According to the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), tourists injected €1.1 trillion into the economies of their destinations last year. Their potential to help developing countries was discussed at a conference in China last week. EurActiv’s partner El País – Planeta Futuro reports.
Every day, three million people pack their bags and cross borders to visit other countries: over a billion people every year. The industry represents 10% of global GDP, 7% of exports and employs one in 11 people around the world. A growing middle class in developing countries means that the sector is only predicted to grow.
So significant is tourism’s impact on the global economy that leaders from 107 countries met at the First World Conference on Tourism for Development last week in Beijing, with the aim of using the industry to eradicate poverty and promote environmentalism, among other things.
“Well-managed tourism can create decent jobs and provide educational opportunities and help protect the environment and cultural heritage. In addition to promoting understanding between different cultures,” said Ban Ki-moon, outgoing Secretary-General of the United Nations, in a letter read aloud by his deputy, Wu Hongbo.
“Due to a low level of development in China, not many used to be able to afford to travel. Some were isolated in their remote villages. But in the last few years, living conditions have been improving and many Chinese now travel, which has passed from being a luxury pursuit to being an everyday possibility,” said China’s Prime Minister, Xi Jinping.
In fact, the Asian powerhouse was responsible for the most tourists last year, with 120 million of its citizens travelling abroad. It also became the second-most visited destination in 2015, behind the US and ahead of both Spain and France.
But the country’s government believes that it can still do more to welcome more tourists, especially in rural areas. “In the Chinese countryside, many people still live in poverty, but there are rich natural resources that can be used to attract tourism that can change the economic situation, that can also broaden their world view and change their outlook,” the Chinese leader added.
That is why state financing for tourism promotion grew 40% last year to about €136 million. China’s Head of Tourism, Li Jinzao, announced that 50 programmes will be launched next year to train administrative staff, particularly in linguistics, in order to better welcome people.
His Argentine counterpart, José Gustavo Santos, outlined projects being planned for the north of the South American country that are intended to help people in regions that are ten times less developed than the rest of Argentina.
Martin Barth, president of the Lucerne Tourism Forum, Switzerland, asked: “But, how do we ensure that it is local people and communities that reap the benefits of that tourism generates?” The common response from the attendees was that job creation generally benefits people.
Georgia’s Deputy Economic Minister, Ketevan Bochorishvili, added that it is crucial that entrepreneurship be promoted in less developed areas: “It isn’t just a question of having other people give you a job, people can create their own.” To this end, he urged public institutions to encourage local communities to develop their own businesses.
Beyond the good intentions discussed at the conference, it was also made clear that the actual impact of tourism in reducing poverty has to be managed. It is not always the case that good, stable jobs are created and there are numerous threats that can affect the sector.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) already warned in a study back in 2011 against local populations becoming over dependent on tourism as a source of financial security, given the effect natural disasters, political instability and terrorism can have on the industry.
This is all too true in Egypt, where the sector has suffered in the wake of the Arab Spring and more recently the Egypt Air crash, the cause of which has not yet been confirmed.
“No country in the world is completely safe. It’s our job, that when something happens, we help those countries affected,” said Taleb Rifai, the Secretary-General of the WTO. In this regard, he called upon governments not to advise their citizens not to travel to certain destinations, quite the opposite, and use tourism as a means by which to “increase understanding between people”.
It is a logic that can be applied in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, particularly when they devastate financially-precarious countries that depend highly on tourists. The WTO wants to work with the nations of the world so that countries include tourism in their crisis plans, a measure that is currently not adopted by many.