When a country’s tourism policy is geared to financial benefit based on numerical increases, there have been two distinct results. Tourism has brought considerable economic benefit to a local minority and enhanced foreign exchange earnings. At the same time, tourism has left the economically weak worse off and damaged the cultural and natural environment. Often, the benefits of employment have gone to those from outside, leaving only menial jobs for the unqualified locals. Meanwhile, established traders dominate marketing.
A conspicuous example of what can go wrong with tourism is the case of Acapulco, the Mexican resort. The growth of the holiday industry led to an influx of outsiders seeking financial gain. Local culture was undermined and all forms of vice including prostitution, drugs and gambling were introduced. Hotels and restaurants bought up the once plentiful local supplies, increasing the economic burden of the local majority. The natural environment of Acapulco Bay was irreparably damaged, so much so that tourists are now moving away to nearby Cancun, where the process is now being repeated.
Closer to home, Sri Lanka also faced the problems of vice and cultural dislocation. However, it managed to preserve the coastal environment, which was under threat, by imposing and implementing building and zonal restrictions. In Thailand and the Philippines, sex and drug tourism dominate and are often run by criminal elements.
India and Nepal have also faced similar problems. Goa, Mussorie and Kathmandu were, and to a degree still are, centers for drug use, distribution and smuggling. The damage to the environment has also been considerable, with Sir Edmund Hillary going as far as to urge the closure of the Everest route for five years. In Mussorie, expansion of holiday homes are endangering the stability of the hillsides. Similar stress exists in all former hill stations. The major cause is unplanned haphazard development, fueled by tourism.
In a different dimension, tourism in Ladakh, mainly in Leh, has combined considerable economic benefit, most of which, however, goes to agencies out of the area. A few of the already better off Ladakhis have done very well but the majority of Leh’s residents are having to cope with difficult times. Tourism in Ladakh has undermined the local culture, created demands the locals cannot meet, and bred resentments.
The answer does not lie in criticising tourism as an industry but in overall integrated planning. The key is to balance and manage human intervention so that “visitor satisfaction” is maximised while tourism’s multiple negative aspects are minimised. Tourism must be planned so that it is part of broad-based development that considers economic, socio-cultural as well as environmental aspects. Certain guidelines can be set out.
Tourism planning must be integrated with regional economic plans. Where expansion of the tourism sector is planned, a commensurate expansion of public services such as transport and energy is mandatory. A careful analysis must be made of how many visitors an area can absorb. The factors which determine this “carrying capacity” are related to social issues, the environment and management. The social factor includes impact on cultural life and behavior pattern of local people. Different types of visitors — package tourists, motorists or hikers — affect the environment in different ways. In natural areas, the environmental impact will also depend upon the fragility of the beaches or alpine areas.
Once a carrying capacity has been determined, the volume of visitors can be regulated by measures such as increasing prices, limiting the number of hotel rooms, creating alternative destinations, select advertising, and controlling admission to vulnerable attractions.
Environmental impact assessments (EIAs), though used widely now in most development activity, is still not used enough in the tourism sector. Despite the perils of mass tourism, the industry is seldom required to produce EIAS. Changes wrought by tourism might be lamented retrospectively, but few attempts are made to anticipate them. EIAS are seen by developers as yet another bureaucratic impediment although a well-designed assessment will ultimately benefit both developer and the environment.
When preparing a tourism management plan, it is crucial to decide who should be the primary beneficiary: is it the local people, the investors, or tourist agencies? And to what extent should the area become dependent on tourism? The planners must realise that the supply of tourists is always uncertain and depends upon a wide range of factors over which the government has no control.
The Government has to decide what scale of tourism is to be promoted. Any tourism plan must explicitly state the cutoff point at which further growth of tourism would not be allowed. The planners cannot ignore the impact of mass tourism on the social fabric of local communities. Exposure to ideas and lifestyles of tourists are bound to affect the consumption and behavior pattern of local people. They should be protected from decisions made by outsiders who may have a short-term vested interest in rapid development of tourism.
S, Roy is Chairman of India’s Committee for Management of National Parks and Sanctuaries and Tourism and has served as Director of the India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC), as advisor to the Bhutan Government on tourism and environment, and as a consultant to the World Tourism Organisation.