David Weaver “Sustainable Tourism” lecture based on Chapter 1
By T.H. Culhane, Ph.D.
Script for Video. 3125 Words
Is Sustainable Tourism possible?
Is Sustainable Development, upon which the concept is based, merely an oxymoron?
What might a environmentally friendly, socially just and financially viable tourism sector truly look like?
In the first chapter of David Weaver’s book, Sustainable Tourism, he introduces us to the paradox that sustainable development poses. He does this by juxtaposing two seemingly incongruous words. “Sustainable” and “Development”, words that were not comfortable bedfellows just a few decades ago.
Sustainability, to some, especially when applied to tourism, implies a hands-off approach to our interaction with the natural world. It goes along with notions of pristine environments, untrammeled by human presence, or at the very least it suggests the kind of “spectator only” presence of human observers that is epitomized by the phrase “take only photographs, leave only footprints”. Those footprints are, of course, supposed to be light enough in their impact that they quickly disappear, leaving the environment much as it was before we arrived.
On the other hand, “development” suggests an anthropocentric approach to our engagement with our environments. It suggests anthropogenic modifications to the landscape that will bear witness to our presence into perpetuity. “Development” creates out of nature what we call “the built environment”. Development is normally associated with a very large and impactful ecological footprint that signals our mastery over space. Where sustainability leans toward essentialist notions of “wilderness” the latter leans toward the artifice of “civilization” and these two worlds usually appear to be poles apart.
“Sustainable development”, on the other hand, and “sustainable tourism” in particular, suggest, by making a single phrase out of the two words, that there can be some happy middle ground, that some kind of utopia is achievable, as least in the case of human beings traveling to different parts of the planet whilst engaged in leisure activities. Because it doesn’t usually imply manufacturing or heavy industry, the imagery associated with it can be fairly Edenic, displaying a rapprochement with what we imagine we might have done in some forgotten paradise.
Sustainable tourism suggests that we can create, in concert with Budowski’s 1976 ‘symbiosis scenario’ some kind of tourism that “wisely uses and conserves resources in order to maintain their long-term viability” so that we can have “tourism development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This restatement of the Brundtland report’s sustainability definition, applied to the rapidly growing leisure sector, emerged in the early 1990s within tourist organizations and the academics studying them, even though the Brundtland Report itself made no mention of tourism when it was issued in the mid 1980s, long after tourism had achieved ‘mega sector’ status, and despite the fact that even the Agenda 21 strategy document from the seminal Rio Earth Summit in 1992 by and large neglected tourism. (Weaver p 10)
But it only made sense that the idea of Sustainable Tourism would capture the imagination of the both tourist organizations and visitors, since, like its parent concept, sustainable development, it is just nebulous and malleable enough a concept to “become almost universally endorsed as a desired process”. According to Weaver “this support can be explained in part by the appealing semantics of the term, which offers the prospect of development for the supporters of continued growth, but the prospect of sustainability for environmentalists and other advocates of a slow growth or steady state approach. Synthesizing these two contradictory strands, sustainable development represents the attractive possibility of continuing economic development that does not unduly strain the earth’s environmental, sociocultural or economic carrying capacities.” (p. 10).
The problem is, nobody really knows if this is possible or not. And that is because the ecosystems of the Earth have NEVER in our planet’s entire history, had to cope with the impact of so many Homo sapiens.
For most of human existence, there were less than a half billion of us on the Earth, and we only reached our first billion in 1804 during the industrial revolution.. We hit 2 billion in 1927 when my grandfather was starting his family, 3 billion in 1959 when my father was starting his family, 4 billion in 1974 when I was still in Middle School and just learning how to snorkel, amazed by the vibrancy of the ocean in Florida and visiting Disney World and Busch Gardens for the first time, 5 billion in 1987 when I was visiting rainforests in Borneo that had rarely seen a human being, 6 billion in 1999 when I was building an eco-tourism lodge in a tiny village in Guatemala, and riding camels in deserts in the Sinai with Bedouins who still wandered freely, but were complaining that there was really no place left to go.
