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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!

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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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