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Why tourism can be a force for good in the developing world, and why it isn’t



Tourism can bring about positive change, but bad practices within the industry tend to make it part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Felipe Zalamea of Sumak Sustainable Travel explains why tourism could be a force of good in the developing world, but isn’t.

As one of the fastest growing industries in the world, tourism should be a strong contributor and driver of sustainable development and poverty alleviation in the developing world.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates that international tourist arrivals have grown from 528 million in 1995 to 980 million in 2011; and its forecast is that 1.8 billion tourists a year will be travelling by 2030.

Gringo Trails from Pegi Vail (above via Vimeo) looks at the effect of the unplanned or mismanaged growth of the tourism industry in developing countries.

Tourism creates (indecent) jobs

The tourism industry is labour intensive, requiring many jobs to provide services to travellers. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), in 2012 the industry’s direct contribution was 101m jobs.

In total, one in 11 jobs worldwide are directly or indirectly involved in tourism and travel. Yet, very few consider the quality of jobs that the industry creates, in particular in developing countries. Are local people owners, managers, marketers, lawyers and decision-makers? Or do they mostly get poorly paid jobs as waiters, porters, receptionists and cleaners?

It’s not that these jobs are unworthy, it’s that in many cases they are not decent work (as defined by the International Labour Organisation), but rather low-paid, involving seasonality and shift work, with little or no union representation.

Charity Tourism Concern is running several campaigns around these issues – see Porters’ Rights and All Inclusive Holidays: Excluding local people in tourist destinations (the campaign featured in the Guardian). The charity also talks about sun, sand, sea and sweatshops destinations.

And what about sex workers? Unfortunately, mass tourism brings about sexual exploitation, especially among children. It was a sad surprise that the overall winner of the World Responsible Travel Awards 2013 was a tour operator ‘raising awareness’ about child sex tourism in north-east Brazil. This shows how bad the situation is, and we look forward to seeing how the winners will eradicate child sex tourism during the World Cup this summer.

Tour operators are green(washing)

The number of tourists is rising, which is a great sign for the industry as a whole. However, some popular destinations are reaching a breaking point. The high volume affects local populations in positive but also negative ways. Many locals can find jobs or sell goods and services to improve their livelihoods, but waste of resources, land grabbing and environmental destruction increase, too.

In addition, destinations like the Dominican Republic, India or Thailand are suffering from higher crime rates, overcrowding and sex tourism. Tour operators have a key role to play, but greenwashing has become so normal that the word ‘ecotoursim’ has lost its meaning and travellers are now sceptical about it.

The best example is carbon offsetting, with companies making tourists feel guilty and pretending that by paying a few extra dollars per booking it will solve the problem of climate change and reduce emissions.

Non market-based and community-led solutions should be put forward instead. There is no need to give examples of greenwashing in the industry in general, but it is worrying that even leading tour operators are doing it, claiming that they are responsible because their tour groups are small (four to 20 people), or because they recycle paper in their UK offices.

I wonder if these courageous measures will reduce land grabbing and water inequality within the industry. How long it will take for tourists to also become sceptical of the words ‘responsible’ and ‘ethical’?

Tourism promotes (under)development

Tourism creates opportunities for local populations to engage and profit from the industry; however, the benefits tend not to trickle down to the local population.

Egypt and Cuba are good examples of this. They are two of the most touristic countries in the world, but only a very small proportion of the local population benefits from this. If you have been to one of these countries, you might agree with us when we say that it’s difficult to determine which impact is bigger: positive (jobs, income, infrastructure, etc) or negative (exploitation, over consumption of resources, environmental destruction, etc).

research project by the UN Environment Programme shows that the negative economic impacts in developing countries include leakages (in Thailand almost 70% of all money spent leaves the country), and increases in prices and demand for basic services in tourist areas.

It also creates dependency on a single industry, like in Gambia, where 30% of the population depends on tourism directly or indirectly. Many small island countries like the Maldives (where 83% of people depend on tourism), Seychelles or Jamaica, face a similar problem. Obviously, tourism is not the unique factor, but it’s certainly part of the problem.

Volunteer tourism (un)helps to alleviate poverty

Volunteering abroad can be seen as a chance to do good and to engage with local people all over the world. In the UK, voluntourism, or volunteer tourism, is becoming popular, and is probably the fastest-growing sector of the industry.

However, ‘responsible’ and expensive organisations may not be providing truly responsible or ethical volunteer opportunities, and recently a study by the University of Leeds showed that the more expensive voluntourism programmes are, the less responsible they are, too.

When we started two years ago, we decided not to offer ‘voluntourism’ experiences at all, even if our network includes lots of grassroot social and environmental projects. At the time, no one was talking loud about these issues, so we were glad to see Tourism Concern launch a brave campaign against orphanage tourism and remove all the orphanage volunteering holidays from its website last year. Now it’s time to start looking at the poverty porn that some tour operators use to market their voluntourism or cultural tours.

Although it focuses on the negative impacts, this is not a blog against tourism. We truly believe tourism can be a force for good, and that’s why we specialise in community-based ecotourism, which is in practice a powerful tool for sustainable development.

