TOUR, but re­spon­si­bly

Oman Daily Observer - - FRONT PAGE - T V SARNGA DHARAN NAMBIAR

Tourism is the most hap­pen­ing in­dus­try; no two ways about it. Travel and stay op­tions that suit ev­ery pocket have turned ev­ery­one into a po­ten­tial tourist. Global tour op­er­a­tors are busy sell­ing pack­age deals to large groups of tourists, giv­ing rise to mass tourism. But across the world, lo­cal re­sent­ment is sim­mer­ing against the dev­as­tat­ing im­pacts of mass tourism.

Venice can be an in­di­ca­tor. That small tourism hotspot, with a pop­u­la­tion of just 55,000, wit­nessed 28 mil­lion tourists walk­ing on its streets and sites of an­cient glory. That could be re­ally in­tim­i­dat­ing for the lo­cals. Va­le­ria Du­flot, co-founder of Venezia Au­ten­tica (Au­then­tic Venice), sums up the anx­i­ety: “Venice is be­ing turned into a theme park, which is re­sented by lo­cals and visi­tors alike.”

Thou­sands of Vene­tians re­cently took to the streets shout­ing slo­gans against mass tourism. “Mi no vado via (I’m not leav­ing)”, they cried, re­fer­ring to how lo­cals’ lives have been thrown out of gear due to the ridicu­lously large num­ber of visi­tors. Lo­cal peo­ple have formed var­i­ous or­gan­i­sa­tions aimed at pro­tect­ing Venice’s her­itage and iden­tity from tourist on­slaught.

While in Barcelona, demon­stra­tors waved ban­ners that read “This isn’t tourism, it’s an in­va­sion,” re­flect­ing the an­guish among lo­cals, who de­cried the city’s thriv­ing but mis­man­aged tourism in­dus­try. Last year, 18 mil­lion peo­ple stayed in Barcelona’s ho­tels and hol­i­day apart­ments, be­yond the 12 mil­lion daytrip­pers the city re­ceived. In­ter­est­ingly, the city’s in­hab­i­tants num­ber just 1.6 mil­lion.

While mass tourism tar­get­ing hot des­ti­na­tions makes busi­ness sense for tour op­er­a­tors, and boosts na­tional economies, it doesn’t make any sense for the res­i­dents in those des­ti­na­tions. Re­sis­tance is slowly but strongly build­ing against mass tourism in var­i­ous places in Europe and else­where. Gov­ern­ments have come to re­alise the threat, and some have started im­ple­ment­ing strate­gies to curb un­bri­dled tourism.

Mass tourism — de­fined as tens of thou­sands of tourists visit­ing the same des­ti­na­tion at the same time of the year, mostly as part of a group pack­age deal by tour op­er­a­tors — is a threat to lo­cal cul­ture and iden­tity as well as the en­vi­ron­ment.

But to clip the wings of a flour­ish­ing tourism in­dus­try is by no means easy or pleas­ant for au­thor­i­ties. Be­cause it’s the largest em­ployer — one in ev­ery 11 peo­ple has their earn­ings pinned on the in­dus­try glob­ally — and is a key driver of na­tional economies. Clearly, na­tional tourism strate­gies de­mand ut­most clar­ity, vi­sion and pur­pose to strike the right bal­ance.

Be­yond gov­ern­ment con­trols, each one of us, as a re­spon­si­ble be­ing, must re­alise that a visa or travel ticket isn’t a ticket to un­fet­tered free­dom. We must lis­ten to our con­science and go for only re­spon­si­ble, guilt-free hol­i­day­ing op­tions.

With oil prices on the down­side, the Sul­tanate ac­cords high pri­or­ity to de­vel­op­ing its tourism sec­tor. Oman’s tourism in­dus­try has grown sig­nif­i­cantly. Last year, tourist in­flow logged a 16-per cent rise, with visi­tors ex­ceed­ing 3 mil­lion, whereas the Omani pop­u­la­tion stands at less than 2.5 mil­lion.

Even as tourism fea­tures high on the Sul­tanate’s eco­nomic di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion agenda, the gov­ern­ment has been cau­tious in its ap­proach to pro­mot­ing tourism. Sig­nif­i­cantly, Oman never favoured mass tourism, even as it looks to boost tourism’s GDP share to 6 per cent by 2040.

Oman’s tourism strat­egy 2040 aims to po­si­tion the Sul­tanate as an up­scale, prime lux­ury tourism des­ti­na­tion and lure high net worth in­ter­na­tional visi­tors who value qual­ity and ex­clu­siv­ity. The strat­egy en­vi­sions a clus­ter ap­proach that strives to re­de­fine ex­pe­ri­en­tial tourism in dif­fer­ent re­gions by fo­cus­ing on strong lo­cal cul­ture and her­itage val­ues.

The tourism min­istry ex­pects to at­tract some 5 mil­lion in­ter­na­tional tourists to Oman an­nu­ally by 2040. But the fo­cus ob­vi­ously is on sus­tain­able tourism, and the clus­ter strat­egy gels with this, as it looks to de­velop some 14 mini des­ti­na­tions that in­clude coastal lands in Mu­san­dam, old cul­tural spots in Mus­cat, forts and moun­tain­ous vil­lages in Al Dakhiliyah, frank­in­cense route in Dho­far and coastal ar­eas of Al Shar­qiyah. These clus­ters are best suited for small groups of visi­tors.

Mean­while, we see the rise of tour op­er­a­tors that don’t en­dorse mass tourism. The UK-based Re­spon­si­ble Travel is one such com­pany of­fer­ing sus­tain­able, small group tours. Such re­spon­si­ble tour op­er­a­tors en­cour­age the visi­tors to pos­i­tively en­gage with the com­mu­ni­ties they visit. This is eco­nom­i­cally ben­e­fi­cial to the lo­cal peo­ple in­clud­ing farm­ers and ar­ti­sans, who can sell their prod­ucts and ser­vices to the visi­tors.

By part­ner­ing with lo­cal op­er­a­tors and trans­porters and en­cour­ag­ing tourists to stay in lo­cally owned ho­tels and home stays, such tour op­er­a­tors en­sure that the money spent by visi­tors cir­cu­lates in the lo­cal com­mu­nity. Some tour op­er­a­tors go a step fur­ther and get them­selves in­volved in lo­cal con­ser­va­tion projects and com­mu­nity sup­port ini­tia­tives.

With each tour hav­ing a small num­ber of visi­tors, there is con­sid­er­ably less en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial im­pacts on lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

Let’s hope more and more tour op­er­a­tors and des­ti­na­tion man­age­ment com­pa­nies across the world shun the lure of mass tourism, which by all means mer­its the ep­i­thet “run­away tourism”.

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