The challenge of tourism

Sue Wheat

Campaigns Officer, Tourism Concern

For more than seven years, Tourism Concern has highlighted the environmental and human rights problems associated with travel and tourism. Tourists and business travellers find it quite shocking to hear that their holidays and business visits might be using up much of the local water supplies, polluting seas, rivers and land with waste, commercialising fragile traditional cultures, or stopping local people from having access to their beaches for fishing. The travel and tourism industry face a real dilemma. They know these problems exist, but the issues are complex. With fierce competition driving the industry, environmental and cultural problems are not easy to face.

Many people do, however, realise that there are problems, particularly if they have studied tourism, work in the tourism industry, have travelled widely, or have an interest in international issues, and these people tend to make up our membership. Indeed Tourism Concern was set up precisely because of the concerns of a number of individuals who realised both the importance of tourism as a global economic activity, and the threat of this rapidly expanding industry on environments and cultures.

A catalyst for positive change, Tourism Concern aims to influence and inform decision makers in government, industry and education, and has become recognised as an independent voice which is aiming to put sustainable tourism and its associated environmental and ethical issues at the forefront of the travel and tourism industry by ensuring that the rights and interests of those living in the world's tourist areas are taken into account.

Sustainable tourism is no longer a little-discussed topic. It has now become a mainstream subject, and is discussed widely in the media, the tourism industry, and amongst tourists themselves. The solution has been given a lot of names: sustainable tourism, green tourism, ecotourism, responsible tourism, alternative tourism and more recently, ethical tourism. Call it what you will, the aim is that tourism should ensure that local communities do not experience environmental damage or social disturbance from tourism development. This is a simple aim, but experience shows that it is immensely difficult to bring about.

Sustainable tourism goes beyond pure altruism - it is definitely good business sense. By improving the quality of tourism, the usual boom and bust cycle of rapid increase in popularity followed by over-development and market failure, is curtailed. As Tourism Concern's report, 'Sustainable Tourism: Moving from Theory to Practice' revealed, company directors agreed that practices leading to sustainable tourism may also add value and diversity to holidays, and so allow competition on the basis of more than just price. In this way, sustainable tourism could help the industry break the spiral of sending more tourists greater distances for smaller profits.

The research, which involved interviewing 69 senior executives of the UK's outgoing tourism industry, indicated that many tour operators had incorporated environmental factors in their marketing and that many hotels had introduced recycling to cut costs. However, hotels, passenger carriers and travel agents were generally hostile to any practices other than cost-cutting, and many companies saw sustainable tourism as nothing more than a niche product for environmental enthusiasts, rather than something to be applied to tourism as a whole. As Tim Forsyth, author of the report points out, most medium or large tour operators have shown very little interest in ensuring that development at destinations matches what they want to achieve in business, and that development does not cause conflict with locals. "Even the well-respected Thomson and the International Federation of Tour Operators (IFTO) only acted belatedly to lobby destinations for better waste management after a feared outbreak of typhoid at Salou in 1989, or an infestation of rats in Zante in 1992," he says. "Tour operators seem to believe that they can sell as many holidays as they can in every destination - yet leave it to others to clean up the problems this causes."

However, the climate does now seem to be changing. Assessing how to enforce business ethics in global trade is now central to the British Government's mission statement on trade and investment. Like all industries, the travel and tourism industry is increasingly finding itself facing questions from consumers and the media about the way environmental and ethical issues are being tackled in their rapidly globalising business activities.

In a questionnaire Tourism Concern conducted with the UK Institute of Travel Management (ITM) on business travel and environmental issues, 84 per cent of respondents said they wanted to learn more about environmental issues relating to business travel. The majority of buyers stated that they expected responsible environmental behaviour from their suppliers and also supported the view that suppliers such as airlines and hotels who implemented good environmental practices would be more competitive, better priced and offer better value because their costs would be reduced. Amongst suppliers questioned, 96 per cent thought environmental issues were relevant to their companies, but only 58 per cent had a corporate policy on environment and only 38 per cent had a purchasing policy within their environmental programmes.

Clearly, we are at a crossroads. The travel business is aware that changes need to be made but buyers and suppliers still need to match the demands of the market. "The fact that buyers stated that they wanted to purchase responsibly developed products is very significant," says Tourism Concern Industry Liaison Officer, Dianne Stadhams. "Many buyers said they would positively discriminate in favour of suppliers whose products met this description, which is very encouraging."

ITM and Tourism Concern will be formulating a self-regulatory code of practice and environmental checklists, which companies will be able to apply to their own businesses. Tourism Concern will also be producing a video on key environmental and ethical issues relating to tourism.

That such positive steps are being taken can only be for the good. The travel and tourism industry is now the largest industry in the world. If we ignore its problems and focus only on the glossy image, we will not only be guilty of unethical business practice but also of destroying the industry that sustains so many millions of livelihoods. If tourism is going to protect rather than degrade communities and their environments, a real willingness to change is essential. Our research shows that there is definitely demand for change from many involved in the tourism industry, from people living destination areas, and from many tourists and business travellers. What needs to be done now is for the buck to stop being passed and for the industry to take up the challenge.

For more information contact:
Tourism Concern,
Stapleton House,
277-281 Holloway Road,
London N7 8HN.
Tel. 0171-753 3330
Fax. 0171-753 3331
Registered charity No. 1044123.

Membership rates:
UK: £18 (eighteen pounds sterling),
Europe: £20 (twenty pounds sterling),
Elsewhere: £25 (twenty five pounds sterling).