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Sustainable tourism: an oxymoronic delusion?

By Tim Murray - posted Monday, 11 May 2009

In echoing the sentiment shared by many environmentalists who, according to an Australian testament, “want a stronger native tourism industry and more people enjoying our parks”, a travel writer made the following case:

The travel industry cannot prosper in a degraded world if we destroy the natural beauty and ambience people came to enjoy. Both need each other to survive … A sensitive and well-managed tourism industry brings benefits for the visitor, the host country and can help preserve the national environment.

But this argument prompts several questions. Questions like, why “must” there be a stronger nature tourism industry, with “more people enjoying our parks”? Why does nature “need” the travel industry to survive? How does a “sensitive and well-managed tourism industry help preserve the national environment”? In fact, why does healthy biodiversity require people at all? If we were to go extinct, would not biodiversity be on the road to recovery? I know that I need to enjoy nature. But I don’t why nature needs me to enjoy it.


I would assert that “sustainable tourism” is an oxymoronic delusion. I suspect that no matter how carefully sensitive flora and fauna is protected, the beauty and allure of ecologically attractive tourist destinations inevitably motivate visitors to become permanent residents. In other words, there is a direct correlation - and causation - between tourist visits and subsequent population growth.

In their paper Beautiful City: Leisure Amenities and Urban Growth, Albert Saiz, professor of real estate at Wharton College (University of Pennsylvania), and Gerald Carlino, a member of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, correlated leisure visits with population growth. According to the Saiz-Carlino formula, cities that offer substantial leisure amenities grow an average 2 per cent more than they would have grown had they had fewer amenities. This seemingly trivial increment has an exponential impact. A town that grows 2 per cent per year will double its population in 35 years. But if Saiz and Carlino are right, such a town will double its population in just 17.67 years if it is a popular tourist destination.

In fact, tourism provides a more accurate forecast of future population growth than any other factor, according their conclusions. Tourists come to visit, and almost instantly resolve to stay - some day. They typically snap up once cheap property, and then drive up the cost of living for those who had welcomed them. Some locals simply cannot pay for escalating property prices. Others can’t even pay the higher rents.

It is my observation and contention that this growth overwhelms the most vigilant defence of natural ecosystems, as well as gentrifying small localities and effectively pricing local inhabitants out of the real estate market. Locals, or their children, become a low wage service class that caters to the needs of the richer migrants while struggling economically to remain in the community they grew up in. To add insult to injury, many of the relatively wealthy newcomers appear in the guise of environmental crusaders who demand sacrifices of the locals while living immodestly themselves.

Visitors to impressive destinations typically purchase real estate as a holding property to await their retirement or for summer vacations and often withhold it from the rental market of local young or poor residents. The host community then comes to resemble a ghost town in the winter and a booming madhouse in the summer, with service workers subsisting on low wages while scrambling to find affordable housing in this now gentrified environment.

On British Columbia’s Saltspring Island (Canada), the magnet for visiting Albertans flush with oil money, one in three homes is said to lie vacant half the year. The homeless can be identified carrying discarded bottles in ragged clothing along the road, or standing as hitchhikers in the rain - a scene not uncommon in other coastal localities and coveted tourist havens across the land. Gentrification corrodes and divides a community. Locals either develop a vested interest in growth or are priced out of their community by wealthy part-time residents who invest little of themselves in community life.


To my reckoning, “sustainable tourism” is merely the bastard child of “sustainable growth”, itself a mutation of “sustainable development”, which, as Garrett Hardin noted, only affords the defenders of the unsteady state “a few more years’ moratorium from the painful process of thinking”. It is a fraudulent delusion that offers up ecological nuggets to attract a wave of migrant gold-diggers who wish to “retire at first sight” and, in the execution of their plans, conjure up a bigger service sector to serve them and spawn a fifth column of real estate sharks who gather to feast on the dreams of subsequent visitors. No matter how carefully flora and fauna are sequestered and defended, the resulting population boom will overwhelm them. Then a fatal political dynamic is born.

Socialists and progressives take up the cudgels of both locals and newcomers marginalised by inflated real estate and the rents that climb with it and in the process become growth advocates by lobbying for more housing construction to accommodate them. They bleed for unfortunate people but not so much for unfortunate biodiversity, concerns for which they attempt to allay with smart growth snake-oil nostrums.

Those few of us who would aspire to arrest growth rather than “manage” it are then caught in a vice between seemingly unlikely bedfellows. On the one hand there is the coalition of developers and real estate pimps and the planners who do their bidding by coating their naked greed with the greenwash of “strict” land-use planning. Planning that bends with the times and their insatiable appetites. Planning which defies the authentic mission of planning, which is not the passive accommodation to projected trends (“it’s inevitable so let’s plan for it’), but the proactive imposition of popular will upon those so-called inevitable trends by the simple expedients that some jurisdictions like Noosa Shire, Queensland or Qualicum Beach, BC, have flirted with. Try just withholding building permits for starters!

On the other hand, working in tandem with these dark forces, are the race-baiting, soft green yuppie leftists who collude with growthism in the name of social justice, yet somehow manage to cloak it with a respectable environmentalist ethic. Caught with us in this “squeeze of the sleaze”, this excruciating, ineluctable drama of greed, hypocrisy and myopia, are local wildlife, which the growth coalition with brazen duplicity celebrates while holding it out as bait to attract new arrivals whose motto should be “I came, I saw, I destroyed”.