We hit 7 billion in 2011 when I was on a National Geographic expedition to what they call the “last mile” locations of Nepal, installing wind generators and solar panels in tiny villages while my colleagues tried to record dying languages and cultures and save endangered slow growing juniper shrubs being eradicated by the very tourism we represented.
If we look at the number of international Tourism stayovers from 1950 to 2004, and project into the future, we see it tracks population growth with an almost exponential growth curve in the expansion of the global tourism industry. The book calls it one of the “most remarkable socioeconomic phenomena of the post-World War II era, a
30 fold increase in recorded stayover tourists, with receipts increasing by a factor of 235, which, when adjusted for inflation , represents a real 23 fold increase, moving from relative obscurity in 1950 to one of the world's largest industries by the turn of the century, accounting for 67 million direct jobs and 3.7 % of global cumulative GDP.
The impact of such a huge industry can not be ignored, particularly as so much of the industry's growth is now based on exploiting destinations in previously “untouched” regions. People who are suspicious of claims that sustainable tourism is possible wonder how, in the anthropocene, in a world with diminishing resources and ever greater contamination caused by human impact, and rising income inequalities and social disparities, moving more and more people to more and more parts of the world at an ever increasing rate to engage in acts of non-productive consumption could ever lead to a steady-state situation, much less be considered “slow growth”.
Figure 1.1 shows how the Geographic Expansion has proceeded, rising from a mere 25 million arrivals in 1950 to 750 million in 2004, 900 million in 2007, and a billion in 2012. It is expected that we will reach 1.6 billion tourist stayover arrivals by 2020. In the early of days of this expansion, most of the activity was between and within More Developed Countries, or MDCs, but by the 1960s many wealthier tourists with discretionary income and time began travelling in significant numbers to Less Developed Countries, or “LDCs” in what has been called “the global south SunLust countries”, otherwise known as “the international pleasure periphery”.
The most recent stage of global tourism diffusion has resulted from the emergence of a significant middle class in the LDC nations and now we see about 5 percent of all tourism is based on movements from LDCs to other LDCs and up to the Global North MDCs. From a sustainability perspective we must acknowledge that the areas of greatest biodiversity and cultural diversity are in the Global South and that these sensitive locations are at the same time the areas experiencing the greatest ecological and cultural impacts as huge numbers of people flock to experience what they consider “ the exotic” .
The academic Jafari has studied how perceptions of tourism’s impact have changed along with this exponential growth and provides some reason for hope. His model describes what he calls four influential and sequential “platforms” used in policy making.
Knowledge based platform
The advocacy platform came first, in the ebullient aftermath of the second world war, when American hegemony was assured through military and economic power, and a strong leisure class was forming out of the new prosperity of a rising middle class. The Advocacy platform naturally advocated for what promoters believed were the overwhelming benefits of tourism. Advocates claimed that tourism didn’t need much if any regulation because tourism, according to them,
- Generates direct revenues
- Generates indirect revenues through multiplier effects and linkages to other sectors
- Stimulates regional development
- Enables strong global performance
- Promotes cross-cultural understanding
- And Provides incentives to preserve cultures and natural environments.
This was also the time of the Peace Corps and a time when there was a sense in wealthier countries that encounters with leisure class Americans would inevitably provide “trickle down” benefits, not just economically, but in terms of health, education and “appreciation” for their environments. There was called a “jingoistic” attitude among even the most open minded travelers that ultimately led the Mexican social critic Ivan Illich to heavily lambast American volunteers in his classic essay, “To Hell With Good Intentions” in which he stated that travelers from MDCs have more to learn and gain from the people in the LDCs they are visiting than vice versa.
