Debate: Should we limit tourism in vulnerable ecosystems?

Wealthy, first-world visitors must share the blame for the Galapagos oil spill. Perhaps some parts of the world should be out of bounds. Sue Wheat, editor of Tourism Concern's magazine, 'In Focus' and Simon Calder, Senior Travel Editor of 'The Independent' thrash it out.

Sue Wheat: 'The millions of dollars spent on visiting such places end up largely in the rich, sending countries'

Sue Wheat: 'The millions of dollars spent on visiting such places end up largely in the rich, sending countries'

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: 'By converting low-value resources into sought-after locations, tourism preserves them'

"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'.

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