of indigenous languages and currently, we are in the year of sustainable tourism.

Why that? Why sustainable tourism and not tuna? Let’s look at some numbers: tourism is responsible for 10% of the world’s GPD, 1 out of 11 jobs in the world are in the tourism sector, representing 7% of world exports. Since 2009, tourist arrival numbers have grown each year by an average of 4%, reaching 1186 million in 2015[2].

Tourism is now a mass phenomenon and as such, it has positive and negative externalities and it is also making its way into the geopolitical world, influencing decisions and changing economical situations for entire nations.

People move, people travel and migrate and this is something as old as humanity. Historically, travel has been utilized mostly to find new resources, for trading, for invading new countries or escaping from invasions. Travelling for pleasure, a concept that first appeared among the Greeks, however, is a relatively new phenomenon. For centuries, it remained a luxury activity that just a few people could afford[3]. Modern technologies have made travel easier, faster and cheaper contributing to the development of the travel culture that is experienced today.

The event that is considered the beginning of the tourism industry as we know it happened in England in 1841 when Thomas Cook managed the first organized one-day trip in human history; he brought five-hundred and forty people from Leicester to Loughborough to attend a rally. The trip was just eleven miles long, in the price were included the train ticket and a pocket lunch. After this first experience, he continued to organize excursions, eventually coming to arrange organized trips even abroad building up to organized trips abroad. He was so successful that in 1872, forty years after his first organized trip, he founded Thomas Cook & Son. To this day the company is known as Thomas Cook Group and it still one of the biggest and most famous companies in this sector[4].

Today, 53% of people who travel abroad are going for leisure purposes[5].Tourism is a huge business and for many developing countries it represents a fundamental source of revenue. Therefore, it automatically becomes a geopolitical lever for developed countries, where most tourists come from. Travel advisories are a good example of this power: these are warnings published by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs following tragic events in some specific countries. As we can imagine, a Western Government suggesting to its citizens not to visit another country can cause a dramatic downfall in the tourist arrivals and seriously compromise entire economies.

A good example of this is the case of Gambia: in July 1994, some army officers successfully held a bloodless coup d’état in this small West African country. Soon after, the British Foreign Office published a travel advisory, suggesting not to visit the country, maintaining it for fifteen days. A second advisory was published in November and lasted until March 1995. The effects of these two advisories were devastating for the entire Gambian economy, as British tourists represented 60% of international arrivals in the country. In this situation, the most bizarre thing is that none of the numerous British expats in the country were suggested to leave. All in all, it is not absurd to think that the British government’s decision to advise against travel to the country, yet to ignore the citizens already present on the territory, had less to do with concerns about safety and more with putting pressure on the new Gambian regime[6].

Another good case in which a developed country was targeted by tourism advisory is Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt. In 2005 this famous Egyptian destination saw a heavy terrorist attack that caused 88 victims. Sharm-El-Sheikh and Egypt in general, have been often mentioned in travel advisories in the latest years, in particular, during the summer of 2013, when the collapse of the political situation in the country led many tour operators to repatriate their tourists and staffs[7].

A different treatment is reserved for Western countries affected by security problems, the best example being the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in 2001: these were not followed by travel advisories by other countries about new possible attacks in New York or in the USA. The same happened after the London underground’s attacks in 2005[8]

And what about all the terrorist attacks that happened in France and in Belgium in the last two years? Similar events in Burkina Faso, in Tunisia and in Ivory Coast in the same period led to strong advisories that discouraged travels to these countries. Geopolitics slowly made its way into the tourism sector, which is considered just yet another source of revenues, but way more fluctuant and also heavily influenced by security in the countries of destination.

Obviously, tourism does not have the same level of importance for every country. A good way to measure the dependence of a country on foreign tourism is considering its share in the national GDP. Thanks to a map recently published by the World Economic Forum we can do that exactly. Even though it is not complete, it gives a good picture of the situation. The countries in which tourism revenues consist in a greater relative share of national GDP, are usually scarcely populated small economies, such as Malta, Croatia, Thailand, Jamaica and Iceland. Among the least reliant on tourism, less than 2% of the GDP,  there are countries with bigger economies and the possibility of exploiting other kinds of resources, such as Ukraine, the Russian Federation and Poland[9].

In absolute terms, countries with the largest tourism industries are also some of the world’s largest economies: USA, China, France, UK, Germany[10]. They all can count on other sources of revenue and their economies are developed in many sectors, making them not dependent just on tourism and thus establishing their leverage power. These data are also in line with the UNTWO figures. In fact, these countries are all in the top ten list for tourist arrivals, together with Spain, Italy, Turkey, Russian Federation and Mexico[11].

Speaking about tourism as a geopolitical issue might sound exaggerate but where there is money there are always interests implied. Even in the official webpage of the International Year for Sustainable Tourism and Development, in the section Why Tourism, they indicate it also as “a tool for soft diplomacy[12].

Tourism can also be used to promote a country and to change its perception among the public opinion, a process that has often been defined as “nation branding[13].

Exemplary is the case of Azerbaijan: a post-soviet republic on the Caspian Sea whose wealth is based on oil. It usually makes it to the Western news only because of its authoritarian regime or its conflict with neighboring Armenia. To leave this image behind, the country invested a lot of resources over the last fifteen years to promote itself; “Azerbaijan: Land of Fire”, is the catchy slogan they adopted. Additionally, for many years the country was the official sponsor of the Atletico Madrid Football team[14].

 

A similar campaign was promoted by India in 2003: The “Incredible India” campaign brought to a consistent growth of the tourism sector in just a few years, generating massive revenues but at the same time creating deep contradictions inside the country[15].

The growth of the tourism phenomenon is one of the reasons behind the UN’s choice to dedicate an entire year to it. Tourism has often been defined as “neo-colonialism” where the tourists are benefitted, but not necessarily the inhabitants of the host country. While travelling to a developing country results as much cheaper for a Western tourist, most of the times this money does not even end in the pockets of locals. Rather, it increases the revenues of Western tour operators, and the cost of living in tourist areas becomes unsustainable for residents[16]. Even food supplies are often imported and the relationship between tourists and locals is usually limited to the hotel staff, which perpetrates an idea of servility[17].

This is exactly the opposite of the objectives described in the International Year for Sustainable Tourism and Development’s website[18]. However, it is what usually happens and these are the risks of promoting tourism in underdeveloped countries. The term “sustainable” does not just mean careful about the environment, there are other aspects that should be considered when choosing a destination: what if a country is ruled by a bloody dictator? What if water supplies for swimming pools in resorts cause a water shortage for inhabitants? What if the working conditions of the hotel staff are poor? What if tourists do not respect local rules about clothes, behavior and photos? These are all common situations and they just represent different aspects of what can be considered “sustainable tourism”, that might also be defined as responsible when social and political issues are implied.

A good case study is the Maldives: tourism in this insular State is based on resorts built on uninhabited islands. These are usually managed by foreign tour operators and tourists stay there with an all-inclusive regime and do not visit anything else. In the past, it even happened that locals suffered from hunger because all the fresh food, that mostly cannot be cultivated on the islands, was imported and sent directly to the resorts. Now, the situation has improved and the government is trying to eradicate poverty even in the smallest islands; yet, the gap between the resorts and the average life conditions of the citizens is still considerable[19].

Sustainable tourism, however, is not something that only concerns third world countries. A good example is a recent research by the University of Siena that showed the impact of Airbnb in some of the most famous Italian cities: inhabitants in the city centers are quickly leaving their homes and renting them or even selling them to local agencies that are de facto the main gainers from this system[20].

Speaking about Italy, Venice is the perfect example of how mass tourism can be dangerous for a city: the island has less than 60.000 inhabitants and in 2015 it hosted 4.5 million tourists who spent at least one night there. This data does not consider the ones who visited for the day or came with cruise ships[21]. In the last few years, these ships have also been at the center of a very hot debate between population and institutions: they are heavily polluting while transiting close to San Marco’s square on their way to the harbor, making the possibility of a disastrous accident a very concrete one. As their guests usually visit the city just for a few hours, spending the night on the ship, their economic impact is really limited.

Tourism is a double-edged blade: it can be a precious resource with benefits for all, it can promote cross-cultural encounters increasing reciprocal comprehension but it can also create massive inequalities deepening the differences between visitors and visited. It can even result in the loss of the local traditions and cultures. Making tourism perfectly sustainable is almost impossible; making it more responsible and smart is feasible.

