Region needs to be more responsible, says expert


AS the Tourism for Tomorrow Awards call for entries, chairman of the jury Costas Christ tells SHALU CHANDRAN that the Middle East has great promise for sustainable tourism – but there are some concerns, too. Excerpts:

There is a lot of confusion between nature tourism and eco-tourism. How would you differentiate the two?
As tourists to any region or country, we learn a lot about the area we are in, we camp on the beaches and watch the wildlife and end our trip saying how wonderful it was. What we have just experienced is nature tourism experience.
When that same trip and the revenue generated from it and the partnerships associated with it are directly protecting the environment we travelled through and bringing tangible economic benefits to the people who live there, it transforms itself into eco-tourism.
So, eco-tourism is a concept based upon direct connection in protecting nature, environmental sustainability and giving back to the local communities. Where local people have been brought in as partners and stakeholders to contribute, we have seen tourism become a tremendous opportunity rather than a threat. Eco-tourism which has today evolved into sustainable tourism is about ensuring that all parties are beneficiaries.

How can tourism today, play a role in sustaining eco-tourism?
First of all we have seen an evolution in this whole notion of responsible tourism. Eco-tourism is primarily focused in and around nature-based tourism where we apply a set of principles and practices about giving back to the people. However, with the size and the staggering growth of the industry, even with a 100 per cent success, it will take us many years before we would be able to transform even a small per cent of global tourism.
The question was, why stop with these principles of giving back in the world of nature travel only? From cruise ships to airlines, from city hotels to resorts, when you take the principles once associated with eco-tourism and apply them to the mainstream tourism industry, you have sustainable tourism. Both words come under an umbrella of responsible travel.
Today’s new travellers want to experience the world. From 900-thread-count sheets to rooms with views, they want to feel that their actions will have a positive impact on the planet. And this has given rise to what’s being referred to as the creative economy. At the same time with the staggering growth of travel and tourism – from 842 million international arrivals in 2006 and growing, WTTC’s statistics shows that by the end of the year, one out of 12 people will be employed in some aspect of the travel and tourism industry.
That’s why the Tourism for Tommorrow awards are so important, because we need to be able to demonst-rate those far-sighted leaders and private sector firms partnering with the public sector but who are represen-ting best practices, so the industry can see its way ahead

Have these awards helped encourage real change in Tourism? What is the jury looking for this year?
Each year we have four award categories. The Destination Award is really about destinations of any size – a state, province, region or country, and how all the players in travel and tourism come together in a dynamic private and public partnership to approach tourism from a destination perspective. For the Conser-vation Award we look at models where the private sector in particular has demonstrated sound accom-plishments on conservation front. For the Investor in People Award, not only are we looking for organization which hire local people, but for businesses and tourism practices that are building the tourism capacity of local people through self-empowerment, so they themselves are able to advance in future. The Global Tourism Business Award recognises all these facets, at a destination or local community or conservation level all coming together in one award.
Another factor that sets apart the Tourism for Tomorrow awards from other awards is that Tourism for Tomorrow remains the only global award that verifies the winners with our on-site team of experts for a rigorous inspection and make sure that the people who are actually demonstrating these best practices. That gives our awards an upper hand.

What in your opinion has to be done in the Middle East, with so many construction projects?
I think the Middle East has great promise and has already accomplished some good things, and there are some concerns too. Countries like Jordan have embraced sustainable tourism as a model and are moving ahead to demonstrate that positively. Oman has taken great steps to ensure that tourism development embraces and enhances its cultural heritage with care and commitment to the environment. Dubai was the first company to create a national park, in the Dubai Desert Conservation Area, linked to the model of sustainable tourism which is the Al Maha Resort. It is now a standing example of sustainable tourism and eco-tourism principles being practiced. Yet at the same time, we know there are mega projects going along the coastal areas with some significant damage and concern to the marine environ-ment through rapid tourism growth along the coast.
I would definitely like to see Oman submit applications for the awards next year, since Oman is benchmarking some excellent practises. [It would] bring attention to Middle Eastern businesses in the travel and tourism sector as well as to the government to show that best practises are recognised and can deliver positive attention.

Personally, is the industry doing enough for responsible tourism? What would you like to see?
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have said we could even be this far along. But we still have a tremendous distance to go.