Sustainable Tourism: A Failure To Link Theory To Practice

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By Laifungbam Debabrata Roy

Another World Tourism Day is round the corner. Government agencies, the hospitality industry and motivated tour operators will join hands to celebrate this day yet again. Many others will organise events to follow suit. But where is tourism going? The economies of Thailand and Nepal, heavily dependent on tourism, are the worst economies of the Asian region. Is there a lesson to be learnt?

Since the mid-90s a lot of criticism of tourism emerged, especially new forms of tourism and the way it is being uncritically sought to be expanded. The initial criticisms were more in the nature of a challenge to start thinking and discussing critically about this sector; but since then, empirical knowledge has increased to base a more informed appraisal of the experience.

The progress in a promoting a more locally rooted, more equitable and environmentally friendly tourism in the past 20 years has been painfully slow. Understanding the reasons why this is so, and overcoming obstacles to change, remains a fundamental challenge.

Despite the significant attention paid by tourism academics and practitioners to sustainable tourism development in recent years, there has been a consistent failure within the tourism literature to relate the concept to the theory of its parental paradigm, sustainable development. As a result, the applicability of sustainable development to the specific context of tourism is rarely questioned. What remains still to emerge is a practical model of development theory and the notion of sustainability, which is possible to compare against the principles of sustainable tourism.

Tourism development remains embedded in early modernisation theory whilst the principles of sustainable tourism overlook the characteristics of the production and consumption of tourism. As a result, significant differences between the concepts of sustainable tourism and sustainable development are revealed, suggesting that the principles and objectives of sustainable development cannot be transposed onto the specific context of tourism.

The United Nations is on the brink of bringing into action a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets that aims to “Make Poverty History”. It is a unique tool designed primarily for negotiators, technical support teams and other actors engaged in defining a universal, integrated and transformational set of global goals and targets for sustainable development and the political declaration on the post-2015 development Agenda. SDG No.1 addresses just that – to end extreme poverty by 2030! SDG No. 13 also aims to stop climate change. These are definitely very tall orders.

The “jewels” of new tourism from the Maldives to Kiribati and Tuvalu in the Pacific are today in very real danger of literally disappearing under the rising ocean waves, whereas global inequality is rapidly accelerating! Unless Western consumption style practices are seriously curbed, and their rapid spread seriously tempered (especially in China and India where industrialisation is breathtaking), there is a disastrous implication looming. Tourism needs to take its temperature within this global context of change and decide its path in averting or encouraging the onset of this crisis.

Globalisation is the mantra being promoted globally by the G-8 countries, recognised now as the single global imperial power. Spread of consumerist lifestyles associated with their political and economic platforms gave rise to a number of movements to counter-balance this push. Prime among these is the anti-globalisation movement that makes its presence felt in each meeting of the G-8 powers. The “Pink Tide” of Latin America is a potentially significant challenge to counter-balance the G-8 powers’ wisdom and appropriateness in pursuing the “Washington Consensus”. The “war on terror” has also resulted in very significant changes in our patterns of behaviour and movement. All these trends of events, consumption behaviour and movement have direct and indirect effects on the development of tourism.

The December 2004 Asian Tsunami, the 2015 Nepal Earthquake which affected millions of people across many countries with many thousands of people who tragically lost their lives seem to stand for the fragility and resilience of tourism. The rebuilding and rehabilitation that follow these disasters provides a reminder of the potential advantages of locally generated and led development. In Thailand and India, after the tsunami, local people were literally transported out from their lands, which were grabbed by the lure of tourism dollars.

Manipur is embarking on a potentially dangerous trend of tourism development that is ill-informed, unsustainable, non-participatory and denies the essential creation of jobs, promotes local culture and products, understanding and stewardship of local ecosystems. This is being led by a government that is notoriously ignorant, contemptuous of democracy and people’s aspirations and living in a make belief world that is blind to the an inclusive development agenda awakening across the world today.

The government of Manipur, spearheading this headlong rush and gush in tourism, has yet to begin to try to understand the arguments and needs for new models of Third World tourism. This ranges from the appearance of a viable and sustainable development theory to fair-trade practices and pro-poor development potential. The promotion of people-centred approaches to development must take precedence over many other existing priorities, and this should find resonance with pro-poor, community-centred, tourism initiatives as a counter-balance to top-down and trickle-down approaches to tourism master planning in Third World destinations – something glaringly missing today in Manipur. At the same time, we have to guard against development spin and liberal use of ‘pro-poor’ as a development prefix, in the same way that ‘eco-’ became a prefix in the tourism industry.

The core of the argument remains in that development is an inherently unequal and uneven process, symbolised by the diasporic and increasingly thwarted movements of Third World migrants to the First World, starkly contrasted by accelerating movements of relatively affluent Western tourists to the Third World and the ideology of freedom of movement that supports this.

The question is can new forms of tourism become a significant game changer in Manipur’s development? In the context of increasing inequality, perpetuating social and ethnic hostilities and poverty, the overall size of the tourism industry (often invoked by tourism advocates to explain why it should be a major force in development) and the advances made, I would advise that we remain cautious. According to the UN, the progress in reducing poverty has now has slowed depressingly to a “snail’s pace”. We need to start from an assessment of the structures and powers that would determine the fate of tourism in Manipur. It is, perhaps, only too easy to be seduced by the possibilities inferred from what remain very few examples of positive change. This is not a “do nothing” prescription but a contribution to understanding the wider regional and global contexts within which tourism operates and from which responses must be forged.

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