It is widely quoted that “sustainable tourism” may be an oxymoron, that the two – tourism-travel and protecting the earth – simply cannot go together.
It is a valid concern given the energy costs of travel, the disruption on any location of new development and the potentially heavy footprint of visitors. While Six Senses is a leader in environmentally -conscious tourism, especially here in the Maldives, it is a subject that warrants a good airing.
Today’s afternoon panel dubbed “The Devil or the Angel: The role of tourism in environmental protection” touched on a variety of the positives and potential ills of tourism.
Moderator Jonathan Porritt began the session by putting the question of the reality of “sustainable tourism” to panel member Mohamed Aslam, the Maldives’ Minister of Housing and Environment.
“The Maldives’ economy depends on tourism,” said Minister Aslam. “If people stop coming to our islands because they are worried about the carbon emissions of flying, tourism will die. All we are saying to everyone is, be conscious of your carbon footprint. No one wants to go back to the Stone Ages. We may not have all the answers yet, but I am confident in the very near future we will find solutions for reducing all of our carbon emissions.”
Some in the tourism industry worldwide shares his concern about the impact of carbon emissions added because of travel, especially island nations with sensitive environmental biodiversities. “All members of this government are very optimistic. But if you don’t come to the Maldives, you stop talking about the Maldives. In order to change things here we need people to keep talking about the Maldives.”
Panel member Edward Norton picked up the theme by challenging resorts that bill themselves as ‘eco’ or ‘green’ to “walk the walk.”
“Tourism can be an extractive industry, just like mining,” he said, and “runs the substantial risk of deteriorating the natural capital it’s based on.”
He cited a worrying trend he sees between the tourism industry and a complacent travel media, claiming the latter does not always dig deep into claims of being “eco” or “green” by resorts. He offered an example of a well-known safari hotel in East Africa with a reputation as being eco-sensitive that simultaneously offered cold water plunge pools outside each of its rooms, the water taken from nearby towns desperate for water in an already dry environment.
But rather than put the burden on tourists to inform themselves about the environmental concerns of the places they visit, Norton argued it is up to the resorts to foster the correct behavior. “You have to be careful what you promise your clients,” he said. “In East Africa if you are depleting the local watershed you are fostering the kind of behavior that can take down wildlife. Which is far more damaging than having some sexy story to tell your guests about protecting the local lion population.”
Six Senses Chairman and CEO Sonu Shivdasani supported the notion that tourism can actually help preserve wildlife. “If it wasn’t for tourism, the turtles would have disappeared from the Maldives long ago. We were the first to announce a campaign to protect them, which was picked up by a couple of the big tourism companies that wrote to the government and eventually we got all turtle products taken off the market.”
He admitted that protecting coral was a tougher sell though, in that it is not as sexy as “saving a panda.”
A big part of engaging tourists in local environmental issues is making them feel like they are part of a solution rather than part of a problem. Paul Roberts, advisor to President Mohammed Nasheed, wondered how — with almost 1 million tourists now coming to the Maldives each year — “can you engage them in environmental initiatives without feeling like you’re jamming it down their throats?”
Sonu’s response was that for environmental consciousness to work at any resort it requires making the narrative “fun and interesting.” His example of Soneva Fushi’s desalinated, crystallized and musically charmed bottled water makes for a good story, thus one guests loved to share.
Minister Aslam had the last words: “Without a healthy environment, there is no tourism anymore. We have no coal here, no oil, no gold, and no natural gas to extract. What we have to sell, what we have to live off, is the environment. I think the government understands that very well and I hope the tourist industry does as well.”