If you are a traveller, please don’t feel guilty or stop travelling, but do start asking tough questions to the tour operators you book with. Ask them if the jobs they create are decent, if they have a proper responsible tourism policy and how they apply it on the ground. Ask if your money is going to the locals and if they are transparent in their operations.

If you are a tour operator, we hope that you are prepared to answer these questions.

Felipe Zalamea is a director at Sumak Sustainable Travel.

Further reading:

‘No tourism if you kill the environment’, Philippines ecotourism conference hears

Ecotourism helps reduce poverty, new study shows

Sustainable tourism: ‘going green’ doesn’t just mean a splash of colour

Top holiday tips for responsible tourists

The Guide to Sustainable Tourism 2014

Editors Choice

2017 Was the Most Expensive Year Ever for U.S. Natural Disaster Damage



Natural Disaster Damage
Shutterstock / By Droidworker |

Devastating natural disasters dominated last year’s headlines and made many wonder how the affected areas could ever recover. According to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storms and other weather events that caused the destruction were extremely costly.

Specifically, the natural disasters recorded last year caused so much damage that the associated losses made 2017 the most expensive year on record in the 38-year history of keeping such data. The following are several reasons that 2017 made headlines for this notorious distinction.

Over a Dozen Events With Losses Totalling More Than $1 Billion Each

The NOAA reports that in total, the recorded losses equaled $306 billion, which is $90 billion more than the amount associated with 2005, the previous record holder. One of the primary reasons the dollar amount climbed so high last year is that 16 individual events cost more than $1 billion each.

Global Warming Contributed to Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Harvey, one of two Category-4 hurricanes that made landfall in 2017, was a particularly expensive natural disaster. Nearly 800,000 people needed assistance after the storm. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion, with some estimates even higher than that. So far, the only hurricane more expensive than Harvey was Katrina.

Before Hurricane Harvey hit, scientists speculated climate change could make it worse. They discussed how rising ocean temperatures make hurricanes more intense, and warmer atmospheres have higher amounts of water vapor, causing larger rainfall totals.

Since then, a new study published in “Environmental Research Letters” confirmed climate change was indeed a factor that gave Hurricane Harvey more power. It found environmental conditions associated with global warming made the storm more severe and increase the likelihood of similar events.

That same study also compared today’s storms with ones from 1900. It found that compared to those earlier weather phenomena, Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall was 15 percent more intense and three times as likely to happen now versus in 1900.

Warming oceans are one of the contributing factors. Specifically, the ocean’s surface temperature associated with the region where Hurricane Harvey quickly transformed from a tropical storm into a Category 4 hurricane has become about 1 degree Fahrenheit warmer over the past few decades.

Michael Mann, a climatologist from Penn State University, believes that due to a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about 3-5 percent more moisture in the air, which caused more rain. To complicate matters even more, global warming made sea levels rise by more than 6 inches in the Houston area over the past few decades. Mann also believes global warming caused the stationery summer weather patterns that made Hurricane Harvey stop moving and saturate the area with rain. Mann clarifies although global warming didn’t cause Hurricane Harvey as a whole, it exacerbated several factors of the storm.

Also, statistics collected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 1901-2015 found the precipitation levels in the contiguous 48 states had gone up by 0.17 inches per decade. The EPA notes the increase is expected because rainfall totals tend to go up as the Earth’s surface temperatures rise and additional evaporation occurs.

The EPA’s measurements about surface temperature indicate for the same timespan mentioned above for precipitation, the temperatures have gotten 0.14 Fahrenheit hotter per decade. Also, although the global surface temperature went up by 0.15 Fahrenheit during the same period, the temperature rise has been faster in the United States compared to the rest of the world since the 1970s.

Severe Storms Cause a Loss of Productivity

Many people don’t immediately think of one important factor when discussing the aftermath of natural disasters: the adverse impact on productivity. Businesses and members of the workforce in Houston, Miami and other cities hit by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma suffered losses that may total between $150-200 billion when both damage and sacrificed productivity are accounted for, according to estimates from Moody’s Analytics.

Some workers who decide to leave their homes before storms arrive delay returning after the immediate danger has passed. As a result of their absences, a labor-force shortage may occur. News sources posted stories highlighting that the Houston area might not have enough construction workers to handle necessary rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

It’s not hard to imagine the impact heavy storms could have on business operations. However, companies that offer goods to help people prepare for hurricanes and similar disasters often find the market wants what they provide. While watching the paths of current storms, people tend to recall storms that took place years ago and see them as reminders to get prepared for what could happen.

Longer and More Disastrous Wildfires Require More Resources to Fight

The wildfires that ripped through millions of acres in the western region of the United States this year also made substantial contributions to the 2017 disaster-related expenses. The U.S. Forest Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Agriculture, reported 2017 as its costliest year ever and saw total expenditures exceeding $2 billion.

The agency anticipates the costs will grow, especially when they take past data into account. In 1995, the U.S. Forest Service spent 16 percent of its annual budget for wildfire-fighting costs, but in 2015, the amount ballooned to 52 percent. The sheer number of wildfires last year didn’t help matters either. Between January 1 and November 24 last year, 54,858 fires broke out.

