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14 Dec, 2009

Climate Justice Panel Fails To Find The Right Balance

COPENHAGEN: An energetic two-hour discussion on the issue of climate justice and tourism on the sidelines of the Copenhagen summit ended with yet another deadlock over some of the long-standing questions about how to make travel & tourism both economically and ecologically sustainable.

However, representatives of academia, civil society groups and the UN World Tourism Organisation who participated at the panel agreed to step up their dialogue as part of joint effort to alleviate a common problem facing the travel & tourism industry at the world at large.

Organised by a number of church-backed European NGOs and the Chiang Mai-based Ecumenical Coalition for Tourism (ECOT), the panel discussion was intended to focus on ways to mitigate the ecological impact of three billion international and domestic travellers a year, plug leakage of earnings from tourism and ensure a more fair distribution of income.

The panel presentations and the numerous questions from the audience highlighted many long-standing issues that have become central to the debate about maintaining tourism flows as a source of jobs, economic development and foreign exchange, while at the same time ensuring its sustainability.

The crux of the problem lies in seeking ways to balance industry growth projections of about three billion annual international & domestic travellers, including cross-border visitors, while mitigating their massive energy consumption requirements.

On the one hand, potential tourists from places such as Europe are being urged to travel less, to shorter distances and use more ecologically friendly means of travel. On the other, countries such as Fiji stress that unless visitors travel those long distances to reach island nations like theirs, they will face both an ecological and economic disaster.

Although tourism is claimed to be a major force for alleviating poverty, NGOs questioned this claim in view of the huge leakage factor as vast sums of money are sent out of developing countries by foreign-owned hotels, tour companies and airlines. Equally important, the money that is left behind is not equally distributed.

Although there was some concern about imposing a tax on air travel to help finance mitigation and adaptation technologies, it was pointed out that in most parts of the industrialised world, and increasingly in Asia, road travel was more popular, especially for domestic tourism.

While NGOs felt that travel, due to its “elitist” nature, should be taxed, it was pointed out that backpackers, who could hardly be described as “elitist”, often spent more money at the grassroots level of tourism economies than the rich.

The key is for the consumer to enjoy tourism in a more sustainable way. Said Manfred Pils of Friends of Nature International, “Technological measures alone won’t help without accompanying structural and behavioural changes.”

ECOT Executive Director Mr Caesar d’Mello suggested that simply reducing individual consumption would be a far better way of cutting emissions than resorting to any “market based mechanism” or technological fixes.

He said that tourism was now as big an industry as oil, armaments, and pharmaceuticals. He said the key issue would be that of climate justice and that people would be at the heart of it. “Those who have contributed least to global warming are suffering most from it,” he said.

Asserting that the overall model of tourism development was flawed and needed a paradigm shift in the way business is done, Mr d’Mello warned that travel & tourism would pay the price of the shift towards biofuels, due to the impact it would have on land-use patterns.

The UNWTO’s Luigi Cabrini pointed out that the organisation was well aware of these issues, was doing much work on research and study on each of them, but perhaps needed to improve its communication efforts.

He stressed that tourism generated a lot of trickle-down effects in other economic sectors by creating jobs for youth and women, helping SMEs due to its low start-up capital requirements, and no need for major assets to sell apart from the cultural and natural resources of the country itself.

He agreed that leakages exist in the form of payment of foreign loans, marketing, imported products and services and franchise payments but said that this tends to decrease over time as industries develop and domestic sources of goods and services increase.

Mr Cabrini said that travel has become an essential part of life and should not have to bear an unfair share of any taxation, curbs or controls. He said the UNWTO was working with the UN Environment Program to do a study on tourism for the green economy to be issued in 2010.

He noted that travellers already were changing their behaviour – such as using trains instead of planes, opting for videoconferencing instead of short trips for business travel, and using new renewable energy technologies.

One of the interesting questions came from a man who identified himself as a hotel worker in Mexico. He said many problems emerged because workers were never consulted in the development process, often lost their local land rights and usually landed up getting the short end of the stick.

He said many good ideas actually come from the workers themselves because “workers know how things work.”

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