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Tourism Time Bomb


new internationalist
issue 234 - August 1992

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Tourism time bomb
Oh, those relaxed summers at the seaside: sun, sand and surf. Shake them
all together and you get the perfect holiday. But what happens to the sea
when all the tourists have gone home? Nick Hanna and Sue Wells report.

As the heat of the day begins to diminish at Diani Beach, one of the more popular resorts on Kenya's Indian Ocean coastline, it has become the custom for hundreds of tourists to parade the beach together, taking a sunset stroll before settling down for the evening in their respective hotels. Their footprints will be erased from the sand by the incoming tides, but their impact elsewhere is more devastating and long-lasting.

As they tuck into their evening meals, visitors from as far apart as Dusseldorf and Delaware will be comparing notes on their après-safari beach holiday. Their menu for the evening will include mouth-watering delicacies such as lobster, grouper and snapper. They might be admiring the shells, coral necklaces and other curios which they've bought. Some will have been out on glass-bottom boats and may have made their first floundering attempts at snorkelling. Others will have ventured deeper into the sea on a scuba-diving trip, and may even be sporting cuts and grazes testifying to their close encounters with sharp-edged corals. Some will have been deep-sea fishing, and will be proudly relating their attempts to hook marlin, dorado or even sharks.

Over the past 20 years there has been a boom in Third World 'sun'n'surf' tourism as cash-starved developing countries market their sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and coral reefs to sun-seeking visitors from the North. As well as the enormous growth in the volume of tourists (partly thanks to cheaper airfares), there have also been changes in what people do on holiday and they are now much more likely to take part in activities which focus on the ocean itself: windsurfing, snorkelling, sport fishing, whale-watching, sailing and scuba diving.

The economic value of this latest wave of beach and marine tourism is enormous. Around 100 million tourists visit the Caribbean annually, contributing between 40 to 70 per cent of the GNP of some countries in the region. Divers from the US spend an estimated $286 million a year in the Caribbean and Hawaii. Even a relatively inaccessible spot like the Maldives attracts more than 160,000 visitors yearly to its sparkling coral beaches. The island nation had just two resorts in 1972; now there are more than 60.

But there is a price to be paid for this tourism explosion - and it is a price which is not reflected in the cost of package holidays. The tourist industry invariably markets tropical beach holidays with images of paradise and unspoiled nature. But the fact is that much of the frenzied development to attract the tourist dollar is both uncontrolled and badly planned.

In the last two decades the explosive growth in the construction of beach hotels, resorts, marinas, golf courses, roads, shopping malls and airports has destroyed coastal habitats and threatened some of the most productive ecosystems on the planet. Apart from the Mediterranean, the coastal areas most under threat from tourism are in the tropics, where habitats such as coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses are deteriorating rapidly under an avalanche of pink-fleshed sun-seekers.

Coral reefs, sandy beaches and scenic coastlines are what the tourist comes to see and developers are astute enough to try and maintain these. Other habitats are a liability and are the first to go. Mangrove swamps are dredged to make way for ports and marinas, destroying nursery grounds for many commercial fish species and increasing soil run-off and siltation. Seagrass beds are dredged for sand to be used in construction. The vulnerability of coral reefs to pollution and siltation is often overlooked: badly built coastal roads erode in the rain and wash into the sea. Hotels pump untreated sewage into the sea and boats and cruise ships dump it directly overboard. Where building materials are in short supply, as on small islands, corals are used for construction - a minor problem when local housing was the only demand, but a serious concern in the case of large resorts.

Even sandy beaches are not immune. Hotels are built close to the shoreline to provide visitors with a view of the sea and easy access to the beach. But this alters natural sand movement, frequently causing erosion. Similar problems arise following the construction of jetties, harbours and artificial islands which interrupt natural currents and water circulation.

Coral reefs are particularly vulnerable; reefs in more than 50 countries have suffered some form of tourist damage. Although an individual diver or snorkeller may have minimum impact compared to other forms of reef damage, the cumulative effect of divers on a reef can be considerable.

Dive guides all over the world can point to once-pristine, flourishing dive sites where broken and silted corals mock the former richness of the reef. Divers can easily damage coral by standing on it, bumping into it, or holding on to it as they steady themselves in a current or look at marine life. Every day of the year, hundreds of boats, yachts, and glass-bottom boats send their anchors crashing down onto reefs. The lack of docking facilities for cruise ships in many countries means that they often anchor directly on reefs.