In the last twenty years, many travel agencies were created with the purpose of promoting this type of travels. This market is still a minor part of the whole sector, but is slowly growing and gaining some public consensus. A good example is the Italian Viaggi Solidali, based in Torino and born in 2000 under the proposition of 5 Italian NGOs. Today it is the biggest responsible tourism agency in Italy. Its destinations are mainly Africa, South America and South-East Asia but there are trips also to the Balkans and to Central Asia. Their groups go from 2 to 15 people and for the most numerous ones, they always try to organize a meeting before the departure to prepare tourists for what they will see and experience. They usually work with local guides and in the quota paid by every tourist, it is also included an amount to sustain small projects in loco.

Among their destinations there is also Senegal: in this case, the organization of the trip is under the responsibility of the Italian NGO CPS – Comunità Promozione e Sviluppo, that has been working in the country since 1976. One of the Italian members of the staff in loco designes the programme and the budget, but during the trip there is always an Italian speaking Senegalese guide. Highlights of the itinerary are the homestay in a local family part of the village association of Sokone, the visit to a Community Natural Reserve in the Sine-Saloum region and the activities with CPS’s partners in Mbour, where the NGO is based[22].

The importance of tourism on the international level will increase in the next years, all data agree on that. It has the potential for becoming a vehicle of cross-cultural exchanges and economic development; however, right now it has become a mass phenomenon and old patterns are not sustainable anymore. It is hard to think about the sustainability of our stay while on holiday when all we want is avoid stress and enjoy some rest. We do not care about the working conditions of the hotel’s staff or the political situation in the country we are in. Tourism, like any other market, follows the demand of its consumers: therefore, the real Sustainable Tourism for Development needs to start from the base, from the tourists, from us, but how? Think twice about that amazing resort in the Maldives, be informed about who is organizing that fascinating safari in Africa and what will be the benefits of your stay for the local population, check the environmental impact of a cruise ship and if you are looking for a cheap accommodation in a famous city, look at hostels before considering Airbnb. In a few words, see your trip as a contribution to promote “sustainable tourism for development.”

Francesco Ricapito – June 2017


Francesco Ricapito graduated in International Relations in July 2015 at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice with a thesis about tourism in Azerbaijan. He worked for nine months at EIUC – European Inter – University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, in Venice as administrative officer. He joined VDS in 2016 as a member and since October 2016 he has been working in Senegal as volunteer of the Italian Civil Service for the NGO CPS in a project of sustainable tourism and plastic recycling. He also collaborates with the Italian website Lankenauta.eu where he publishes travel reportages.


Useful Materials:

  1. De Rossi, “Venezia, sempre più turisti e strutture ricettive: superato il tetto dei 10 milioni di notti in città”, Il Gazzettino, 22/09/2016, available at: http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/venezia/cronaca/2016/09/22/news/venezia-sempre-piu-turisti-e-strutture-ricettive-superato-il-tetto-dei-10-milioni-di-notti-in-citta-1.14137597. Accessed: 12/06/2017.
  2. Ferrara, “Case condivise in centro ma ricavi per pochi: così Airbnb ha invaso l’Italia”, La Repubblica, 12/06/2017, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2017/06/12/news/case_condivise_in_centro_ma_ricavi_per_pochi_cosi_airbnb_ha_invaso_l_italia-167874427/?ref=RHPPLF-BH-I0-C8-P6-S1.8-T1. Accessed: 12/06/2017.
  3. Garrone, Turismo Responsabile: Nuovi Paradigmi Per Viaggiare Nel Terzo Mondo, Associazione RAM, 2007.
  4. Korstanje, The Origin and Meaning of Tourism: Etymological Study, e-Review of Tourism Research, Vol. 5, No.2, 2007, pp 101-102.
  5. Jordan, The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia, University of Tartu Press, Tartu, 2014.
  6. J. Linckorish, C. L. Jenkins, An Introduction to Tourism, Butterworth-Eniemann, Oxford, 1997.
  7. Malé, “We Need Development: Maldives switches focus from climate threat to mass tourism”, The Guardian, 03/03/2017, (ONLINE), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/03/maldives-plan-to-embrace-mass-tourism-sparks-criticism-and-outrage. Accessed 14/05/2017.
  8. Ricapito, Azerbaijan: Why Is It So Popular Now? Venice Diplomatic Society, (ONLINE), available at: https://vdsviews.com/2016/07/14/azerbaijan-why-is-it-so-popular-now/. Accessed 13/06/2017.

UN, Tourism for Development, UN, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.tourism4development2017.org/why-tourism/. Accessed 12/06/2017.

