Should we limit tourism?

Debate: Wealthy, first-world visitors must share the blame for the Galapagos oil spill. Perhaps some parts of the world should be out of bounds

A A A


Sue Wheat Last week's images of birds and sea life around the Galapagos islands struggling pitifully with their oil-coated bodies have prompted international disgust and despair. They fit what we have come to expect from the oil industry - bleak, destructive, poisonous consequences. But, although the oil spill may be an environmental catastrophe, it is not the only threat to the islands. They have long suffered from problems related to an industry seemingly much more benign - tourism.

Sue Wheat Last week's images of birds and sea life around the Galapagos islands struggling pitifully with their oil-coated bodies have prompted international disgust and despair. They fit what we have come to expect from the oil industry - bleak, destructive, poisonous consequences. But, although the oil spill may be an environmental catastrophe, it is not the only threat to the islands. They have long suffered from problems related to an industry seemingly much more benign - tourism.

Simon Calder "Seemingly" is a redundant word; tourism, like other huge industries, brings a burden to bear upon the world - but its impact on the planet is far less serious than, say, petrochemicals or even agriculture. And in some cases, including the Galapagos, it is indeed benign. Before tourism there was hunting, fishing and something almost as effective as a shooting party with AK47s: the introduction of alien species. The main impetus for the programmes to eradicate dogs, rats and pigs has been the wish by the Ecuadorean government to earn as much foreign exchange as possible by "exploiting" the Galapagos for tourism. The same imperative applies to conservation work in eastern and southern Africa, and to many of the world's coral reefs. Tourism has converted low-value resources into sought-after locations, preserving them for future generations of visitors and local people alike.

SW For many years Ecuador, like many other developing countries, has been courting tourism. It would, they hoped, provide jobs and economic prosperity. What has happened is rather different. Problems have arisen not so much because of visitor numbers or behaviour - although these can be problematic if tourism is not well managed - but because of the ownership and operations of tourism businesses. Visitors travel around the islands by ships which rely on oil (hence the oil spill). They also produce vast amounts of waste (which is dumped into a delicate marine environment). And the food served is almost all bought outside the Galapagos (which means the economic knock-on to local farmers is fairly non-existent). Add to that fishing regulations limiting the main means of survival and you have a volatile environmental and social scene. Which is why locals threatened to kill the remaining endangered giant tortoises a few years ago. Instead of getting jobs from conservation and its associated tourism, they were losing their traditional ones. Better kill the animals then, they concluded, and lose the problem's cause.

As elsewhere, the tourism industry in Ecuador is largely controlled by multinational tour and cruise companies. The millions of tourist dollars spent on visiting this haven of biodiversity consequently end up largely back in the rich, sending countries instead of supporting poverty-stricken Ecuador. Which is why - along with its crippling foreign debt burden which it needs to feed with foreign exchange - Ecuador couldn't even afford to clear up this week's oil spill. Not even to save its most valuable national resource and some of the world's most precious wildlife.

SC How, exactly, do tourists reach the Galapagos - a significant chunk of the total cost of a trip to the islands? Almost all of them arrive on Ecuador's domestic airlines. Sure, these airlines have to invest in expensive foreign aircraft and fuel, Ecuador not yet having followed in Brazil's technological footsteps and built its own aircraft. Like any developing country, Ecuador has to take a view on the amount of scarce resources it allots in order to build its own economy, and to attract foreign exchange - for example, by supplying American tourists with air travel.

Tourism is a huge industry, but one that, by its nature, is on a much more human scale than many others. It is highly labour-intensive, and generates a great deal of interpersonal contact (a currency that remains undervalued). Sure, a lot of the cash paid out is repatriated to the capitalist running dogs who have the temerity to send wealthy people on holiday, but would the average Ecuadorean rather have 10 per cent of something or 100 per cent of nothing? The Gambia famously banned all-inclusive resorts because it felt too much of the cash vanished from the country. A commendable stand, which has just been surrendered because of the effects on the tourist trade. Much as we might wish poorer countries could retain 100 per cent of something, the world needs to redesign itself for that to happen.

SW The scenario I've outlined is not unique to the Galapagos. Look at any poor country - and many richer ones - and you'll see the same pattern. In Nepal, for instance, trekking in the Himalayas has exacerbated deforestation (tourists need food, water and accommodation, all of which need wood for fuel), waste problems (you don't need many trekkers leaving toilet paper on frozen mountains to create an environmental and health hazard), and erosion. The human cost, too, can be severe - porters frequently carry immense burdens for tourists, walk in sub-zero temperatures in pumps or even flip-flops, and have only large plastic bags as protective clothing.

SC Exploitation is next on tourism's lengthy charge sheet. There is no excuse for environmental vandalism on the part of visitors or locals, but as many a tidy, well-meaning, middle-class tourist has discovered after weeks of painstakingly disposing of litter, not every local resident is as fastidious.

Employment is a touchy subject. "Fair trade" tourism has not caught on, because basically we all want cheap holidays - just as we want cheap textiles, electronics, etc. The difference with tourism is that we can actually witness the poor wages and working conditions, and do something about it - like joining Tourism Concern, or, more likely, giving the guide/chambermaid/porter a generous tip to repay the welcome that the world is still prepared to give tourists.

 

Sue Wheat is editor of Tourism Concern's magazine, 'In Focus'. Simon Calder is Senior Travel Editor of ' The Independent'.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy