With the return of tourism, can we make it more responsible?

An estimated 120 million jobs have been lost in the tourism sector during the pandemic, according to the UN, and earlier this month General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid called for rebuilding the sector tourism world – but in a more sustainable way than the pre-pandemic reality.

Because while tourism can be an important economic driver, it can also disrupt local communities, environments and wildlife. And in many popular destinations, a significant portion of tourism dollars leaks out of the community through foreign-owned hotels and travel agencies.

According to Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda, a Kenya-based organization that promotes sustainable travel, this type of economic “leakage” has long characterized the relationship between tourism and host communities in Africa.

“In the mid-1990s, a study in the famous Maasai Mara showed that less than 1% of tourism dollars spent by tourists in the Maasai Mara National Reserve stayed in the destination,” she said in a statement. interview with David Brancaccio from Marketplace.

Kepher-Gona said the past few decades have brought some improvements, including the development of employment opportunities for local Maasai and new arrangements that pay residents a monthly fee for the use of their land by industry. But in East Africa and elsewhere, she believes much more can be done to protect host communities from the industry’s ills – especially as it rebuilds after a pandemic that has devastated vulnerable populations whose economies had been radically reorganized by tourism.

“In destinations that once lived on fishing, fishing boats had become tourist boats. Tourism had been sold as the answer to community needs. Now suddenly there is no tourism,” she said.

“It is important that tourism receives a social license from the destination. And that social license will set the limits of what tourists can do – how many tourists can arrive; how many ice cream parlors we can have that replace our regular stores; how many Airbnbs we can have so our cities don’t become too expensive for host communities and residents.

The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

David Brancacio: A major point you make in the documentary film [“The Last Tourist”] is that tourism can, in theory, be a distributor of wealth – but often this is not the reality. You have seen cases in your part of the world where tourism is very extractive; does it leave few dollars in the communities visited by tourists?

Judy Kepher-Gona: Yes, tourism development policies in Africa were never designed for African tourism investors. This has led to the exclusion from the distribution of income from tourism. In the mid-1990s, a study in the famous Maasai Mara showed that less than 1% of tourism dollars spent by tourists in the Maasai Mara National Reserve stayed in the destination.

Brancacio: It’s an amazing statistic. Maasai Mara is where travelers often go, tourists go on game drives?

Kepher-Gona: Yes, we have seen, over the past 15 years, an increase in investment in tourism that includes local Maasai communities. We have seen an increase in local employment after the European Union built a local guiding school to train Maasai to be employed as guides in the Maasai Mara. This greatly improved the livelihoods of many young Maasai morans, who had long watched the vans drive in and out, driven by other people telling stories about their land. And I’m so excited that today we have Maasai welcoming people to their land – not other people guiding tourists to Maasai land. This has been a huge improvement – coupled with the fact that there is now direct income for households through a conservation model that was introduced in the Mara in the mid-2000s, where now the Maasai have put land from side for tourism and they are paid on a monthly basis – a lease for their land – directly from tourism revenue. So we are seeing changes, but I still think a lot more could be done for us to have more retention.

Brancacio: Alright, so policy changes. But would you also like potential tourists to ask tougher questions before choosing a particular company to do business with for their vacation?

Kepher-Gona: Yes. We know the power of consumers in driving markets. I agree that price still plays an important role in travelers choosing where and what to do. But even if they make their choices based on price, you still have the opportunity to ask questions such as: what does tourism do for this community? Has tourism contributed to a loss of biodiversity? These are questions that a tourist can ask himself whatever his budget.

Brancacio: You must have been delighted to hear the President of the United Nations General Assembly, Abdulla Shahid, sing your song. He held a conference as the UN reviewed the 120 million jobs lost worldwide in tourism due to the pandemic, and he said: “We must not restart global tourism as usual. We have to…be more responsible than that. It fits perfectly with something you’ve been working on for decades.

Kepher-Gona: Yes. I’ve been among those who say it’s not enough for tourism to pick up, because the recovery takes us to where we were — and I don’t think tourism wants to go back to where it was. The vulnerability of the industry has been exposed. And the stats you hear are about how many airlines are grounded; the number of hotels that have been closed – but you don’t hear statistics about people in destinations whose livelihoods have been changed so that tourism can thrive. In destinations that once lived on fishing, fishing boats have now become tourist boats. Tourism had been sold as the answer to community needs. Now suddenly there is no more tourism. And that’s the message we send in ‘The Last Tourist’ – that tourism cannot take over destinations; that it is important that tourism receives a social license from the destination. And that social license will set the limits of what tourists can do – how many tourists can arrive; how many ice cream parlors we can have that replace our regular stores; how many Airbnbs we can have so that our cities don’t become too expensive for host communities and residents because of tourism. Tourism cannot change people’s quality of life.

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About Bobby F. Lopez

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