Towards Responsible Tourism

13 May 2008

Sankar Radhakrishnan
Tourism is one of the world's fastest growing industries. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), in 2007, there were 898 million international tourist arrivals, while the revenues from international tourism crossed $733 billion in 2006. The UNWTO predicts that international arrivals will cross the 1-billion mark in 2010 and touch 1.6 billion by 2020.

What is clear from these statistics is that terrorism, health warnings, rising oil prices and other threats notwithstanding, tourism is growing; and it is growing especially quickly in the developing nations. In 2006, international tourist arrivals in the developing countries accounted for 39 per cent of the world total. And in 2007 alone, international tourist arrivals to the developing countries grew by 8 per cent, according to the UNWTO.

Dr Harsh Varma, Director-Development Assistance, UNWTO, remarked that tourism is one of the most dynamic economic sectors in many developing countries. In many developing and least developed countries, tourism is one of the principal or the main source of foreign exchange earnings, he added.

But are the benefits of tourism accessible to all, especially to local communities? This question, along with others on the environmental and social impacts of tourism, was on the agenda at the second International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, held in Kochi in March this year.

Responsible Tourism
So what is responsible tourism? The Cape Town Declaration issued after the first International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, held in Cape Town in 2002, said that, among other things, responsible tourism is characterised by travel and tourism which minimises negative environmental, social and cultural impacts and generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities.

It also stated that responsible tourism involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people and a greater understanding of local cultural and environmental issues.

According to Dr Harold Goodwin, founder-director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK, responsible tourism is about "Creating better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit". This approach to responsible tourism, he told Business Line, is culturally neutral as it does not use the word 'responsible' which can mean different things in different places and different languages. Besides, responsible tourism takes many forms as different destinations and stakeholders have different priorities, he added.

Why it makes sense
Dr Goodwin observed that consumer demands for 'richer' engagements with destinations and the communities who live there, along with demands of the people in destinations, are two important factors that drive the responsible tourism movement. Other drivers of responsible tourism include the growing desire for 'guilt-free' holidays, demands from within the tourism industry, legislation and the changing investment climate.

For businesses too, responsible tourism makes sense as there is no contradiction between business and responsibility, emphasised Mr Jose Dominic, Managing Director of CGHEarth, which has hotels across South India. For tourism and travel businesses, moving to responsible models offers cost savings, helps motivate staff and helps meet customer expectations, Dr Goodwin said. Besides, adopting responsible tourism makes sense for tourism businesses as it may allow them the licence to operate in destinations, he added.

Putting it more bluntly, Mr Hiran Cooray, Deputy Chairman of the Sri Lanka-based Jetwing Hotels Ltd, said: "In the future, if you are not involved in responsible tourism you may not be in business." However, he pointed out that travellers are not yet ready to pay a significantly higher premium for holidays based on responsible principles. Despite this, if companies are committed to being in the tourism sector for the long haul, they must commit to adopting responsible tourism now, he remarked.

According to Ms Fiona Jeffery, Chairman, World Travel Market, if tourism businesses want to continue to operate, then responsible tourism is the way to go. And it is not just the private sector, but governments and local communities that must work towards responsible tourism, she stressed.

However, Ms Rosemary Viswanath, Chief Executive of EQUATIONS, a Bangalore-based NGO that works in tourism, pointed out that the idea of responsible tourism is not new. "The idea of tourism being responsible and responsibility in tourism has been around for at least 30 years," she said. Yet, the responsible tourism movement has achieved very little progress and tourism stakeholders must introspect on why this is so, she added.

Very often, local communities and local governments are sidelined when tourism projects are being conceived and implemented, she observed. This attitude needs to change and local communities must be consulted on tourism developments that can have a huge impact on their lives, she added.

Winds of Change
Change - towards responsibility - in the tourism industry is taking place, but not quickly enough, agreed Dr Goodwin. And the challenge for the responsible tourism movement is to get all stakeholders involved and recognise that all segments of the industry can be more responsible. No part of the tourism industry can be allowed to ignore its responsibility, he said. Responsible tourism's success also hinges on communities' and other stakeholders' abilities to put it on the economic, social, environmental and political agenda, he emphasised. Or as Mr Adama Bah, Gambia Projects Coordinator of the UK-based Travel Foundation put it: "Responsible tourism does not allow for outsourcing of responsibility."

What also needs to be understood is that there is no magic recipe or blueprint for responsible tourism. "There are only local solutions, although we can learn from the experiences of others," Said Dr Goodwin. The tourism industry also needs to embrace the concept of the triple bottom line, which focusses on environmental, economic and social outcomes, he added.

The Kerala Declaration on Responsible Tourism (, which was crafted during a marathon session at the Kochi conference, incorporates many of these thoughts and priorities. For instance, it recognised that multi-stakeholder partnerships are required to empower local communities and enable them to participate in the responsible tourism process. It also took note of the need to empower local communities to be able to exercise control over tourism projects that are to be developed in their area and even their right to say no to tourism.

It also accepted that "reducing carbon pollution from the tourism industry is a priority" and urged governments, tourism businesses, airlines and other forms of transport, and consumers to prioritise carbon reduction, reducing the consumption of fossil fuels, increasing energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy.

The declaration called on people who are part of the responsible tourism movement to share their experiences of what works and what doesn't and to increase their efforts to use tourism to "make better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit". For as a delegate at the conference, quoting an Asian saying, pointed out: "Tourism is like fire - you can cook your dinner on it, but if you are not careful it will burn your house down."