The limits to tourism

The scale and growth of development is unsustainable, especially if the growing numbers of middle class around the world want the same experience. For instance, if not Dublin why not Serbia and Montenegro? It's all the same. The Vega City theme park project that United Entertainment Partners (UEP) originally planned for north Dublin is now likely to be built in Serbia and Montenegro. Fingal County Council voted by a 19 to 1 margin to reject the scheme for the US$7 billion theme park on 2500 acres, describing it as 'enormous, and unlike any proposal put forward in this country before,' and contrary to proper planning and sustainable development of Fingal.45 Instead UEP is in talks with Belgrade. UEP had hoped to attract 37 million visitors a year to Ireland (nine times the Irish population) with its three theme parks, golf courses, shopping centres, 14 hotels, conference centre, equestrian centre, ice rink and 10,000 apartments for short-term lets.

Carl Hiaasen, a newspaper columnist with the Miami Herald who has written extensively on the impact of large theme parks on his home state, says it sickens him to think a plan such as Vega City is even being considered by the people of Dublin. As a warning to Fingal, Hiaasen described the area around Orlando, where Disney World is based, as an 'ugly, congested, sprawling hellhole'.46

Consider too the latest ideas for Venice. It is likely to become the first major living city to charge an entrance fee, to offset the damage done by hordes of tourists. Often over 50,000 people a day traipse through the city and this will increase dramatically when Chinese and Indian tourists begin to travel en masse. If Eurodisney charges visitors 50 euros a visit, surely Venice is worth much more? And the sums collected will help save the city.

Implementing the ideas behind the eco-tourism movement is one way forward to overcome the contradictory dilemmas. It seeks to conserve cultural and biological diversity and to adopt an ecosystems approach to thinking through tourism. It involves being aware of the cultural sustainability of the places tourists go to and encouraging them to develop cultural knowledge and self-awareness. It focuses on providing local populations with jobs, sharing socioeconomic benefits with local communities and getting their informed consent in the management of enterprises, rather than encouraging foreign ownership of the majority of resources. In this way resilience can grow.

The ideas behind the City Safari project in Rotterdam may be a model. They have invented a new sustainable approach to tourism development. The brand name 'City Safari' has been 'stolen' or copied by many, but not the core idea. The project has a list of over 300 people or organizations that are willing to be visited. The visitor chooses the kind of people they want to meet - which could range from priests to imams, from urban planners and gardening enthusiasts to unusual shopkeepers, tattooists, and collectors of the bizarre like a man who owns over a thousand koi carp kept in tanks in a collective garden of a series of apartment blocks - and places to go to, from delicatessens to sex shops to a café employing recovering heroin addicts. The visitor gets an address and has to find their target by exploring and navigating the city. They encounter people a normal tourist would never meet. They hand over paid-for vouchers and in return they get a service - primarily a conversation about their life and what they do. In addition, perhaps, a glass of wine, a tour of a building or a meal. Its power is that the tourist and the locals connect and the benefits go directly to the local rather than an intermediary. City Safari was started as an economic development project by Kees de Gruiter and is now owned by Marjolijn Masselink to bring more resources to local people rather than intermediaries.47

The problem for less-developed countries is that tourism is often presented as one of the only routes to development. But tourism can in fact be a terrible burden on the economy of the destination. There are a number of reasons for this. One is leakage: not much tourist expenditure stays in the economy after taxes, profits and wages are paid outside the area and after imports are purchased. Indeed, of each US$100 spent by a tourist in a developed country, only around US$5 actually stays in that country's economy. A second reason is the phenomenon of enclave tourism: many tourist packages are 'all-inclusive' wherein tourists do not leave their resort or cruise ship. Third, infrastructure improvements - in roads and airports, for example - can cost the government at the expense of local health and education, especially if there is pressure from developers for tax breaks. Fourth, with an increase in the spending power of tourists, prices can rise faster than indigenous wages can accommodate them. Finally, an area can become dependent on tourism and therefore subject to tourism's vagaries. Other parts of the economy are neglected and the area lacks a healthy diversity. Also, a local tourist industry may be seasonal, meaning instabilities in employment and leaving the economy as a whole vulnerable to climatic instabilities.48

Tourism can be configured to help the areas it affects. Pro-Poor Tourism, for example, is an organization that promotes the local expansion of employment and businesses and the active inclusion of the poor. Eco-tourism as a movement is intended to encourage tourism that is responsible and environmentally and culturally sensitive. However, as with any industry, tourism must be understood as an extensive system of which no particular facet can be seen in isolation. Air traffic is increasing and, as an abundance of new wealth enters the tourism industry, this will continue. But at what cost? Clearly flying to the other side of the world to see the famous dyers in Fez market or to watch pandas chew bamboo shoots is not eco-tourism. Responsible tourism may in fact be travelling less far from home. Cities could do worse than look to Rotterdam's City Safari as a model of how tourism can be incorporated into self-discovery. In fact, why not turn your own citizens into tourists of their own city?

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