By Anita Pleumarom

(This paper was presented in June 1999 in preparation of the 5th meeting of the Conference of Parties [COP5] to the Convention on Biological Diversity [CBD])

For many years, tourism experts have sought to develop viable alternatives to mass tourism, to at least mitigate the negative impacts on society and the environment in destinations. Some communities, resisting development impositions on their lives, have also experimented with small-scale, locally controlled and sustainable tourism activities on their own. Yet, all these initiatives have certainly not posed a real challenge to the status quo.

Since the 4th Meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP4) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Bratislava last year, efforts have intensified at the international level to develop tourism programmes that match with the three objectives of the CBD, contained in Article 1, “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits.” But these noble intentions, emerging from a spirit of international good will, are by necessity abstract and vague. At the grassroots level, the new-found attention to sustainable or eco-tourism development appear to cause more harm than good.

Critics charge attempts to rearrange conventional tourism activities towards sustainable tourism to reduce pressures on ecologically fragile areas and develop local communities are doomed to failure. Observation over recent years has confirmed that opening up new biodiversity-rich areas for so-called tourism-cum-conservation projects only add to the multi-dimensional impacts of mass tourism. Countries embarking on strategies to transform their last “unspoilt” territories into tourism attractions risk that their remaining patches of natural forests will be sacrificed for commercial purposes; marine, coastal and watershed areas get exposed and polluted; and already depleting biological resources further threatened.

Since the outbreak of the Asian financial crisis with its volatile effects on the global market economy, tourism growth is more than ever considered as crucial to developing nations’ survival, while environmental objectives are receding. Often, tourism is seen as the only industry apart from exports generating the revenue needed to pay back the huge foreign debts owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other international creditors.

In Southeast Asian countries, eco-tourism is increasingly being made a flagship project to attract hard currency for economic recovery and to help communities ride out of the crisis. In Thailand alone, thousands of villages are newly targeted for tourism development. According to an article in the Bangkok newspaper The Nation (7 Apr.1999), a comprehensive community development programme, initiated by His Majesty the King in the midst of economic woes, aims to develop eco-tourism - along with other economic activities such as farm produce processing, medicinal herb planting and traditional Thai medicine – in 15,223 villages, involving more than 300,000 families and a population of more than 700,000! This raises the question of oversupply in the face of unpredictable demand, a common hazard in the tourism industry.

But ironically, to set up such tourism projects and to establish the necessary infrastructure to service tourists, more and more foreign loans are needed, which just add to the already overwhelming financial burden of countries. Meanwhile, many case studies show that the economic benefits from eco-tourism have been highly overrated, and there is simply not enough money for the conservation of natural and cultural heritage and the improvement of public services.

In Thailand, the World Bank agreed in 1998 to provide a US$300 million loan for a social investment project (SIP) aimed at tackling the problems of unemployment, loss of income and the higher cost of social services arising from the economic meltdown and the crippling structural adjustment programme (SAP) prescribed by the IMF. A major set of government programmes under SIP was directly related to (eco-)tourism development, including beautification projects, the installation of bi-lingual signs and the construction of toilets for tourists in rural areas.  According to the SIP mission report, these tourism projects to be coordinated by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) would promote “new approaches and procedures, for example, incorporating more local community participation.”

However, social activists argued the idea of making tourism a major component of the World Bank-led SIP were deceptive because such activities were primarily to boost earnings for debt servicing, and local communities had other, more immediate needs in this time of hardship. In addition, an eco-tourism project in Northern Thailand to be managed by the Forest Industry Organization with a SIP loan from the Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation (OECF) provoked protests from indigenous Karen people who saw their traditional livelihoods, culture and environment threatened.

Academics also came out to criticize that the funds and loans granted to villagers under the national social plan to invest in business activities at the grassroots level were destroying communities’ initiatives to build up their own self-reliant and sustainable local economies. Community researcher Pitthaya Wongwol told a seminar at the Social Institute of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok: “A new bubble economy is emerging in villages because now a lot of money is being handed out by the government for people to run their own businesses… All these budgets come with the wrong policy of attracting and urging people to do the same thing nationwide within a short period… How can they sell the same thing, and who will buy their products? There is an oversupply and people will lose out soon.”

Pitthaya raised the example of some 5,000 communities in Thailand producing herbal shampoo, processed banana and other items in the absence of sufficient demand. Similarly, the question arises what will happen if thousands of villages, now being encouraged to develop eco-tourism, begin to compete with each other to lure visitors and their money? And what are the consequences  if the tourists stay away because the macro-economic situation does not improve as forecasted, other countries in and outside the region offer more attractive eco-tourism destinations, or consumers change their taste and turn to other fashionable tourist products? 

These issues are rarely considered in the conceptualization of international sustainable tourism policies. Rather, it is suggested that all nations in the world should implement community-based tourism projects for nature conservation and economic development as soon as possible.

During Asian boom times, speculative investments created a serious oversupply of hotels, resorts, golf courses, shopping and entertainment centers in popular tourist spots, causing environmental destruction and undesirable changes in community life. While many of these establishments are now empty and more or less ruined in crisis-hit destinations, the danger is real that in future, an oversupply of eco-tourism facilities will be created, which is undoubtedly to the detriment of the commitments to achieve sustainable development.

In fact, there is a strong case to warn against inflationary eco-tourism policies, as they may push even more rural and indigenous people into economic despair, while the high-flown goals of biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of biological resources can not be fulfilled. In view of this, the deliberations of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), the Inter-Sessional Meeting and COP5 of the Convention on Biological Diversity present a crucial opportunity for a comprehensive and public assessment of the claims and underlying premises on sustainable, “biodiversity-friendly” or eco-tourism. The decision of the UN General Assembly to proclaim 2002 as the International Year of Eco-tourism should also be viewed with caution and be subjected to broader debate.