Can the planet survive tourism?

[Green Left Weekly, #209, October 31, 1995]

"The world", enthused a recent Time magazine feature, "is at the dawn of a new Golden Age of travel — an age of voyaging on a truly global mass scale. As the 21st century unfurls, people of every age and class, and from every country will be wandering to every part of this planet."

The new age is already upon us. We can be sceptical of Time's hype but it is incontestable that mass tourism is a major reality of late 20th century capitalism. Travel and tourism is the world's largest industry (see box).

Modern mass tourism has been shaped by the development and needs of capitalism. There are two major factors here. First, tourism is the biggest business in the world. Natural human curiosity about faraway places is only a small element here. The tourist market has been created and moulded by the giant travel, hotel, airline and media corporations. Our appetites are whetted by an endless diet of TV travel shows and newspaper tourism features.

The travel firms are big and getting even bigger. The past two years have seen American Express merge with Thomas Cook and Carlson with Wagonlit. As Carlson Wagonlit co-president Travis Tanner explains: "By the early part of the next century, there will be a very few giant global companies and a few thousand niche agencies." (Time, June 12, 1995)

Right at the centre of mass tourism is the hotel industry. It is dominated by huge corporations. In 1991, for instance, the top three hotel firms were: Holiday Inns (US; 327,059 rooms, 1645 hotels), Hospitality Franchise Systems (US; 288,090 rooms, 2298 hotels) and Best Western International (US; 266,123 rooms, 3310 hotels). In the same year, 13 of the top 20 hotel multinationals were US-owned. (New Internationalist, July 1993)

"The new age of travel is also sturdily democratic", claims Time. The grain of truth here is that in the 19th century international travel was possible only for the wealthy whereas today qualitatively more people take part. However, this fact alone hardly qualifies it as truly democratic. Poverty excludes the vast mass of the world's population from any hope of leisure travel.

"The global economy", writes Joseph F. Coates in the 1991 World Travel and Tourism Review, "is evolving in such a way that each of the advanced nations has a solid, prosperous middle-class core population. That in turn is being joined by significant middle-class populations in virtually every other country of the world. While in many countries such as India or Indonesia that middle-class crust is quite thin, in absolute numbers it is large ... [This] is the basis of the emergence of the demographic explosion in tourism." It has been estimated, for instance, that by the end of the decade Asia's middle classes will number some 500 million people — "twice the current population of the US", notes Time.

Devastating impact

Mass tourism is having a devastating impact on the planet's ecology. There are fewer and fewer parts of the world which are not touched in some way by tourism. As long-established destinations become crowded or degraded there is a ceaseless quest to find pristine, "untouched" locations. The international tourist industry is well aware of the environmental degradation it causes and is concerned about the consequent negative impact on its profits.

A 1990 international forum of tourism specialists at George Washington University in the United States, writes J.R. Brent Ritchie, "was unanimous in highlighting concern for the environment as the number one issue ... [Tourism] is perhaps even more sensitive and more dependent upon a high quality environment for its long-term success than are many other sectors." (World Travel and Tourism Review, Vol 1, 1991)

But the tourist industry is highly unlikely to be any more successful than capitalism as a whole in controlling or limiting the environmental impact of its activities — let alone making them truly sustainable. The fact is that for the big corporations, facing harsh and unremitting competitive pressures, "restraint" and ecologically responsible behaviour generally mean lower profits and commercial disadvantage.

A telling example is Indonesia which, like many developing countries, is making big efforts to attract overseas tourists. Last year more than four million travellers visited the archipelago, spending some $A6.5 billion. Bali is a major focus of the government's tourism effort. Last year the island drew more than a million visitors, almost half coming from Australia. Bali is only 80 by 144 kilometres and the huge influx is having a big impact on the ecology and society of the small island.

An inadequate sewerage system means that waste is pumped a couple of hundred metres off shore ... Land prices have skyrocketed, and tenants lose their farmlands when owners sell out to developers ... Hectares of green fields once used for rice paddies and farming are being turned into resorts and golf courses. There are more than 80 golf courses on the island ... an average 18-hole golf course takes up to 50 hectares of land.

The courses require heavy applications of herbicides and pesticides and both the courses and hotels use enormous amounts of valuable water — the basis of traditional Balinese rice cultivation ... One person staying in a single luxury hotel room uses 2500 litres of water a day, according to a 1992 United Nations report. A farmer uses just 77 litres. [Tania Ewing, Age, August 25, 1995]

Nor is tourism's destructive impact confined to the Third World. The August 19, 1990 Sunday Age summarised the situation in the European Alps:

Traffic causes pollution; 60% of forests damaged by acid rain ... Ski complexes, holiday homes (up to 50% in places) — 15,000 ski lifts and cable cars. Ski-lift use growing at 5% a year. Mountain villages transformed into suburbs ... Forests cut down for skiing facilities and 40,000 km of ski runs. Damage from four-wheel drives, off-piste skiing. Deforestation causes floods and mud-slides.