2017: Among the Three Hottest Years Recorded

People cause the majority of wildfires, but climate change acts as another notable contributor. In addition to affecting hurricane intensity, rising temperatures help fires spread and make them harder to extinguish.

Data collected by the National Interagency Fire Center and published by the EPA highlighted a correlation between the largest wildfires and the warmest years on record. The extent of damage caused by wildfires has gotten worse since the 1980s, but became particularly severe starting in 2000 during a period characterized by some of the warmest years the U.S. ever recorded.

Things haven’t changed for the better, either. In mid-December of 2017, the World Meteorological Organization released a statement announcing the year would likely end as one of the three warmest years ever recorded. A notable finding since the group looks at global land and ocean temperature, not just statistics associated with the United States.

Not all the most financially impactful weather events in 2017 were hurricanes and wildfires. Some of the other issues that cost over $1 billion included a hailstorm in Colorado, tornados in several regions of the U.S. and substantial flooding throughout Missouri and Arkansas.

Although numerous factors gave these natural disasters momentum, scientists know climate change was a defining force — a reality that should worry just about everyone.

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How to be More eco-Responsible in 2018



Shutterstock / By KENG MERRY Paper Art |

Nowadays, more and more people are talking about being more eco-responsible. There is a constant growth of information regarding the importance of being aware of ecological issues and the methods of using eco-friendly necessities on daily basis.

Have you been considering becoming more eco-responsible after the New Year? If so, here are some useful tips that could help you make the difference in the following year:

1. Energy – produce it, save it

If you’re building a house or planning to expand your living space, think before deciding on the final square footage. Maybe you don’t really need that much space. Unnecessary square footage will force you to spend more building materials, but it will also result in having to use extra heating, air-conditioning, and electricity in it.

It’s even better if you seek professional help to reduce energy consumption. An energy audit can provide you some great piece of advice on how to save on your energy bills.

While buying appliances such as a refrigerator or a dishwasher, make sure they have “Energy Star” label on, as it means they are energy-efficient.

energy efficient

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By My Life Graphic

Regarding the production of energy, you can power your home with renewable energy. The most common way is to install rooftop solar panels. They can be used for producing electricity, as well as heat for the house. If powering the whole home is a big step for you, try with solar oven then – they trap the sunlight in order to heat food! Solar air conditioning is another interesting thing to try out – instead of providing you with heat, it cools your house!

2. Don’t be just another tourist

Think about the environment, as well your own enjoyment – try not to travel too far, as most forms of transport contribute to the climate change. Choose the most environmentally friendly means of transport that you can, as well as environmentally friendly accommodation. If you can go to a destination that is being recommended as an eco-travel destination – even better! Interesting countries such as Zambia, Vietnam or Nicaragua are among these destinations that are famous for its sustainability efforts.

3. Let your beauty be also eco-friendly


Shutterstock / By Khakimullin Aleksandr

We all want to look beautiful. Unfortunately, sometimes (or very often) it comes with a price. Cruelty-free cosmetics are making its way on the world market but be careful with the labels – just because it says a product hasn’t been tested on animals, it doesn’t  mean that some of the product’s ingredients haven’t been tested on some poor animal.

To be sure which companies definitely stay away from the cruel testing on animals, check PETA Bunny list of cosmetic companies just to make sure which ones are truly and completely cruelty-free.

It’s also important if a brand uses toxic ingredients. Brands such as Tata Harper Skincare or Dr Bronner’s use only organic ingredients and biodegradable packaging, as well as being cruelty-free. Of course, this list is longer, so you’ll have to do some online research.

4. Know thy recycling

People often make mistakes while wanting to do something good for the environment. For example, plastic grocery bags, take-out containers, paper coffee cups and shredded paper cannot be recycled in your curb for many reasons, so don’t throw them into recycling bins. The same applies to pizza boxes, household glass, ceramics, and pottery – whether they are contaminated by grease or difficult to recycle, they just can’t go through the usual recycling process.

People usually forget to do is to rinse plastic and metal containers – they always have some residue, so be thorough. Also, bottle caps are allowed, too, so don’t separate them from the bottles. However, yard waste isn’t recyclable, so any yard waste or junk you are unsure of – just contact rubbish removal services instead of piling it up in public containers or in your own yard.

5. Fashion can be both eco-friendly and cool

Believe it or not, there are actually places where you can buy clothes that are eco-friendly, sustainable, as well as ethical. And they look cool, too! Companies like Everlane are very transparent about where their clothes are manufactured and how the price is set. PACT is another great company that uses non-GMO, organic cotton and non-toxic dyes for their clothing, while simultaneously using renewable energy factories. Soko is a company that uses natural and recycled materials in making their clothes and jewelry.

All in all

The truth is – being eco-responsible can be done in many ways. There are tons of small things we could change when it comes to our habits that would make a positive influence on the environment. The point is to start doing research on things that can be done by every person and it can start with the only thing that person has the control of – their own household.

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