UNWTO, Tourism Highlights, UNWTO, 2016 Edition.


[1] UN, International Days, UN (ONLINE), available at: http://www.un.org/en/sections/observances/international-days/. Accessed 10/05/2017.

[2] UNWTO, Tourism Highlights, UNWTO, 2016 Edition, pp. 2-3.

[3] M. Korstanje, The Origin and Meaning of Tourism: Etymological Study, e-Review of Tourism Research, Vol. 5, No.2, 2007, pp 101-102.

[4] L. J. Linckorish, C. L. Jenkins, An Introduction to Tourism, Butterworth-Eniemann, Oxford, 1997, pp. 17-18.

[5] UNWTO, Tourism Highlights, UNWTO, 2016 Edition, p. 4.

[6] R. Garrone, Turismo Responsabile: Nuovi Paradigmi Per Viaggiare Nel Terzo Mondo, Associazione RAM, 2007, pp.150.152.

[7] I personally had the occasion of attending these events in person: in August 2013, I was working as animator in a resort in Sharm El Sheikh for the Italian tour operator Alpitour. When the situation collapsed me, my colleagues and all the Italian tourists were repatriated.

[8] R. Garrone, Turismo Responsabile: Nuovi Paradigmi Per Viaggiare Nel Terzo Mondo, Associazione RAM, 2007, pp.150.152.

[9] The Travel & Tourism Economy (2017), The Post Internazionale, 26/04/2017, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.tpi.it/mondo/stati-uniti/mappa-mostra-turismo-economie-paesi. Accessed 14/05/2017.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] UNWTO, Tourism Highlights, UNWTO, 2016 Edition, p. 6.

[12] UN, Tourism for Development, UN, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.tourism4development2017.org/why-tourism/. Accessed 12/06/2017.

[13] P. Jordan, The Modern Fairy Tale: Nation Branding, National Identity and the Eurovision Song Contest in Estonia, University of Tartu Press, Tartu, 2014, pp. 9-10-11.

[14] F. Ricapito, Azerbaijan: Why Is It So Popular Now? Venice Diplomatic Society, (ONLINE), available at: https://vdsviews.com/2016/07/14/azerbaijan-why-is-it-so-popular-now/. Accessed 13/06/2017.

[15] R. Garrone, Turismo Responsabile: Nuovi Paradigmi Per Viaggiare Nel Terzo Mondo, Associazione RAM, 2007, pp. 150-152.

[16] A small example of that is the price of the fish in Mbour’s market, on the coast of Senegal: here the price of some fishes, mainly shrimps and calamars, recently raised consistently because of the increased demand by the numerous resorts of Saly, a nearby seaside town very popular among Western tourists.

[17] R. Garrone, Turismo Responsabile: Nuovi Paradigmi Per Viaggiare Nel Terzo Mondo, Associazione RAM, 2007, pp.131-134.

[18] UN, Tourism for Development, UN, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.tourism4development2017.org/why-tourism/. Accessed 12/06/2017.

[19] J. Malé, “We Need Development: Maldives switches focus from climate threat to mass tourism”, The Guardian, 03/03/2017, (ONLINE), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/03/maldives-plan-to-embrace-mass-tourism-sparks-criticism-and-outrage. Accessed 14/05/2017.

[20] E. Ferrara, “Case condivise in centro ma ricavi per pochi: così Airbnb ha invaso l’Italia”, La Repubblica, 12/06/2017, (ONLINE), available at: http://www.repubblica.it/cronaca/2017/06/12/news/case_condivise_in_centro_ma_ricavi_per_pochi_cosi_airbnb_ha_invaso_l_italia-167874427/?ref=RHPPLF-BH-I0-C8-P6-S1.8-T1. Accessed: 12/06/2017.

[21] R. De Rossi, “Venezia, sempre più turisti e strutture ricettive: superato il tetto dei 10 milioni di notti in città”, Il Gazzettino, 22/09/2016, available at: http://nuovavenezia.gelocal.it/venezia/cronaca/2016/09/22/news/venezia-sempre-piu-turisti-e-strutture-ricettive-superato-il-tetto-dei-10-milioni-di-notti-in-citta-1.14137597. Accessed: 12/06/2017.

[22] I am actually working for CPS in Senegal and I am the person in charge of the organization of these trips and the relationships with the members of the Sokoke’s association.