Going on green
What is the role of sustainable tourism in developing countries like Egypt, wonders Gamal Nkrumah
As 2002 drew to a close, few realised that it had been designated "International Year of Eco- tourism" by the United Nations. The World Tourism Organisation (WTO), not to be confused with the World Trade Organisation (also WTO), the international tourism body, has spearheaded a campaign to popularise the concept of eco- tourism globally. Indeed, many developing countries are looking seriously into the sustainable development of eco-tourism as a vehicle of poverty alleviation in remote and rural areas.
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Tourism is flourishing in Egypt, as people come from around the world to ride camels in Sinai; visit the Saqqara necropolis; see Philae Temple in Aswan; and take five at the Khan Al-Khalili market in historic Cairo
Often there is limited local control of the tourism industry in developing countries. Economic, environmental and socio-cultural factors must be taken into consideration in the planning and implementation of tourism development projects. The locals' access to land, water and other precious or scarce resources vital for subsistence is often negatively impacted because when they have to compete with tourists they invariably lose out, which accentuates their poverty levels.
Last year WTO Secretary-General Francesco Frangialli described the organisation's main task as "support[ing] the UN General Assembly's description of 2002 as the International Year of Eco-tourism". Frangialli noted that the UN designation was in itself an "unprecedented designation" which reflected the "growing recognition by the international community of the potential of tourism, and eco-tourism in particular, to contribute to the sustainable development process".
Sustainable tourism is a new and challenging concept that takes its cue from sustainable development. The term sustainable development, first coined by the Brundtland Report entitled "Our Common Future" in 1987 and adopted by the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, has increasingly come to be adopted by many academics and experts in the field of development, donor and humanitarian relief agencies. Eco-tourism has also emerged as a tool for environmental education. There is also the growing realisation that the poor cannot afford to protect the fragile eco-systems of the developing world. They cannot be expected to shoulder such a burden.
Poverty is on the rise in many parts of the world, especially in Africa. Global statistics are grim. More than 80 countries have seen their per capita incomes decline in less than a decade. The problem of world poverty is compounded by the growing income inequalities on a global scale. A quarter of the world's population, living in industrially advanced countries, consumes 80 per cent of global resources, leaving the remaining three quarters to make do with only 20 per cent.
According to UN statistics, since 1950 the richest fifth of the world's people has doubled its consumption of energy, meat, timber, steel and copper per person. Meanwhile, most of the poor go without the basics. Unemployment is another pressing problem. One billion new jobs must be created over the next decade just to maintain current employment levels.
People, even in the poorest of countries with other more pressing priorities, do not question the importance of safeguarding endangered heritage -- be it cultural or natural. But very often it is a question of how many resources can be poured into tourism development when more imperative social, health and educational concerns require immediate attention.
"The urgent task now is for every stakeholder to make a serious effort to apply lessons learned in their own tourism destination or enterprise," Frangialli noted recently.
A major concern for developing countries is the income-generating and hard-currency-earning capacity of tourism. Foreign exchange leakage, however, often occurs because of foreign ownership of tourism and increased imports to cater for tourists' tastes.
Other serious fallouts of tourism development are environmental in nature. Pollution, including noise pollution, and other environmental hazards are wreaking havoc on many developing countries' tourism industry. Air travel is an increasing cause of the emission of harmful gases associated with climate change. Airports are indispensable to any serious and sizeable tourism concern.
In some parts of the world marine ecosystems have been seriously damaged. Where once there was only the lapping waters of the sea to disturb the peace, today marine life is rapidly being fished out and hideaways renowned for their isolated tranquillity fall victim to pollution from overcrowding and haphazard development. The threat to the marine environment is growing. The wanton destruction of coral reefs, mangroves and other forms of unique and delicate marine life spells disaster to the global ecosystem. The damage to coral reefs has been particularly severe in the Pacific and Caribbean.
On the other hand, if corals are sustainably managed they can be an important economic resource. In Egypt they have attracted tourists and still flourish as part of the ecosystem. However, tourism development does have side effects. These days, plastic bags and other items are found in camel carcasses in Sinai. Obviously there is a need for tough policing.
Still, tourism counts. Looked at from an economic standpoint, a well-developed tourism sector can be a major asset to a cash-strapped developing economy and a welcome source of hard currency. "Tourism is basically an export that is consumed domestically," ecologist and policy analyst Dr Guy Jobbins told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Foreigners fly into Egypt and eat more food, use more water and energy in a week than the average Egyptian does in a month, contributing to ecological and social impacts. Yet tourism, if managed properly, can also be a real benefit to Egypt's economy and people and the economies and population of many other developing countries."
Egypt's Red Sea coastline has seen the most extensive tourism development in the entire Red Sea basin. The Sinai Peninsula and Red Sea coast from Suez to Port Safaga, Marsa Allam and beyond have witnessed rapid change in the past decade. Beach resorts have sprung up in areas until recently considered desolate backwaters. Jobbins, currently working as a research fellow in environmental informatics and social learning at University College London in the United Kingdom, is familiar with trends in tourism development in Egypt and neighbouring North African countries such as Morocco and Tunisia.
North African countries have opted for different strategies to enhance and develop their tourism potential and have adopted different policies to attract tourists, mainly from Europe. Morocco, in spite of its close geographical proximity to Europe, has very high taxes and is overall a fairly expensive tourist destination. The Moroccans now aim for the top end of the market, focusing on the wealthiest of tourists who are invariably the big spenders.
