It is sad, but unfortunately not an uncommon scenario: A cute little village in some remote part of the world gets 'discovered' by intrepid low-budget tourists who don't mind roughing it and are not bothered by the lack of facilities in remote places. Gradually the word gets out, more and more people show up. Locals have long caught on to the fact that tourists make a good source of additional income and increasingly facilities for tourists emerge, first gradually, then ever faster until there is a veritable building boom - restaurants, hotels, tourist shops, tour agencies...the prices go up, as the once beautiful beach becomes buried in concrete.
Investors with greater aims in mind plan their move to 'develop' the area by building better hotels and resorts, some of them so all inclusive that tourists never leave the compound - after all, beyond the walls their security may be at risk. Is that tourism, or a new form of colonialism? The only contact with locals (or not so locals) is with the servants and staff who try their best to make the tourist's stay a 'perfect paradise get away', (which they themselves could never afford), and every whim is catered for (just as in the 'good old days' when people had servants in their own estates...) Now, this kind of luxury is available to everyone, who is willing to pay for it.
Meanwhile, the towns thus 'developed' still often lack the basic infrastructure to support the sudden swell of population during the peak season. While it could handle a few hundred extra people over a period of several months and perhaps welcomed the diversion brought by foreigners, suddenly the town is overwhelmed. Where does all the extra waste go? Where does the extra energy come from to power the not insignificant requirements of a mid-to large scale resort facility? Where does the extra water come from?
Unfortunately governments don't seem to see the necessity to regulate developers under stringent environmental rules. Environmental impact studies should be a pre-requisite requirement for any new project, yet even if they are (not always the case), that does not mean that developers necessarily comply with the recommendations if these do not fit in with their plans. Most developers couldn't care less. They want to reap tourist dollars and do whatever it takes to cut through any red tape that is threatening to entangle their investment plans. In many countries bribes do the work of untying the knots that were intended to limit the damage and avoid 'worst case scenarios'.
Even in a country like Costa Rica, where eco-tourism has been the Golden Goose for decades, developers are losing sight of what ecotourism actually constitutes and what must be done so this 'goose' continues to lay its golden eggs: a natural environment that people want to visit because it has been left undeveloped and stringent environmental controls to protect the environment from the negative impacts of extra waste and energy requirements etc.
Especially in fragile environments unchecked development can easily become a threat to wildlife and habitats that we want to visit in their pristine states. The Himalayas are a good case in point - the Mt Everest Trek has become a trail of rubbish because there are no facilities to get rid of garbage along the way and for a long time neither tourists nor tour operators deemed it necessary to take the garbage back home where it could be disposed of more appropriately. Now trekkers and guide associations organize special clean up treks. The same goes in many other part of the world - at Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley or the beaches of Italy, to name but a few, are places where travellers took the initiative and are now cooperating with some tourist agencies and organizations to clean up the tourism mess. But this is just the obvious garbage that we see. What about waste water that gets discharged into the local rivers (or the sea), or swamps and wetland habitats that are dried out to make room for developments, and similar environmental sins?
Some resorts do comply with the standards of sustainability and take environmental issues very seriously. Others think that minimal practices will suffice to bear the green label. But in some regions even stringent protective measures are not enough to cope with the influx of tourists. In places like Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands or the Inca Trail (to mention only a few) - even if all hotels and operators were to adhere to green practices - there is a limit to how much development a destination can sustain without killing the Golden Goose.
For a more in depth article on the subject take a look at UNEP's study on tourism impacts
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