In the Cayman Islands, where 30 cruise ships anchor on a regular basis, a single 24-hour visit by a cruise ship can wipe out an area of reef the size of five tennis courts. Reefs in Georgetown Harbour on Grand Cayman have been reduced to rubble.

Tourism has also fuelled demand for products from the reef, both food and curios. Species that were once staples for coastal people - like grouper, snapper, conch and spiny lobster - are now luxury foods commanding high prices in restaurants and hotels. Corals, shells, dried pufferfish and other curios are sold in souvenir shops and beach stalls. Marine bric-a-brac decorates tourist hotel rooms and restaurants. And there even is a growing market for corals and shell curios in Europe and North America.

In many countries in the South the economic benefits of tourism are an illusion. Foreign tour operators often own the hotels, the charter airlines and the travel agencies. So profits are mostly exported rather than going to local people: in the Eastern Caribbean, for instance, it has been estimated that only 18 cents of every tourist dollar remains in the islands.

Most package holidays isolate tourists in resort 'ghettos', cut off from local problems to which, all too often, they are unwitting contributors. Tourism boosters say the industry produces jobs. It does. But there are few of them and they're mostly in the service sector: low-paid jobs like chambermaids, waiters and cooks. Resort development also pushes up land prices and the cost of living, forcing people out of their homes. Once tranquil communities are overwhelmed by pollution, noise, roads and concrete monstrosities. Tourists from the North promote a different set of values, often destroying community morality and ushering in crime, prostitution and delinquency. Expensive infrastructure such as airports, hotels and roads drains investment from badly needed services such as health and education.

Despite this litany of ills, tourism is still seen as a sure-fire route to prosperity, particularly in small island nations. In some countries, where fisheries are depleted and other sources of cash non-existent, tourism seems to be the only option left.

In Belize and Costa Rica 'ecotourism' is being promoted as an alternative which ensures that natural resources are protected and that local people get some financial benefits. It sounds good, but there are dangers. All too often ecotourism is based on the assumption that just looking at nature is environmentally friendly. The irony is that all coastal and marine tourism could be described as ecotourism and yet, as we have seen, its rapid growth has been negative in many areas.

The important point is that whether it is called ecotourism, green tourism or sustainable tourism, it should be environmentally sound and help local communities. Experience shows that large-scale tourism rarely does either. A great deal of damage to coastlines and the marine environment has resulted from huge resort developments - from Spain and France to Mexico and Malaysia. Environmental impact studies are rare - and when they are done they're usually carried out by foreign companies.

Nevertheless, huge tourist complexes have some advantages. Large numbers of people are concentrated in a relatively small area, so their activities can be self-contained, limiting the spread of both environmental and cultural disturbances. Many people attracted by such resorts are more interested in sunbathing, shopping and the hotel disco than in experiencing marine life at close quarters. If these resorts can be persuaded to contribute financially to the management of the surrounding natural environment, and if the local community is benefiting through more jobs, even large-scale developments may be of value.

Unfortunately, far too few large resort operators are prepared to make the necessary investments. Some, like hotel owners in Bora-Bora, are establishing marine reserves on adjacent reefs while others are helping distribute educational materials about reefs to their customers. But there needs to be a much deeper commitment - along with government pressure on the industry to act responsibly. Tourism has to be seen as part of national or regional resource-management plans - too often it is seen as just another kind of 'development' with a blind emphasis on growth.

On small undeveloped islands, low-key community-based tourism is relatively easy to introduce. On Pohnpei in Micronesia one village has set up a 'marine park corporation' to promote tourism and has built canoes to take tourists out on day trips to the mangroves and reefs. In the Philippines, where a number of village-run fishery reserves have been set up on small islands, divers and other tourists are encouraged to visit in small numbers. The villagers provide accommodation and raise money through the sale of food, souvenirs and diving fees to help finance the reserve.

