World Summit Erred by Ignoring Tourism, Editor Says

By Robin R. Burfield
for National Geographic Traveler
September 4, 2002

Tourism is huge business, possibly accounting for as much as 4 percent of the entire world's economy. Most countries—rich and poor—depend on tourists to create jobs and generate income.

Yet many places tourists like to visit are faced with the problems of overcrowding and a burgeoning infrastructure that puts pressure on natural and cultural treasures, including icons like the Inca mountain city Machu Picchu in Peru and the Khmer religious citadel Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Did the United Nations err by neglecting to place tourism at the top of the agenda of its recent Summit on Sustainable Development? National Geographic Traveler Editor-in-Chief Keith Bellows discusses the summit and the issue of sustainable tourism in this interview.

The ten-day World Summit on Sustainable Development—the largest UN conference in history, with 40,000 delegates from nearly every country—has just ended in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sustainable tourism was not prominent on the agenda. Was this a lost opportunity?

I think it's astounding that tourism wasn't front and center in the discussions, because it's central to the economies of most countries—and arguably among the three biggest industries in the world. If you look at the economic power of tourism and the issues that surround it, in particular sustainable tourism and sustainable development (the two are inextricably linked) the omission from the agenda is almost unfathomable. You simply cannot extract sustainable tourism from the overall fabric of sustainable development.

Could you give me an idea of how large, financially, the tourism industry is worldwide?

The latest stats that I've seen would put it at about 4 percent of the world's gross national product. It is a massive, massive industry. The problem is that it is sometimes difficult to define tourism-related commerce. For example, how many patrons of restaurants in Washington, D.C., are tourists and how many are local? It's very difficult to know, but if you take the macro point of view, tourism is a colossal business.

For developing countries, is tourism a good economic solution for creating jobs and bringing in hard currency—perhaps even a better solution than developing natural resources at the expense of the environment?

Absolutely. For many developing countries that may have limited industry and agriculture, tourism is an economic imperative. Botswana, for example, has done African tourism right, bringing in a great deal of revenue from visitors. Then you look at Zimbabwe. Two years ago when I visited, the country was hoping to essentially turn itself around with tourist dollars, and maybe it could have. But since that time, Zimbabwe has virtually destroyed not only its agricultural industry but also its tourism industry. The animals that I went to Zimbabwe to see two years ago are now being served on the plates of imminently starving Zimbabweans.

The UN conference highlighted the differences between the goals of the developed world and the goals of the developing world. The wealthier nations want emerging economies to conserve their cultural and natural heritage through sustainable development, while the developing world wants to alleviate poverty first. What is your take on the debate?

This is the crux of the sustainable tourism debate. In a sense, the developed countries are exercising cultural imperialism. Consider China. The biggest Kentucky Fried Chicken sign in the world is in Tiananmen Square. Our reaction may be, "That's appalling." However, the Chinese happen to like Kentucky Fried Chicken, and that's their right. Who are we to impose our aesthetic values on them? That said, the developed world has learned a lot about how to manage and promote tourism, and those lessons could be enormously valuable to developing countries.

Meanwhile, we are still learning from our own mistakes. Let's take two classic examples: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and Niagara Falls, New York. Gatlinburg is the gateway to the Smoky Mountains, and Niagara Falls is a town next to one of our great natural wonders. Both places are very touristy, not particularly attractive, and they certainly don't add a lot to the ambience of the respective areas. Those two communities are trying to do things to improve the situation, so this isn't to denigrate them. But the situation would be better if they had practiced sustainable tourism—the type that doesn't diminish the attributes that attract visitors to a place to begin with.

Continued on Next Page >>


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