Such critiques lead to the next platform to emerge, the Cautionary Platform. This optic on tourism found all the flaws, asserting that
- Direct revenues were actually eroded by seasonality and costs (marketing, administration, public infrastructure and incentives)
- Leakages were being created by importation of goods and services and profit repatriation.
- Employment was low-paying, seasonal, part-time and low benefit
- Tourism was not necessarily the best alternative for solving regional or community problems
- Performance fluctuated at the national and local level and the global curve could not be extrapolated to the local level.
- Tourism promoted cross-cultural conflict due to disparities and congestion
- Culture was being commodified, crime was being stimulated and environments were being degraded by development and tourist activities as well as by induced effects.
The cautionary platform was necessarily gloomy, being a lived response to the flaws that emerged from an over optimistic advocacy platform. Butler in 1980 created the well-known “Destination Life Cycle Model” which contends that “unregulated tourism development eventually undermines the very foundation asset that support the growth of a tourist destination in the first instance”.
The iconic image from his model was the “S-curve” that starts with low level equilibrium ‘exploration’ of tourism with negligible consequences, good or bad. It then creates an involvement stage with locals trying to identify benefits and costs that soon leeds to the development stage and a period of accelerated demand. At this point mass tourism begins to cause “the critical environmental, sociocultural, and economic carrying capacities of the destination to be breeched” (Weaver p. 8) If no remedial intervention occurs by industry or government, the model predicts “consolidation, stagnation and then decline. Rejuvenation can only happen if the cautionary principle is applied and measures are taken by the public sector to remediate the deterioration, with an understanding that unregulated tourism “contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction”.
As with most critiques, the cautionary platform did a good job of identifying what goes wrong but didn’t offer viable alternatives. Thus in the late 1970s and early 1980s an emphasis on solutions led to the development of the adaptancy platform and led to the growth of what we now call “alternative tourism” which deliberately set out to contrast mass tourism with tourism practices that “adapted to the unique sociocultural and environmental circumstances of any given community”. Ecotourism, a term that appeared in the mid 1980s, was one form of alternative tourism with attractions based on natural environments.
Nonetheless, since no new platform had the power to totally replace the preceding platforms, a polarization was developing between advocates and adaptors that needed more nuance. Mass tourism had grown so profitable that it was definitely “here to stay” and would not be constrained. Some tourism attractions were deliberately created with absolutely no regard to regional or local context and were operating almost as though they were their own kingdoms. Adaptancy was out of the question. So the next platform to be created was the Knowledge Based Platform.
The Knowledge Based Platform starts with the premise that there is good and bad in all kinds of tourism and that “the ideologically polarized advocacy, cautionary and adaptancy platforms offer a limited and biased world view of an increasingly complex global tourism sector that defies such simplistic analysis”. (Weaver p. 9).
In later chapters Weaver shows us how mass tourism operators, for example, may be the only ones with the clout to implement industry wide improvements in energy and resource use. Meanwhile, small locally run tourism operations may collapse during a seasonal lull or an event like a terrorist attack that keeps tourists away for a period of time, forcing people out of work in tourism and into jobs that then cause severe disruptions to the environment,, like overfishing or deforestation or mining, that then destroy the very attractions that made the alternative tourism attractive in the first place.
As Weaver points out “ it is untenable to contend (as with the adaptancy platform) that small-scale tourism is inherently superior to large-scale tourism or vice versa (as with the advocacy platform). Rather, the decision as to what mode(s) of tourism is best for a particular destination should be based on a sound scientific analysis of its characteristics and the subsequent implementation of appropriate planning and management strategies.” (p. 9)
With this in mind, the call then went out for the “scientification” of the .field. Sustainable tourism began to be institutionalized through a whole slew of external non-tourism sector global and Regional organizations , like UNEP and the OECD tourism committee, the European Commission the APEC Tourism Charter and others, and environmental groups like Conservation International, as well as specific tourist industry related institutions like the WTO, the WTTC, and PATA. Finally, through the funding of tourism related research, the proliferation of peer-reviewed tourism and hospitality journals and the introduction of tourism into university curricula, we are seeking to create a new culture and generation of stakeholders interested in and dedicated to solving the problems inherent in tourism, and that is why you’re here, studying Sustainable Tourism, engaging with a seminal text like this one and putting your energy into a concentration dedicated to bringing good science to the field.
