“THE world is suffering from so many deficits and inequalities,” UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Taleb Rifai said recently.
“We are suffering from economic inequalities, education deficits, technological deficits. But the most critical of all deficits is the one of tolerance and understanding and respect between people.”
After a globally turbulent 2017, it’s difficult to disagree with him.
The world feels more divided than ever and inequality continues to widen. While Asia’s rapid economic growth in the last decade has led to a significant reduction in extreme poverty, it has been accompanied by rising inequality.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, as Rifai also believes there is a remedy to this deficit – tourism.
“Tourism is a tool for peace,” UNWTO Asia Pacific Regional Director Xu Jing told Asian Correspondent. “Tourism is a tool for reconciliation.”
Citing Cambodia as an example, Xu believes tourism and the economic benefits that come with it were a factor in speeding up the reconciliation after the civil war, and was integral to the later development of the country.
It’s no surprise that a stable political and security environment is a key player in a flourishing travel trade. If this can be achieved, it can allow for struggling nations to cultivate a thriving tourism industry which has the potential to transform the country and become instrumental in its development. This can be a major push factor in bringing about reconciliation, says Xu.
But it’s not just in the initial stages of a peace process that tourism has a part to play.
“The tool can be perceived in two phases. It is not only for the immediate help to any of these conflicts, be it in Cambodia, or South Africa. But phase number two is that tourism is an even stronger force economically,” Xu said.
Only through a comprehensive development agenda will peace be maintained in the long-term and tourism has a key part to play in that.
“If you have guys coming out of the war without a job, without prospects, without economic prosperity, then that peace cannot be sustained,” Xu believes. “We would like to think that tourism is a long-term tool for the peace process, leading towards economic prosperity.”
In many nations across Asia-Pacific, tourism has proven to be the powerhouse of development that Xu Jing speaks of.
Cambodia welcomed just 176,617 international visitors in 1995, 3 years after the United Nations instituted a peace-keeping and rehabilitation plan which helped to restore political stability. That has grown to over 5 million in 2016 and now generates US$3.2 billion in revenue each year.
But if tourism is to be beneficial to the long-term development of a country, it has to be inclusive and make sure disenfranchised sectors of the community don’t fall through the cracks. In many instances, tourism is centred around a few key attractions and only the communities in close proximity will feel the benefits of the increased revenue.
Diversifying tourist destinations is a must for the future of sustainable tourism development in developing countries. By doing so, a country can continue to grow their visitor numbers while avoiding overcrowding and providing knock-on benefits for the local economy.
“In tourism, this means the dispersal of tourist flow in to other badly needed areas, more remote, less developed areas,” Said Xu. “In the past it was not possible, but now with new technology and infrastructure improvements, we are able to go in that direction.”
For example, local residents have acknowledged that community-based tourism development in the coastal areas near Sihanoukville, Cambodia has created jobs and helped to revitalize local nature tourism and the arts and crafts industry. This trickle down to residents avoids resentment from local communities and boosts otherwise neglected neighbourhoods.
As Asia Pacific is a juggernaut of the tourism industry, it is essential that emerging markets get this balance between increased visitor numbers and local investment right. As the fastest growing region in the industry, Asia Pacific saw robust growth of 6.5 percent every year between 2005 and 2016. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
But Xu warns we shouldn’t fear the growth, but embrace it.
We shouldn’t stop the growth, growth should never be the enemy,” says Xu. “We just need to look at ways and means of striking a balance between growth and sustainability.”