Economic considerations then become part of a more “holistic” paradigm, whereby “environmental” sustainability is balanced off against “economic” and “cultural” sustainability. This “three legged stool” model of viability represents what may be termed “the fallacy of equivalent concerns”. The economy is, as Herman Daly famously noted, “a fully owned branch plant of the environment”. We make a living in an economy, but we live in a biosphere.

Many advocates see ecotourism as a mechanism to assist indigenous or traditional groups, who comprise 5 per cent of the global population, maintain their culture. But Brock University professor David A. Fennell, in his article “Ecotourism and the Myth of Indigenous Stewardship” (Vol. 16, No. 2 Journal of Sustainable Tourism) has shown that “ecotourism research abounds with cases where traditional lifestyles (for example, fishing and farming) have been displaced by hotels, golf courses and other tourism developments”.

Fennell’s references comprise some one hundred studies and books. Citing King and Stewart (Biodiversity and Conservation 5, 1996), he makes the point that “the onset of tourism forces a shift in the relationship between indigenous people and the environment, ‘from a source of direct sustenance with a use value to a commodity with an exchange value … from one of working with the land to one working for tourists.” It is a shift seen in northern Canada “where the cash economy translates into the ability to purchase newer forms of technology and transportation for the purpose of reaching harvesting sites.”

While the travel industry may employ 200 million people throughout the world, those millions represent, after all, only 3 per cent of the population, and the income they generate is seldom weighed against the staggering costs, both environmental and economic. One needs to ask, would we sacrifice critical habitat for 3 per cent of our population if doing so increased the likelihood of die-off of 90 per cent (or more) of our global population?

To answer in the affirmative would surely place one in the company of those who say that the local pulp mill must be maintained at the cost of severe environmental damage because it employs so many people, or that the Alberta Tars sands development should not be shut down because it is now vital to the livelihood of so many people.

To argue that we can flood an ecologically sensitive area with tourists, but at the same time protect it, is delusional and contradictory. There are many case histories to showcase my point, but the Galapagos Islands will do nicely. I have enumerated its problems, and salient is the point that tourists need services, which need people to provide them. Hotels, motels, roads, cars, auto mechanics to maintain them, doctors, nurses, dentists, dental assistants, school teachers to instruct the children of service workers etc etc. And the provision of those services cannot be satisfied by local labour. Even if they had the requisite training and skills, the number of local workers is insufficient to meet the growing demand for their services as the “protected” areas gain fame.

Not surprisingly, since the tourist boom began in the early 70s, the human population on the Galapagos Islands has increased 14-fold. This has resulted not only in visual damage and the introduction of foreign species, but also an increase in solid waste generated by the extra 130,000 residents. It is not really about the irresponsible behaviour of tourists, but their numbers. Because their numbers generate ancillary services, which then require people to render them. And it must be noted that nascent commercial greed grows along with tourist numbers and stimulates more tourism by aggressive marketing. But the joke is on the local businesses. Because the cruise ships and the big tour operators external to the locality rake off the big profits.

You can post educational signs on every trail and hire vigilant park wardens to supervise tourists. But these defences cannot cope with large numbers. That realisation has dawned on Ecuador’s green-left President Rafael. His first move was to begin the expulsion of the illegal immigrants on the Galapagos who took up jobs in the tourist industry. Imagine a left-wing President coming down on poor, immigrant service residents. Good on him.

Some sober critics have praised his actions, but argue that a cap must be placed on the number of tourists as well. But President Rafael wants to have his cake of ecological integrity and eat it too. He wants the $350 million in tourist revenue but not the tourists. A conundrum. Without services, he will satisfy the demand for a cap because many tourists won’t come. Then the cruise ships will fill the vacuum. Tourists can come to visit, wreak havoc on nature, then return to their floating hotel with all services provided on board. Environmental damage but without state revenue. So where is the advantage? To big off-shore tour operators, obviously. Certainly not to wildlife.

The Sierra Club believes that national parks and areas like my own cannot be effectively defended if they do not build up a constituency of political support by allowing more and more visitors to enjoy them. In other words, we need to degrade our treasures in order to promote their preservation. This is a pernicious argument. I can fight for animals without disturbing them with my presence. Let a handful of wildlife biologists do the filming. I am thrilled to see flora and fauna in the wild - that is why I live where I do - but their survival trumps my enjoyment.

No doubt numerous palliatives and controls (for example, changes in the tax regime) can be offered to mitigate the tourist assault on the environment and the social structure of small local communities that exist at the gateways. But in the context of the corrupt and apparently insuperable power structure that prevails, these measures seem utopian or hypothetical at best.  In the more environmentally fragile zones of precious biodiversity at least, it is clear that we must stop tourist growth, not manage it. This effort would reprise David and Goliath, except that it would not likely duplicate David’s success. But heck, why not go for it? Anything less would be unsatisfactory.

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About the Author

Tim Murray blogs at (We) Can Do Better. He is Director of Immigration Watch Canada, and Vice President Biodiversity First Canada which he co-founded. Tim is a member of Sustainable Population Australia, the Population Institute of Canada and Optimum Population Trust UK. His personal blog is at

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