NGOs call for Durban debate on climate justice in tourism

The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa is now underway, and already running into difficulties with rumours that Canada may formally renounce the Kyoto Protocol due to fears about economic competitiveness. While tourism is not a major component of the Durban talks, aviation is one of the contentious issues, with individual countries and the EU controversially setting emissions targets for airlines using their airports in the absence of any global regulation of aviation. The tourism industry has long argued that taxes and emission charges on aviation would harm the economic development of some of the world's least developed countries which depend on long-haul tourism for much of their foreign exchange. However, a number of NGOs have issued a Position Paper suggesting that aviation should not be excluded from the talks, and that negotiators should "seriously and objectively address the role of tourism in the international climate negotiations."

The international alliance of civil society organisations, including AKTE (Switzerland), EED/Tourism Watch (Germany), ECOT (Thailand), Fair Trade Tourism in South Africa (FTTSA) and Naturefriends International, says that it is irresponsible to exclude aviation on the grounds that tourism is an "engine of development" and argues that globally binding negotiations on aviation emissions will, if managed properly, enhance rather than undermine poverty reduction.

The Position Paper, 'Last Call to Durban', expresses concern regarding the position taken by tourism lobby groups in the international climate negotiations. This NGO alliance criticises the often-cited claim brought forward by the travel and tourism industry that climate-related regulation of the aviation sector would make developing countries lose a considerable portion of their tourism income – a loss which would have negative impacts on poverty alleviation. According to this argument, binding emission reduction targets for the aviation sector would threaten the achievement of economic development goals.

For Christian Baumgartner, General Secretary of Naturefriends International, the claims that tourism automatically contributes to poverty alleviation in developing countries and that binding emission reduction targets for the sector would compromise poverty alleviation are unsupportable. "Only a fair and more sustainable tourism development can mitigate the negative impact of tourism on the climate and can actually contribute to poverty alleviation," Mr. Baumgartner says.

The organisations supporting the Call to Durban demand a serious and differentiated debate on tourism's contribution to poverty alleviation. "The travel and tourism industry have successfully protected their business interests in the name of poverty alleviation. However, it is urgent and imperative to address the complex social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of tourism in destinations, especially the situation of employees and local communities," says Christine Plüss (Swiss Working Group on Tourism and Development – akte). Evidence from various case studies has shown that a large part of the income from tourism does not remain in developing countries, but leaks back to international investors. More often than not, the remaining income fails to benefit the poor. Rather, says the NGO paper, local elites will profit from it.

"The poor in the so-called developing countries are the ones who suffer most from climate change – which they have not caused. And they hardly participate in or benefit from international tourism, even though this has often been claimed," says Caesar D'Mello (Ecumenical Coalition On Tourism – ECOT). "The tourism industry must change, it must become fairer. In South Africa, we have a range of policies and policy instruments and public-private partnerships that can help to inspire more equitable tourism development on a global scale," Jennifer Seif (Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa – FTTSA).

"The debate on the role of tourism must go beyond repeating the same phrases over and over again, exclusively emphasizing the positive economic effects of tourism growth and failing to address the various negative impacts especially on the poor. It is high time to discuss the impacts of rapid tourism growth on the climate, biodiversity, natural resources and human development in a critical manner. Economic growth is not an end in itself. What we need is a human rights based approach," demands Heinz Fuchs (German Church Development Service – EED).

The paper cites studies saying that the tourism sector accounts for an estimated 5% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions but its overall contribution to climate change, if measured as radiative forcing of all greenhouse gases, is in the order of 5.2-12.5%. Aviation accounts for 40% of tourism's CO2 emissions, car transport for 32% and accommodation for 21%. It says that the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) receives only 1.2% of global tourism arrivals, and that little of the revenue from tourism reaches the poor, with much staying in the hands of foreign companies.

The paper suggests that starting point for resolving the climate & poverty challenge for the tourism sector could be the Advisory Group on Climate Change Financing's recommendation to ensure 'no net incidence' for developing countries resulting from any measures to generate climate finance from international transport. Within this concept of 'no net incidence' it suggests that it would be possible to provide an annual rebate for developing countries to neutralize any economic burden deriving from a decline in tourism arrivals. Another suggestion is that traffic to and/or from Small Island Development States and LDCs could be exempted from emissions regulation.

Reading the Last call to Durban paper, it appears to me to perhaps over-emphasize the negative impacts of tourism at the expense of those studies which show that properly managed, revenue can reach local communities and the informal sector in developing countries. For example, it mentions the work of the Overseas Development Institute in the UK, saying that the research "repeatedly illustrates that poor people require support in the form of capacity building and market linkages, to keep pace with tourism growth and to benefit meaningfully from it." But it fails to cite those ODI studies which find that while much revenue does stay with often foreign tour companies, discretionary spending by tourists does also reach the poor, who also benefit from employment which often pays little by Western standards but more than alternatives on offer. A study by Mitchell et al. from Tanzania, for example, finds that "international package tourists climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and visiting the Northern Safari Circuit deliver significant benefits to the poor, and international comparisons suggest that poor Tanzanians are capturing a relatively large share of tourist spending". Mitchell and Faal (2008) also show how discretionary tourist spending in Gambia reaches the poor, although the holiday package part of spending does not.

Another issue not discussed in the Position Paper is how any rebate to developing countries to compensate for potential tourism declines could be directed in such a way as to compensate those individuals and communities currently deriving their incomes from tourism, rather than just governments. However, the idea of a global levy on emissions, perhaps exempting poorer countries, would surely be fairer than unilateral taxes and emissions caps currently in place or proposed, such as the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme and the UK's Air Passenger Duty, from which revenues go into general government or EU coffers. Hepburn and Muller (2010) proposed a levy on aviation emissions, constructed as a function of ticket prices and emissions generated by a journey, from which revenues would go towards climate change adaptation. A possible way forward?

CABI's Leisure Tourism Database regularly carries articles on the issues raised here, as well as covering all the literature on tourism, climate change and poverty. It currently indexes nearly 800 bibliographic records on tourism and climate change.

Further reading

Last call to Durban. "Beyond Numbers: A call for social, economic and climate justice in tourism" (PDF file)

The Gambia tourism value chain and prospects for pro-poor tourism. ODI Working Paper 289, Mitchell and Faal.

Making success work for the poor – Package tourism in Northern Tanzania. Mitchell et al. 2009

International air travel and greenhouse gas emissions: a proposal for an adaptation levy. Hepburn, C.; Müller, B.; World Economy, 2010, 33, 6, pp 830-849, 31 ref.

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