Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.Ralph Waldo Emerson
On May 16, Time magazine ran the headline
One of Thailand’s most beautiful islands is being closed before tourists ruin it forever (Time, 2016). The idyllic island of Koh Tachai in Thailand’s Ranong Province was being closed indefinitely by local authorities to prevent further damage. Conservation officials reported that tourism had resulted in overcrowding and environmental degradation of natural resources and thus the beach was being closed to give the land and marine environments a chance to regenerate before the damage was beyond repair.
This example encapsulates the double-edged sword of modern tourism faced by governments in finding the right balance between tourism and conservation. It is one of the challenges of tourism: it can help finance the preservation of historical and environmental treasures, but if poorly managed it will achieve the opposite. Tourism may actually destroy the very sites or events that visitors flock to see, leading to reduced visitor satisfaction or, worse, irreparable environmental damage. A contributing difficulty here is the valuation of costs and benefits to help governments and tourism authorities to make decisions (See Goal 15 - Target 15.9).
The difficulties faced by Thailand are not unique. There are concerns over the management of historical sites such as the great pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Parthenon in Athens; and also sites of environmental importance such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. But some regions have reportedly managed to find a successful balance between high visitor numbers and minimizing environmental damage. The Galapagos Islands, one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites12.16, are an example of successful ecotourismEnvironmentally responsible travel and visitation to natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate nature.
more where, in the words of Epler (2007),
If one looks solely at the direct impact of visitors on visitor sites in Galapagos, one would be hard pressed to find other areas where the objectives of ecotourism have been so successfully achieved (Epler, 2007). This is a remarkable achievement given the massive increase in visitor numbers to the Galapagos Islands since the 1980s, from around 17,500 visitors in 1980 to almost 181,000 in 2012.
Tourism is a social, cultural and economic phenomenon that involves the movement of people. It is also big business - valued in excess of US$1.2 trillion in 2015, accounting for 9 per cent of global gross domestic product, 6 per cent of global exports and 30 per cent of total services exports (World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), 2015a). So clearly tourism has an economic impact, but it also impacts on natural and built environments and the local populations living at tourist destinations. As a consequence, UNWTO recommends a holistic approach to tourism development, management and monitoring (UNWTO, 2015b). Tourism can be a positive force, bringing economic and social benefits (revenues, investment, jobs, and the like) but if not carefully managed it can have negative impacts (urban sprawl, loss of biodiversity, disruption of fragile ecosystems and pollution).
Hence the importance of the indicator, selected by IAEG-SDG, to measure progress towards this target -
Number of sustainable tourism strategies or policies and implemented action plans with agreed monitoring and evaluation tools. This indicator raises a number of fundamental measurement issues - although the concept of
sustainable tourism was first established in the 1990s, there is no universally agreed definition nor is there any agreement on what constitutes a sustainable tourism strategy or policy and action plan. While considerable work has been done to develop the concept of sustainable tourism from both a policy and measurement perspective (for example, UNWTO (1996)), no data exist for the moment. The demands of the Sustainable Development Goals have given further impetus to define and measure sustainable tourism in a way that incorporates all the sustainability perspectives - economic, societal and environmental. For this reason, UNWTO has launched a Measuring Sustainable Tourism project 12.17 to understand the impact of tourism beyond its contribution to the economy to include the broader impacts on the environment and society (UNWTO, 2015b; UNWTO, 2016a).
UNWTO has proposed that an appropriate proxy for the indicator is one that measures directly the development and implementation of tools to monitor sustainable tourism in a country. Therefore, it proposes that the relevant monitoring tools are the international statistical standards applicable to the measurement of sustainable tourism, notably the Tourism Satellite Account (TSA) (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs et al., 2010) and the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA) (United Nations Statistics Division, 2014). Consequently, an appropriate proxy indicator for target 12.b would involve assessment of the stage of implementation of TSA and SEEA frameworks (UNWTO, 2016b).
Figure 12.6 illustrates the extent of the work to be done. For developing countries in particular, it is evident that relatively few have either a TSA or SEEA in place. When “plans” are excluded, the picture is even less flattering. Furthermore, both TSAs and SEEAs consume considerable amounts of other statistics as intermediate inputs; these must also be available to properly compile the two accounting systems. The resources and capacity-building needed to support these two framework programmes will be significant.