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Where pressure on a coastal area is already high, the priority is to determine the 'carrying capacity' for tourism: how many visitors can be accommodated without damaging the environment. All too often, the significance of carrying capacity only becomes apparent once it has been exceeded. The classic case is Hanauma Bay in Hawaii. By the late 1980s, visitors to this tiny bay sometimes topped 10,000 a day; soon shallow areas were largely devoid of living corals. In an attempt to give the reefs a chance to recover, regulations were introduced to prevent coaches from unloading passengers in the car park and snorkelling tours were banned. The park is now closed completely once a week to allow staff to clean up and carry out management duties.

There is also growing demand for sound environmental management from tourists themselves. A leading US diving magazine for example found that the most important criterion for choosing a diving holiday was the quality of the diving which far out- weighed other factors including price. A 1991 survey at Bonaire Marine Park in the Netherlands Antilles, one of the top Caribbean reef diving sites, found that over 90 per cent of visiting divers would be willing to pay a park management fee. In January 1992 a fee of $10 per visitor was introduced. With some 18,000 divers visiting a year this should comfortably cover the Park's running costs.

Divers have become increasingly 'green' in recent years, switching from activities like spearfishing to more benign pursuits like photography. Dive tourism is critically dependent on the health of marine ecosystems so local dive guides are beginning to see that their prosperity is linked to the careful management of reefs.

However, tourists in general need to become more aware of their impact and of what they can do to help. A start has already been made in some countries. There is a network of groups such as Tourismus mit Einsicht (Tourism with Insight) in Germany and Tourism Concern in the UK helping to promote awareness of tourism problems in the South. Several 'green holiday' guides have already been published and there are signs too that the tourist industry itself is starting to take action on some of these issues. The difficulty will be waking up national governments to the fact that tourism cannot be allowed to rampage out of control as it has done in the past.

Nick Henna and Sue Wells are authors of the forthcoming Greenpeace Book of Coral Reefs and are both members of the Coral Reef Team at the UK-based Marine Conservation Society.


Caddies & coral
Nora Syd-Ibrahlm reports from Malaysia on tourism run amok.

Redang Island is part of an archipelago of nine islands oft the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. In 1985, the Malaysian Government recognised the region's rich marine resources, especially its coral reefs, and declared it a protected area.

The goal eventually was to make a marine park. There was one hitch though: land is a state matter. And the local government was more interested in a vast new tourist development - a US$130-million tourist resort.

The first phase of the project, now nearly complete, includes an 18-hole golf course (carpeted by imported Australian grass), a 100-room five-star hotel, 45 deluxe holiday villas and a sports complex.

Subsequent stages call for 100 condominiums, two 250-room hotels, 12 holiday villas, 80 holiday bungalows, eight presidential chalets and another sports complex. All this is to fit on an island which is just six kilometres wide and seven kilometres long.

Construction began in early 1991. Hills were terraced and mangrove swamps cleared for the golf course. Both the project's developers and government officials assured critics that damage to the environment would be minimal. The Executive Chair of the Redang Island Resort Company claimed that Australian consultants had guaranteed the project's safety. 'If they had said differently, we would have gone elsewhere,' he said.

In October, a group of journalists toured the island and were shown plastic sheets and coconut husk mats used to stop erosion of the gored hillsides - as well as sump ponds and large rocks supposedly to trap sediments.

Suspicions that the measures were inadequate were confirmed in a World Wildlife Fund-Malaysia (WWF) report released in April 1992. The report found that the flimsy plastic sheets were swept away by the force of monsoon rains while sill passed through the rocks, flooded the mangroves and poured into the sea - covering the coral with a fine layer of sediment. The WWF noted that sedimentation rates in the Redang River Estuary had increased by nearly 400 per cent. The agency charged that siltation in the waters around the island would cause irreversible damage to the coral reef and other marine ecosystems.

Meanwhile the 1,000 people who live in Kuala Redang, a small fishing village near the Redang River estuary, have lost their initial enthusiasm for the tourist mega-project. The whole village is to be relocated three kilometres inland so that new hotels can be built near the golf course. The developer claims that the project will improve the fisherfolk's standard of living by providing a clutch of new jobs as low-paid gardeners, waiters and caddies.

Villager Deraman Ali is less than grateful for these 'opportunities'. 'Think of the damage it will do to the fishes and marine life,' he says. 'We depend on fishing for our livelihood. We were never consulted and our opinion was never sought.'

Nera Syed-Ibrahim is a research officer with Third World Network based in Penang.

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