Commonwealth to Promote Tourism

Published on 18th November 2008

How can tourism be part of the magic elixir of transformation, which brings with it political stability, economic growth, and social cohesion? That is the question.


Tourism is very big business. For small island states, it is almost the only business: it accounts for nearly 50% of GDP in the Maldives, for instance. We know that tourism has grown exponentially: from an annual 25 million international tourists half a century ago, to over 800 million now, and an annual income of over $700 billion. But with size, comes vulnerability.


I would like to look briefly today at the challenges faced by our two main audiences – the ‘upper end’ comprising the tourists themselves and the Ministries of Tourism, National Tourism Offices and private sector operators who serve them; and the ‘lower end’, those whom I have called our real constituents: the citizens who stand to benefit from the tourists that their towns and regions attract.


At the upper end, our natural first concern is the financial turmoil in which the world currently finds itself, and in which the rich world’s woes are proving contagious for the poor. I am on record as calling the poorer countries the ‘collateral damage’ of the present crisis. The truth is, we don’t yet know how much tourism - from the richer world to the poorer - will be cut. But we do recognise the need for countries to encourage tourists from domestic and regional markets. And how can the Commonwealth respond? By promoting domestic tourism – which we have done, for instance, in South Africa and Cameroon.


Coupled with the financial crisis, come the crises of food and fuel. Rising food prices are a threat to countries which rely heavily on imported food. When they are seen alongside the high fuel costs which affect the cost of transportation, it’s very clear that most destinations will see a rise in costs,  that will in turn threaten their competitiveness. Our Commonwealth response? One of them is to develop and diversify local agriculture so that countries can meet the culinary demands of the tourism industry – as we have done in Barbados.


A further threat to the upper end of tourism is the very environment which is, as often as not, the reason why people travel. That environment is degrading fast: shrinking ice-caps, expanding deserts, rising waters mean that our climate is changing. We have read of The Maldives trying to buy alternative land – in effect, trying to flee rising waters. We read, too, of the environmental refugees from the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, who seek new lives in Australia. Much of our Commonwealth response to climate change is at the global, inter-governmental, policy level. But some of it is at the national level, and some of it is specifically concerned with eco-tourism. I cite our work in Botswana as an example.


One of the corollaries of climate change is natural disaster, which can have devastating effects on the tourist industry. Again, much of our Commonwealth work is at the international policy level, focussed on the best practice of disaster preparedness and disaster response. But we have been active on the ground as well. Witness our Commonwealth work when the Maldives and Sri Lanka were hit by the Tsunami, and Grenada was lashed by Hurricane Ivan.


And then, at the other end of the scale, the ‘lower end’, there are the vulnerabilities of the poorest people, and how they are exacerbated – or lessened – by tourism. Here, there is the principle and the practice. The principle began with the 1999 UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which urged governments to maximise the potential of tourism for eradicating poverty.


Good principle does not always mean good practice, though. The traditional approach of taxing tourism to generate national revenue, does not guarantee that the revenue will directly benefit the poor. Direct employment of poor people in tourism is one way of addressing poverty through tourism. But then, we need to ensure that proper wages are paid, and proper laws observed. We also need to develop local skills – just as the Commonwealth has done in the Caribbean and in Southern Africa, where we have developed national strategies to develop human resources in the tourism sector.


We have also developed ways of plugging so-called ‘leakages’ in tourist-dependent economies, to stop tourist income passing out of the local economy when goods and services have to be imported. The Commonwealth recipe is to maximise the resources which can be sourced locally. There is a role for governments, private sector and civil organizations to play in this, as we have found in Barbados, for instance.


I have painted the briefest of sketches of the world of Commonwealth tourism, and the challenges it faces. There are more on which I haven’t touched – terrorism and disease to name but two. I have hinted at some of the ways in which the Commonwealth responds to them.


At the same time, I lay down the challenge that the CTC has to secure its sustainability with private sector funding. Because, more and more, businesses are stakeholders in the ‘triple bottom line’ of tourism: its economic benefits, for sure – but also its social and environmental benefits.


By Kamalesh Sharma

Commonwealth Secretary-General


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