“The World’s Number One Employer”

Each year over 600 million people travel internationally. Hundreds of millions more journey within their home country, doing so for both work and pleasure. As a result, the tourism industry​—including hotels, resorts, airlines, travel agencies, and other businesses that cater to travelers—​is described as “the world’s number one employer.”

WORLDWIDE, tourism generates an estimated four trillion dollars annually. Individual tourists may not view themselves as part of a worldwide peace movement, but this is how the UN World Tourism Organization describes the industry. In 2004, Francesco Frangialli, secretary-general of the organization, told a presidential conference in the Middle East: “Tourism and peace are inseparable. The forces unleashed by tourism are so powerful that they can change apparently irreversible situations and bring about reconciliation where none was considered possible.”

What are the origins of this influential industry? Is tourism truly a force for good? And can “the forces unleashed by tourism” really bring peace?

A Golden Age of Tourism

The seeds of the modern tourist industry in the West were sown especially in the 19th century. As the industrial revolution swelled the ranks of the middle classes in Europe and the United States, a growing number of people found themselves with both the money and the time to travel.

In addition, great advances were made in methods of mass transportation. Powerful  locomotives pulled passengers between major cities, and great steamships sped them between continents. To cater to the growing traffic, large hotels sprang up near railway terminals and shipping ports.

In 1841, English entrepreneur Thomas Cook saw the potential in tying these elements together. He was the first to combine transportation, accommodation, and activities at desired locations into a holiday package tour. “Due to the system founded by Mr Cook,” noted the British statesman William Gladstone in the 1860’s, “whole classes have for the first time found easy access to foreign countries and have acquired some of the familiarity with them which breeds not contempt but kindness.”

The 20th-Century Boom

Regrettably, the growing familiarity with foreigners fostered by tourism did not restrain the outbreak of two world wars during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than ruining tourism, though, the social changes and technological advances spawned by those wars actually accelerated the growth of the industry.

Air travel became faster and less expensive, highways spread across continents, and motor vehicles proliferated. By the middle of the 20th century, holidays and tourist travel were an accepted part of Western culture and were available to most classes of society. In addition, millions of households acquired television sets and became fascinated by pictures of exotic locations, fueling the urge to travel.

During the early 1960’s, the number of international tourists reached 70 million each year. By the mid-1990’s, that figure ballooned to over 500 million! Around the globe, tourist resorts sprang up to cater to both international and domestic travelers. Industries not directly associated with tourism benefited, since tourists consume vast quantities of food and drink and spend money on numerous other goods and services.

Today tourism is important to the economy of over 125 countries. Highlighting the benefits tourism can bring, a 2004 UN World Tourism Organization news release explained that tourism can alleviate poverty through the creation of small and medium-size tourism businesses. As it creates new jobs, it can raise “environmental, cultural and social awareness.”

But you may ask: ‘How can tourism do such things? And how could it benefit the environment?’

Selling Nature to Save It

In the early 1980’s, some scientists and filmmakers took an increasing interest in saving rain forests and coral reefs as well as the creatures that depend on them. The resulting reports and nature documentaries heightened the public’s interest in visiting these natural marvels. The small businesses that sprang up to cater to the scientists and filmmakers expanded to care for the influx of ecology-minded tourists.

 Ecotours have rapidly become popular, making ecotourism the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry. Indeed, promoting natural wonders has proved very profitable. Journalist Martha S. Honey explained: “In several countries, nature-based tourism mushroomed into the largest foreign exchange earner, surpassing bananas in Costa Rica, coffee in Tanzania and Kenya, and textiles and jewelry in India.”

Tourism has thus provided a valuable financial incentive to save plants and animals. “In Kenya,” Honey observed, “it is estimated that one lion is worth $7,000 per year in income from tourism, and an elephant herd is valued at $610,000 annually.” Hawaii’s coral reefs are estimated to generate $360 million each year from nature-based tourism!

Identifying an Ecotour

The United Nations Environment Programme report Ecotourism: Principles, Practices and Policies for Sustainability says: “Many travel and tourism businesses have found it convenient to use the term ‘ecotourism’ in their literature, and governments have used the term extensively to promote their destinations, all without trying to implement any of the most basic principles [of ecotourism].” How can you determine if the tour you are considering is really an ecotour?

Megan Epler Wood, author of the above report, identifies a good ecotour as containing the following features: Prior to the trip, it provides information about the culture and environment to be visited as well as guidelines on appropriate dress and behavior; it arranges for an in-depth briefing of the participants regarding the geographical, social, and political characteristics of the host destination and opportunities for interaction with the locals other than at a commercial venue; it ensures that all park entry fees are paid in full; and it offers site-sensitive accommodations.

What Ecotourism Has Accomplished

Ecotourism is often more than just an organized tour of a natural site. It has been defined as “purposeful travel to natural areas to understand the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while producing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to local people.”

Has ecotourism lived up to those high ideals? Martin Wikelski, of Princeton University, says: “Ecotourism is one of the main factors keeping the Galapagos [Islands] safe.” In the African country of Rwanda, the successful  promotion of ecotourism is credited with saving the mountain gorilla population, as it provides the local people with a source of income that is an alternative to poaching. In other African countries, game reserves are sustained by tourist spending.

Worldwide, ecotourism has contributed to environmental and social improvements, and the tourism industry has undeniably brought many financial benefits. But is this industry always a force for good? What are future prospects for world travel?

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Tips for International Travelers *

Before you leave

1. Make a list of important facts​—passport information, credit card numbers, airline ticket numbers, and details regarding traveler’s checks. Leave a copy at home, and carry another copy with you.

2. Ensure that you have an up-to-date passport and a valid visa; arrange for any immunization shots that may be required.

3. Ensure that you have adequate medical insurance, since emergency treatment or transportation from overseas could cost you thousands of dollars. If you have a medical condition, take a letter with you from your doctor that describes your condition and any medications you take. (Note: It may be illegal to take some medications into certain countries. For details, check with the nearest embassy or consulate of the country you plan to visit.)

While traveling

1. Do not take any item with you that you cannot afford to lose.

2. Keep your passport and other valuables close to your body, not in a carrying bag or in exposed pockets. Do not have one family member carry all the documents.

3. If you carry your wallet in a pocket, wrapping rubber bands around it may make it more difficult for pickpockets to extract.

4. Keep track of credit card purchases, and do not exceed your budget. If you exceed the limit on your credit card, in some countries you could be arrested.

5. Be cautious of taking photographs of military personnel or structures or of industrial structures, such as harbor, rail, or airport facilities. Some countries may view this as a security threat.

6. Do not deliver packages for anyone you do not know well.

When buying souvenirs

1. Remember, many countries ban the importation of ivory, turtle shells, plants, fur, and other items, even if they are small souvenirs.

2. Be cautious of buying glazed ceramics, since some of such items may cause lead poisoning if not made correctly.

[Footnote]

^ par. 27 Information adapted from Department of State Publication 10542.

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Ecotours have rapidly become popular