Tunisia, on the other hand, still caters essentially for middle-income tourists with tighter budgets. Acutely aware of the need to develop the tourism sector as an income-generating and employment-creating alternative to the more traditional agricultural and manufacturing sectors, North African countries are becoming increasingly concerned with boosting investments in the tourism sectors. Even countries that are almost totally dependent for foreign exchange on the export of oil, such as Libya and Algeria, have become more interested in developing their tourism sectors of late. Most North African countries, however, have to contend with the bad publicity that has hit Arab and Islamic countries in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington.
Many Western, and especially European, tourists just want the magical combination of sun, sand and sea. They couldn't care less where they actually are, as long as there is a nice long stretch of beach and plenty of sun. A case in point is Na'ama Bay in South Sinai. "Sometimes tourists don't actually know which country they're in," Jobbins says. "They think they are in a country called Sinai. And when you tell them that there is no such place and that they are actually in Egypt they sound shocked."
From a professional and academic perspective Jobbins is most familiar with the southern Sinai region. According to Jobbins, "Sinai has moved from a model based on exploration and eco- tourism -- that is to say small numbers of people paying lots of money -- to 'mass tourism' -- the exact opposite."
Mass tourism sometimes clashes with the aspirations of locals, even though at times it seems to trigger the revival of cultural traditions and handicrafts. Moreover, it is difficult to dismiss the charge that tourism often ignores the needs and rights of local people, in spite of some benefits in terms of increased employment opportunities. In the Sinai there are increasing signs that mass tourism is having a detrimental effect on the culture of the local nomadic Bedouins. Tourism development has triggered rivalries and resentment between Bedouin tribesmen and immigrants from Egypt's Nile Valley who monopolise jobs in Sinai's vigorous tourism sector.
Sharm El-Sheikh swarms with Italians and Germans. The Israeli tourists have gone. Italians fly in from the Milan suburbs on cheap package deal holidays inclusive of flight, hotels and catering. Charter flights skip Cairo altogether and head directly for beach resorts such as Sharm El- Sheikh and Hurghada.
Manicured gardens, artificial lagoons and lakes have become the hallmark of tourism development in the more upmarket resorts of Egypt's Red Sea such as Al-Gouna near the Red Sea governorate capital of Hurghada. Such plush beach resorts and associated activities are especially water-intensive. Precious water resources have to be diverted from the Nile to serve the ever expanding tourism development projects on the waterless wastes in Sinai and the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts.
Sadly, a majority of the country's tourism development projects are uniformly monotonous and characterless holiday villages. These are equally water-intensive.
The potential of tourism, however, to improve living standards and provide employment opportunities cannot be overlooked. Some 7,000 million people travelled internationally in 2000. According to the WTO, international tourism is the world's largest industry and was worth a staggering $477.9 billion in 2000. The tourism industry is projected to grow in spite of the setbacks suffered in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington. It is perhaps for this reason that the WTO designated 27 September as World Tourism Day, an event that went largely unnoticed in Egypt.
Jobbins believes that tourism is an important sector for developing countries such as Egypt. However, the exploitation of that sector needs to balance economic benefits with environmental costs. According to him, Egypt has a good range of natural resources that should be capable of meeting the demands of sustainable development. But, he warns, "That will be contingent on stabilising population growth and the further development of environmental technology."
Moreover, reducing environmental degradation can be a very expensive exercise for a poor developing country.
The dust has not yet settled over reports that the Earth Summit in Johannesburg was a failure. The worst problem, warns Jobbins, is that sometimes problems are so acute -- for example the need to deal humanely with poverty -- that short-term solutions seem very attractive, even if they incur large social, economic and environmental costs later.
Environmental protection and socio-economic development ought to be complimentary. "The key issues in Egypt are neither environment nor development, but environment and development -- they cannot be separated," Jobbins says. He adds that clean water, clean air, enough agricultural land to feed the population, the development of sustainable tourism and other industries are all essential to long term sustainable development.
"At the moment the international economic institutions are not oriented towards sustainability. They are based on flawed economics that -- intentionally or not -- make some very rich and others not. It is a carrot and a stick. Yet it has the developing world running towards a carrot that is almost certainly going to prove an illusion," Jobbins told the Weekly.
"There is already not enough to go round, even with so much of the world's population having so little. How will there ever be enough resources for everyone in the world to have the lifestyle enjoyed by those in the US or the UK? Without a radically new kind of technology or magic there won't be," Jobbins said.
Jobbins cited the case of Cairo's unacceptably high pollution levels and the detrimental health impact it is having on Cairenes. "Studies have shown air pollution in Cairo to have severe effects on human health, for example lowering the average IQ of native Cairenes by over four points. This is a real threat to the nation's economy but it is an 'invisible threat'."
Jobbins fears the negative impact of the population explosion in countries like Egypt. The World Wildlife Fund and Redefining Progress calculated that in 1999 Egypt had a bio-productive capacity of 0.78 hectares per capita. "This means that for every Egyptian, the country had 0.78 hectares of productive land to grow their food, provide their water, provide them with energy and sequester or process their wastes. However, Egyptians used 1.43 hectares per capita, double the country's bio-capacity," Jobbins pointed out.
In sharp contrast, he said, Canadians used 8.4 hectares per capita. "This is six times more resources than Egyptians get. Canadians actually have as much as 20.4 hectares per capita of bio- productivity, so they could potentially use even more." But not all Western countries use very little of their bio-capacity. The US and the UK, Jobbins told the Weekly, use far more than their available bio-capacity but are rich enough to import resources from other countries.
The magnitude of the problem -- both in Egypt and at a global level -- is such as to require drastic measures to arrest the process of environmental degradation. "A long-term strategy is needed that is realistic about the amount of natural resources available, and how they are going to be used. The amount of resources generated cannot be increased indefinitely, and therefore as population grows there will be less to go round," Jobbins warned.