Can tourism al­le­vi­ate global poverty?

The Myanmar Times - Weekend - - Views - SU­SANNE BECKEN newsroom@mm­times.com

WOULDN’T it be great if some­thing as sim­ple and plea­sur­able as in­ter­na­tional travel could help end some­thing as grind­ing and en­dur­ing as global poverty? Af­ter all, the in­dus­try is boom­ing, grow­ing at least 4 per­cent year since the 1960s (with a brief slow­down in 2009), ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions World Tourism Or­gan­i­sa­tion (UNWTO).

In 2016, over 1.3 bil­lion in­ter­na­tional tourists spent an es­ti­mated US$1.4 tril­lion.

That’s the equiv­a­lent of Aus­tralia’s gross do­mes­tic prod­uct, dis­persed around the world.

The UN has even de­clared 2017 the In­ter­na­tional Year of Sus­tain­able Tourism for De­vel­op­ment, herald­ing the role of in­ter­na­tional travel in re­duc­ing poverty. But how much global tourism money re­ally makes its way to poor coun­tries?

Re­searchers from Grif­fith Univer­sity and Univer­sity of Sur­rey pro­vide a mech­a­nism to get find out – Global Sus­tain­able Tourism Dash­board. And, spoiler alert, it’s not in­spir­ing.

The dash­board was launched in Jan­uary 2017 to mea­sure tourism’s im­pacts and con­tri­bu­tion to the UN’S 2015-2030 Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Goals.

Among other sus­tain­abil­i­tyre­lated in­di­ca­tors, it can de­ter­mine whether tourism is re­ally re­dis­tribut­ing wealth by track­ing how much travel money ar­rives in the world’s least de­vel­oped coun­tries (LDCS) and small is­land de­vel­op­ing states (SIDS).

Some 14pc of the global pop­u­la­tion lives in LDCS (which in­cludes Cam­bo­dia) and some 14pc of the global pop­u­la­tion lives in LDCS, (which in­clude Cam­bo­dia and Sene­gal, among oth­ers) and SIDS, like Van­u­atu and the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic.

Yet in 2016 th­ese coun­tries saw just 5.6pc of global in­ter­na­tional tourism ex­pen­di­ture. If we take Sin­ga­pore (a small is­land de­vel­op­ing state in name only) out of the mix, it falls to 4.4pc – just $62 bil­lion out of the $1.4 tril­lion spent world­wide on travel in 2016.

Mainly, the dash­board shows, global tourism is an eco­nomic ex­change be­tween rich coun­tries. Cit­i­zens of ten na­tions, most of them in Europe and North Amer­ica, make about half of all in­ter­na­tional travel. China, which in 1995 was not a mem­ber of this fre­quent flyer club, broke into the top ten in 2000.

If the share isn’t great, the to­tal amount of trav­eller money spent in th­ese coun­tries is still sub­stan­tial – $79 bil­lion in 2016 alone.

This is as much as the for­eign aid bud­get of the US, Ger­many, UK and France com­bined, based on fig­ures from the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum.

But money alone doesn’t re­duce poverty. If it did, Thai­land, the world’s fourth most pop­u­lar tourism des­ti­na­tion, would be rich (it earned $54 bil­lion from in­ter­na­tional tourism in 2016).

Whether a cash in­jec­tion turns into de­vel­op­ment de­pends on many well-stud­ied fac­tors. For ex­am­ple, less de­vel­oped coun­tries lack the crit­i­cal goods and ser­vices that tourists re­quire, in­clud­ing air­ports, ac­com­mo­da­tion, key at­trac­tions, tour guides and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, to name just a few.

This leads to what economists call “leak­age”. When a coun­try must im­port every­thing from gen­er­a­tors and so­lar pan­els to cer­tain kinds of food, it spends a con­sid­er­able pro­por­tion of tourist dol­lars be­fore they can mul­ti­ply in the lo­cal econ­omy.

In de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, leak­age ranges from 40pc in In­dia to 80pc in Mau­ri­tius, ac­cord­ing to re­searcher Lea Lange who wrote a 2011 pa­per for the Ger­man de­vel­op­ment agency GIZ, de­pend­ing also on the fac­tors that are in­cluded in the anal­y­sis.

Part of the broader leak­age prob­lem is that tourism in­vestors are of­ten for­eign, so the prof­its are ex­pa­tri­ated. Cruise lines are no­to­ri­ous for this.

Ships may well visit a dozen small is­land de­vel­op­ing states on any given ma­rine jaunt, but most of the profit goes back to head­quar­ters, which are typ­i­cally lo­cated in West­ern coun­tries.

