Why the tourism industry needs to put human rights on its agenda

Thai_ZootMark Watson, Tourism Concern’s Executive Director, comments on this important issue:

This week, over 50,00 tourism industry representatives from 189 countries convened in London for the annual World Travel Market. Business deals worth millions of dollars were struck and thousands of tourism products were no doubt  bought and sold. These products combine services, cultures, people, and places.

However, it should not be forgotten that these places are peoples’ homes, and the people, their cultures, and the natural environment, are what make the places so alluring for us as tourists to visit. All must be protected, if tourism is to be sustainable and its benefits equitably spread. A human rights approach offers the industry a framework for playing its part in this regard.

Despite claiming itself to be the largest and fastest growing sector in the world, tourism industry stakeholders were absent from the far-reaching consultations undertaken by Dr John Ruggie as he developed the UN ‘Protect, Respect, Remedy’ framework and Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. While the mantra of sustainability has resounded gradually louder in the last few years, tour operators, hotels, international travel trade associations, as well as governments and multilateral agencies promoting tourism, have yet to recognise that true sustainability can only be achieved by ensuring that human rights are protected and respected. All too often, this is not the case.

The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates that 6-7 per cent of the global workforce earns a living either directly or indirectly through tourism. In 2012, 1 billion people traversed the globe as tourists, generating some $billions in export earnings. Given these remarkable figures, it is not surprising that tourism is increasing harnessed by low and middle-income countries as a means to drive socioeconomic development.

However, these benefits are fundamentally undermined by the human rights violations that so often accompany tourism development, and in which both governments and industry stakeholders are very often complicit. These violations include land grabs and forced displacement, loss of livelihoods, compromised access to water and other essential natural resources, environmental degradation, poor working conditions, exclusion from decision-making processes, cultural erosion, and the sexual exploitation of women and children.

It is typically the most socially and economically marginalised people who are not only excluded from tourism’s benefits, but find themselves pushed into deeper poverty as a result of its arrival. This includes coastal communities in Tamil Nadu, south India, who – lacking official land title deeds – were prevented from returning to live beside the sea following the 2004 Asian tsunami, thereby forcing them into destitution. Fishing communities in Sri Lanka continue to face similar challenges, as their government sells off vast tracts of land for tourism ‘mega-resorts’. It includes the rice farmers of Bali, whose water is being both appropriated and polluted by the island’s burgeoning tourism industry. It includes workers being dismissed for attempting to unionise, and the indigenous Endorois in Kenya, who were forced off their land to make way for a wildlife reserve for tourists. For such communities, challenging these violations and seeking redress can be particularly challenging given the high dependency many countries foster upon tourism, alleviating it to sacred cow status and stifling those who cry dissent.

Like most globalised industries, tourism is fiercely competitive. Significant power rests with a small number of large, international tour operators and hotel chains, which are steadily buying up their rivals and pricing out local competitors in a race to the bottom. The difficult economic times have seen operating margins squeezed further – a squeeze that is felt hardest amongst the cooks, cleaners, porters and drivers at the bottom of the tourism supply chain. Many developing countries vie keenly to attract the big operators and hotel chains, often channelling significant World Bank loans and state budgets to develop infrastructure accordingly. But again, such infrastructural development often passes local people by, while appropriating common pool resources, such as land and water, for tourists’ consumption. So for example, while holidaymakers may be able to enjoy golf courses, en suite bathrooms and lush gardens, local people’s right to water and sanitation in many tourism destinations remains unfulfilled.

The industry must also take cognisance of the fact that many popular tourism destinations – such as Egypt, Dubai, Kenya, Tanzania, the Maldives, Burma, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Dominican Republic, to name but a few – are known for their poor adherence to international human rights norms and standards. Often, State authorities are the worse perpetrators of rights violations, such as forced displacement to make way for tourism.

All these factors point to the need for tourism industry stakeholders to wake up to their business responsibility to respect human rights – the global baseline norm clarified in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It also makes business sense for them to do so.

For example, as tourism investors in Sri Lanka, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Botswana, and Kerala have found, obtaining land from the government does not preclude their perceived complicity in human rights violations, making them the target of international public campaigning and giving rise to tensions with local communities. Major industry bodies, such as the UNWTO and World Travel and Tourism Council, also have a key role to play in raising industry awareness of the UN Guiding Principles.


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