'Having fun'

A big constraining factor on the growth of the tourist industry is air transport. "How mankind [sic] flies when it's having fun!" gushes Time.

In the 21st century travel will be faster, smoother and plusher than ever before ... Millennial air travel will be great — until passengers reach the ground. With only a few exceptions ... the world's existing facilities are already maddeningly inadequate, and the situation will probably get worse. Aircraft manufacturers have the technological capacity to build planes for 1000 passengers or more, but those aircraft are unlikely to ever get off the ground because few airports can accommodate the crowds or their baggage.

Similar themes were taken up in a recent Australian report on an air industry conference in Singapore.

Asia-Pacific airports are choking and their personnel over-stretched as the region propels world air-traffic growth into next century ... [The region] would need "massive infrastructure improvements", if it was to cope with nearly 400 million passengers by 2010, the Air Transport Action Group warned.

[ATAG head John Meredith] noted that Asian countries already led other regions in investing in airports, with China alone planning to open more than 20 new international airports and requiring hundreds more for domestic travel.

But this was not enough, he said, citing an estimate that by the end of 1995 "nearly half of all the international airports in the region will be capacity restrained", threatening air industry growth ... The "most significant limitation" was environmental concerns, a problem that "must be taken seriously", although it was sometimes based on "mistaken or outdated beliefs". [Australian, July 14, 1995]

The struggle around Sydney airport's recently opened third runway is a demonstration of the high cost mass tourism imposes on society. Several hundred thousand residents are in the front-line trenches as they try to cope with intolerable noise and pollution due to new aircraft flight paths. And this is even before the new runway system has reached its expected operating load. It will get much worse. The air travel and freight industry operators are demanding more flights and a reduced curfew period.

Short of moving the airport right out of Sydney there is no solution. The airport, the absolutely essential entry point for capitalist mass tourism, is simply incompatible with the elementary needs of the people who live in the city. People's health and happiness or corporate profits: these are the contending issues.

What is it worth?

When I visited Austria in the mid-1980s a mordant joke I heard from my leftist friend went like this: What's the difference between a tourist and a terrorist? Answer: The terrorists have sympathisers. Many Austrians resented the hordes of tourists who came to their country each year, ignorant of and indifferent to its history and social reality.

Travel broadens the mind, runs the old adage. This is undoubtedly true: encounters with new places and peoples can enrich one's experience and enlarge one's horizons. But, then again, it may not: a lot depends on the circumstances under which one travels and the attitude one has.

Tourist destinations are becoming increasingly homogenised — the hotels could be anywhere, the restaurants offer the traveller the food they are used to at home, and so on. What is it worth, for instance, to be part of a large international throng filing through the Louvre in Paris, spending 30 seconds in front of the Mona Lisa? What is the point in just consuming sights, without any understanding of or engagement with the history, politics and culture of a country, and the struggles and concerns of its people?

Undoubtedly many people are dissatisfied with the mainstream tourist package, especially its ecological impact. Consequently, there is a growing interest in eco-tourism. However, while eco-tourism may be positive in many respects, it can't be a solution to the problem under capitalism. In fact, it is likely to become just another "niche market" for the industry.

The sheer scale of today's market-driven tourism is a big part of the problem. Hundreds of millions of Western tourists already require a gigantic infrastructure — planes, airports, hotels and all the rest. Tomorrow's tourist numbers will be two and three times those of today, if not more. The ecological and social impact of such numbers under the present conditions — profit-driven capitalism — would be catastrophic.

If we look forward to a future without capitalism with its relentless drive for profit regardless of the cost — i.e., if humanity manages to achieve a truly cooperative, socialist society — will mass tourism still exist?

The world market created by capitalism is the material basis for a truly universal society. Socialists are far from advocating a society where international travel doesn't exist. In fact, in a future world where problems such as massive social inequality and Third World poverty have been eliminated, we can expect that qualitatively more people will want to travel and experience life in other countries.

But it will have to be different. And, without the relentless commercial pressures of capitalism, we can expect that it will be. At last, it will be possible for society to make rational decisions and actually carry them out — to spread the tourist load, both geographically and in time; to find truly sustainable modes of transport; above all, to protect our fragile biosphere; and so on.

The new "Golden Age of travel" will only be possible in a new society; otherwise it is more likely to resemble a nightmare.