You are living examples of the Knowledge Based platform, in ACTION.
Case study: Bahamas
I spent a month in the Bahamas when I was 17, way back in 1979, studying tropical marine ecosystems and underwater photography at the Forfar Field Station on Andros Island. At that time this remote jungle lodge built of stone, crawling with crabs and palm bugs, was the only tourist destination on the island. We felt privileged to be there, since both the reefs surrounding the “tongue of the ocean” and the blue hole dotted rain forests, were as pristine as you could imagine. Almost nobody visited Andros. Still, tourism in the Bahamas was increasing rapidly. From 39,000 visitors in 1937, to 100,000 in 1953 and 1.1 million in 1969, by the time I arrived tourism had climbed to about 70 % of GDP and had become a 470 million dollar industry in 1978, making the Bahamas one of the wealthiest Caribbean countries, at least as far as the elites were concerned.
Two big problems began to emerge however – the success of of Bahamian tourism stimulated other islands to copy their model, leading to ups and downs and uncertainties that made the labor force restive. There was a 90 % LEAKAGE RATE, meaning the loss of direct revenues to IMPORTED goods and services. Foreign dominance of the hotel sector, an eroding cultural identity, high inflation, a growing sex trade, a reliance on the short stay US market, which accounted for four-fifths of visitors.. all were creating a recipe for what Wilkinson (1997) called a “house of cards”.
The most vulnerable part of the equation of course was that the more popular the Bahamas became, the more damage it did to the very assets that brought tourists there in the first place. Cruise ships hyper concentrated activity and damage to the marine environment without putting any money into the local economy. In Archer’s 1981 study it was estimated that only one job was created for every 350 low spending excursionists, compared with one job for every 30 stayovers.
Master Planning for tourism was created in response in 1981, but the so-called solutions actually resulted mostly in expanding tourism to other islands that were undeveloped. It wasn’t until the 1990s as a result of the government's participation in the Earth Summit in Rio that the Master Plan began to include sustainability in its approach. In 1996 a Sustainable Tourism Unit was established within the Ministry of Tourism and in 2001 the government signed the ACS Convention establishing the Sustainable Tourism Zone of the Caribbean, which obliges the signatories to “protect and promote Caribbean culture, foster community participation, protect natural resources, promote sustainable technology, provide incentives for sustainable tourism enterprises, educate tourists, develop sustainable tourism indicators and create an Information Centre on Sustainable tourism Development accessible to all ACS members”.
Whether the “house of cards” will stand or fall has yet to be determined, according to Weaver, as the country has to juggle between the mass tourism sites of casinos, golf courses and duty free shopping and the alternative ecotourism activities and ecotourism products being promoted in the locally owned guest houses on the Out (or Family) islands.
A few years ago I had a chance to spend a few days at the Atlantis resort and go on excursions. Certainly Atlantis, with its massive aquaria and water slides through shark tanks and false rivers and Disneyesque “under the sea” themed restaurants and attractions, has a major impact on wildlife and water quality, but they do have the money to work toward sustainable ways of maintaining their captive wildlife and treating the water and waste they discharge. And they offered locally led excursions to remote locations, where I dove with sharks and swam with rays… to maintain the illusion of pristine wildlife in the wild they do support local communities and regulate fishing and keep the beaches and wild areas free of trash and pollution. So I saw here hope that mass tourism and alternative tourism could be developed hand in hand, more or less sustainably. Only time will tell what the impact of nearly 1.6 million tourists a year will have on this ecologically sensitive region in the age of climate change.