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Kate Simon: Developing nations bank on tourism at their peril

Today's travel section was due to lead with a feature about Haiti and its emergence as an adventurous destination for the next decade.

Needless to say, when the earthquake hit we pulled the story; this is no time to discuss the pros and cons of visiting the poorest country in the Western hemisphere for a holiday.

Yet, when the immediate crisis subsides, tourism will be considered as one of the ways to rebuild the economy of this blighted Caribbean island. Its shores will come under scrutiny for development by tourist resorts, with hopes pinned on replicating the kind of success enjoyed by its neighbours in the Dominican Republic.

We need look back no further than 2004 and that other shocking environmental catastrophe, the South-east Asian tsunami, to see how tourism can be quickly identified as part of the restorative process. In Sri Lanka, tourism has always been key to the economy, so it was naturally regarded as instrumental in rebuilding stricken areas of the island. The speed with which Sri Lanka sought to revive the sector was commended by the World Tourism Organisation of the United Nations, which said the move would help it to recover faster than other countries hit by the tsunami.

Sanjika Perera, UK director of Sri Lanka Tourism, maintains that tourism is being rebuilt "in a sensitive manner". Yet, five years on, the Sri Lankan authorities have been heavily criticised for their tourism strategy, which includes designating 15 coastal areas for tourism development at a cost of $1.2bn (£736m). Tourism Concern, a UK charity campaigning on tourism and human rights, says that residents are being prevented from rebuilding their homes and businesses in these zones. It points to one such development, Arugam Bay on the east coast, where it says the government threatened to remove 5,000 families to five separate areas more than a kilometre from the coast until the scheme was halted by local opposition.

Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, says: "Tourism developments [in tsunami-hit countries in Asia] are threatening coastal people's livelihoods and alienating them from their land. Governments and the international travel industry need to be challenged to ensure that human rights are not flouted in the name of tourism."

Haiti's tourist industry was small pre-earthquake and Royal Caribbean is a major investor with its private north-coast resort of Labadee – where passengers disembark for watersports and barbecues – from which, prior to the disaster, Haiti is reported to have reaped just $6 per head. These ships have continued to call since the quake but the company says it is donating the daily profits, as well as "at least $1m", to the relief effort. It also says its ships are bringing in much needed supplies. Royal Caribbean's last reported full-year profits were $543.7m.

Travel is to be encouraged; it creates jobs, it helps us to understand our world and the people in it – and it's enjoyable. But it shouldn't be treated as a panacea for poor nations in distress. Developing countries that rely on tourism become ever more vulnerable to the economic fallout of extreme weather events and their dependency on industrialised economies. For Haiti, dropping its £543m debt would provide a better road to reconstruction.

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