Tourism must be small to be kind

The burgeoning mass market should be tamed, says Susan Marling, who sees the future in local projects where the customer pays more
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The Independent Travel

Tourism is the triffid of the modern world. A roll call of its vital statistics makes scary reading. Last year 635 million people travelled to a foreign country. Between them they spent $439bn (£300bn), making tourism the world's biggest export earner, ahead of cars, chemicals, oil and food. Travel and tourism support 200 million jobs - employment for a huge number of people on the planet - and with increased affluence in places such as China and Central and Eastern Europe, the number of people travelling looks set to double in the next 15 years.

Tourism is the triffid of the modern world. A roll call of its vital statistics makes scary reading. Last year 635 million people travelled to a foreign country. Between them they spent $439bn (£300bn), making tourism the world's biggest export earner, ahead of cars, chemicals, oil and food. Travel and tourism support 200 million jobs - employment for a huge number of people on the planet - and with increased affluence in places such as China and Central and Eastern Europe, the number of people travelling looks set to double in the next 15 years.

This inexorable march of humanity and the potential for despoliation and overcrowding (to say nothing of airport chaos) may lead us in the West to be ever more discerning about the journeys we take, preferring in future to go "deep not wide" - to get to know few places well rather than many superficially. But what about the people, especially those in poorer countries, who are on the receiving end of tourism? What are the prospects of them ever taking control of the writhing economic monster that has arrived on their beaches and in their countryside? Can tourism be a boon rather than a blight for them?

It was with these questions in mind that I set out to make a set of radio programmes, Adventures in the Tourist Trade. The programmes show the experience of local people in four holiday destinations - Kenya, Jordan, Goa and Rome. As with so many issues of "development" there were some politics to understand first.

For certain pressure groups tourism is a latter-day manifestation of Western imperialism, an evil business that leeches profit from international resorts, and rewards locals only with the dubious privilege of becoming waiters and chambermaids. Tourists are charged with responsibility for sex crimes, abuses of human rights, water shortages and the rising tide of discarded plastic water bottles.

Of local corruption, in-fighting, and poor management, these pressure groups have nothing to say. On the other hand the official voices of tourism, the Travel and Tourism Council and the World Tourism Organisation, are bullish about the economic potential of tourism, if only countries would "knuckle down and play the game". India, I was told, would have an additional 25 million jobs right now if it would only liberalise air travel and learn the lessons of the market.

Against the black-and-white background of these opposing world views, I saw some projects where tourism, albeit not massively profitable, at least looked like a benign influence in the local people's lives and offered the tourist a blameless but non-worthy good time.

In Kenya, for example, there is an alternative to the mainstream safari business which, in the past 30 years, has displaced and sidetracked the Maasai, the very people who epitomise the East African plains, and consigned them to poor farming areas outside the National Parks. Unsurprisingly, they spend much of their time hunting the wild animals that trample their crops and killing others for "bushmeat".

Seeing that the only way to protect wildlife outside Kenya's parks (which are already rather Woburn-like with their stripy, radio-controlled safari trucks which rush to any sighting of an animal) was to improve the lot of the Maasai, a Kenyan tour operator turned conservationist came up with a plan. Jake Grieves-Cook invested his own money in leasing land from the tribespeople of Eselenkei, three hours' drive south of Nairobi, and setting up a tented camp for tourists there. The Maasai are trained as rangers. They work in the camp, on building roads and waterholes, and earn a living from the lease and the small tax levied on each tourist that comes in. The profits have paid for a local school and for healthcare.

The tourist gets an authentic African interlude, careful guidance to look at genuinely wild animals, and a few nights under the stars where the Maasai sing round the fire because they want to. I call that a win-win situation and, what is more, there is no reason why the scheme cannot be replicated round the country.

In Jordan, a man called Abu Firas showed me that tourism can be a fair exchange rather than robbery. He had been mayor of a small and all but abandoned village seven miles outside Petra. Although Taybet is a beautiful sequence of honey-coloured stone cubes set on a hillside, by 1990 only a handful of families and their animals still lived there. Then Abu Firas met a Jordanian businessmen who wanted to invest in tourism. What if Taybet were painstakingly restored as a five-star resort in which each of the village houses became a hotel room? The villagers would still own the land, be paid a rent, have work if they wanted, and a new village with every modern amenity would be built for them up the valley.

Firas managed to sell the idea to his countrymen, and the resort now known as Taybet Zaman was born. As promised, the new village thrived, and the popularity of the restored village prompted a sudden interest in Jordan's "forgotten" architectural heritage, challenging the wisdom of building the kind of hideous international hotels that disfigure the road above Petra.

On the surface it would not seem that Roman tourism has much in common with the business in the developing world. After all, the Eternal City has earned a very well-buttered crust from its classical and Christian credentials over the past couple of thousand years. In 2000, the jubilee year in Rome, 25 million people paid a visit. And this, of course, is the problem - too many people staying, on average 2.5 nights in the city, and cramming their 15-minute photo-opportunities at St Peter's, the Colosseum, the Forum, Piazza Navona, the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain into one long, horribly impoverished coach journey. Local distinctiveness has a hard time surviving the onslaught.

But in Rome, as elsewhere in Europe, tourism is changing, if only on the margins. The new mantra is not "more is better" but "authentic is best". According to Jean-Claude Baumgarten, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel in Europe is focusing ever more precisely on "getting back to our roots". "In a fast, stressful world tourism is going to be more about the simple things: about nature and food and cultural heritage. Commercial companies realise this," he said.

So in Rome we found hotels such as the lovely family-run Hotel Locarno near Piazza del Popolo where, because all the rooms are homely and different, bookings can be made only by individuals. Rome has started bed-and-breakfast accommodation in 1,000 homes around town, and there is a new vogue for eating in authentically Roman trattoria such as those in Trastevere, in the old Jewish quarter and the former slaughterhouse district of Testaccio where restaurants such as Checchino dal 1887 still serve tripe and sweetbreads, and simmer oxtails for a full morning before lunch.

After much talk and many miles travelling I came to a couple of conclusions about tourism. Small is undoubtedly beautiful. We ought to pay more. Nothing good comes out of taking British holidaymakers to Goa for £299. The playing field should be more level. Local entrepreneurs cannot possibly compete with their international rivals in the tourism business if they have no way of keeping up with the changing tastes and demands of their customers. How can you improve standards, make better food and must-have saleable handicrafts and souvenirs in Goa if you have never been anywhere further than the nearest town?

Those organisations that are funded to do development work in tourism might turn their attention away from their obsession with gender, class and ethnicity - and instead work to give local people a real chance by broadening their horizons with a couple of aeroplane tickets.

'Adventures in the Tourist Trade', presented by Susan Marling, is broadcast on the BBC World Service from Thursday 8 March at 8.30pm (also Friday at 3.30pm and Monday at 10.30am).

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