Gov­ern­ments can re­duce leak­age by think­ing strate­gi­cally about pro­cure­ment, em­pha­sis­ing lo­cal busi­ness de­vel­op­ment, in­te­grat­ing sup­ply chains and in­vest­ing in ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing to pre­pare work­ers for tourism jobs.

Such changes helped Samoa, where tourism is one of the econ­omy’s main pil­lars, de­velop a more di­ver­si­fied and lu­cra­tive port­fo­lio.

Tourism in­come has grown from $73 mil­lion in 2005 to $141 mil­lion in 2015 (at cur­rent prices), when the in­dus­try con­trib­uted 20pc of the coun­try’s GDP. It wel­comes about 134,000 in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors an­nu­ally.

Among other in­no­va­tions launched jointly by donors, gov­ern­ment and com­mu­nity groups, Samoa in­creased lo­cals’ share of trav­eller re­sources by rein­vent­ing its fales – sim­ple, some­times open-air beach huts that of­ten at­tract back­pack­er­types – to ap­peal to lux­ury trav­ellers.

Out of the 2,000 ho­tel rooms in Samoa, about 340 are now fales, which are typ­i­cally owned and op­er­ated by lo­cal fam­i­lies. The Samoa Tourism Au­thor­ity as­sists them in busi­ness plan­ning, mar­ket­ing and ser­vice de­liv­ery.

Samoan tourism was given a boost by a lu­cra­tive 2009 con­tract with the Body Shop to pro­duce and sell co­conut-based beauty prod­ucts.

With the Samoan Women In Busi­ness De­vel­op­ment Ini­tia­tive se­cur­ing con­ti­nu­ity and scale, this deal is likely to cre­ate pos­i­tive do­mes­tic tourism spin-offs like greater en­tre­pre­neur­ial ca­pac­ity among Samoan women, busi­ness con­fi­dence, and brand en­hance­ment of Samoa with lux­ury con­no­ta­tions.

By 2014, Samoa was no longer clas­si­fied as a least-de­vel­oped coun­try.

Mak­ing sure that vis­i­tor dol­lars ben­e­fit lo­cal peo­ple also de­pends on the com­mit­ment of for­eign-owned com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­larly ho­tel groups, to part­ner with and in­vest in lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

The Mar­riott in Port au Prince, for ex­am­ple, has been feted not just for set­ting up shop in earth­quake­shat­tered Haiti (one of the world’s least-de­vel­oped coun­tries) in 2015 but for hir­ing lo­cal, pay­ing well and fo­cus­ing on pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment. This has proven to be a good busi­ness strat­egy, too. With happy work­ers, the ho­tel has very low turnover.

Ecuador, Fiji and South Africa are among other coun­tries il­lus­trat­ing that tourism can con­trib­ute to de­vel­op­ment and al­le­vi­ate poverty.

The English travel agency Re­spon­si­ble Travel, which holds an­nual World Re­spon­si­ble Tourism Awards, show­cases more great ex­am­ples.

In­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the UN can help coun­tries find this bal­ance by fi­nanc­ing trans­port con­nec­tiv­ity, for ex­am­ple, and fa­cil­i­tat­ing in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment that’s mind­ful of po­ten­tial tourism uses.

Ca­pac­ity-build­ing among do­mes­tic stake­hold­ers is also crit­i­cal. Only when a des­ti­na­tion’s tourism of­fices, lux­ury ho­tels and eco­parks are run and staffed by well-trained lo­cals can the ben­e­fits of tourism be eq­ui­tably dis­trib­uted, its costs ef­fec­tively man­aged and its growth sus­tain­able.

In­di­vid­u­als have a role to play, too, by mak­ing eth­i­cal travel choices.

Tourists vis­it­ing de­vel­op­ing coun­tries can max­imise the com­mu­nity ben­e­fits of their trip by “go­ing lo­cal” on every­thing from food and tour com­pa­nies to craft pur­chases.

Opt­ing for cer­ti­fied “re­spon­si­ble” com­pa­nies and sim­ply by ask­ing the right ques­tions may also send an im­por­tant sig­nal over time that tourists care about their im­pacts.

Tourism will never end poverty. But if gov­ern­ments, in­dus­tries and con­sumers start pay­ing at­ten­tion, they can make it a force for change.

Tourism will never end poverty. But if gov­ern­ments, in­dus­tries and con­sumers start pay­ing at­ten­tion, they can make it a force for change.

A lo­cal man drives his mules laden with bot­tled wa­ter and other sup­plies on a moun­tain trail to Tri­und, a pop­u­lar hik­ing spot above Dharm­sala, In­dia, where small tea stalls cater to hun­dreds of tourists who hike up ev­ery week­end. Photo: AP

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