The economy of war-torn Rwanda relies on gorillas.
Primate-watching tourists have helped the country rebound from civil conflict in recent years. Paying $500 for one hour near the massive apes, adventurous travelers account for nearly half of Rwanda's visitors. Tourism is the third highest source of foreign revenue.
But the global economic crisis is expected to slow international travel this year, especially for vacationers. As a result, gorilla expeditions and Rwanda's efforts to promote local economic development may suffer.
"The majority of visitors coming to Rwanda go to see the gorillas and then come home," said Anna Spenceley, a consultant who is advising the Rwandan government on ways to diversify its tourism sector. "Will people be less likely to pay for luxury nature-based tourism that benefits conservation and local people?"
It is too soon to know for sure. But around the world, developers of ecotourism and other "sustainable tourism" operations are searching for ways to ensure that the economic recession does not undermine years of progress.
Sustainable tourism has grown in popularity in recent years and now accounts for an estimated 1 percent of all tourism operations. Tourism destinations are considered sustainable if they do not adversely affect habitats, local communities, or cultural heritage, according to the recently developed Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria.
Global Tourism Market Slows
International tourism began to slow in June of last year. This year, the World Tourism Organization (WTO) expects cross-border visits to remain steady or decline 2 percent, according to its latest assessment in January.
Worldwide, businesses are cutting their travel budgets, which often means bypassing more expensive eco-conscious destinations. Less than 20 percent of companies rated environmentally sustainable travel as a high priority in a survey conducted between December and January by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives and KDS, a European business consultancy.
"At this stage, green travel choices remain scarce and are usually more expensive," said KDS CEO Yves Weisselberger in a statement. "Green business travel will lose out."
In Botswana, thousands of travelers visit the Okavango Delta each year for some of Africa's best wildlife safaris. Steve Johnson, a tourism consultant who focuses on community-based natural resource management, has already noticed tourists scaling back.
"People who were at the top of the corporate ladder in moderate-sized corporations across America and Europe, those were our main clients," Johnson said. "Those people are feeling the pinch. They have largely stopped coming."
In response, Johnson is helping tour operators develop a broader range of wildlife and cultural attractions to attract more South African tourists.
Ronald Sanabria directs the Rainforest Alliance's sustainable tourism certification program, which focuses on Central and South America. Participants in his program have not yet seen a measurable negative effect from the recession, he said. Nonetheless, more hotels are seeking ways to reduce their energy costs in case fewer visitors arrive in the coming months.
"The downturn in the economy has spearheaded more attention into what we do because people [in the tourism industry] are looking for options to best approach their marketing strategies and try to really differentiate themselves," Sanabria said.
Travel businesses in Central America are also marketing more within the region or their own countries to prepare for declining interest from North America and Europe, Sanabria said.
Some tourism experts have remained optimistic.
Matt Landau, founder of the online real estate newsletter The Panama Report, is calling the tourism possibilities spawned by the economic downturn "recession tourism." Students, the recently unemployed, and "midlife crisis individuals who can't afford a convertible" may help the ecotourism market stay afloat, he predicts.
"It is a group of cost-conscious guests that's very different from the high-end travelers that have boomed throughout much of the past decade," Landau wrote. "2009 is likely to see a decrease in long distance trips like the one your parents took to Asia, instead favoring mid-range jaunts of which Panama falls perfectly into the radar."
The idea that sustainable tourism could support economic growth during the recession was promoted during the first meeting of the WTO's recently formed Tourism Resilience Committee in January. Tourism ministers called for countries to include sustainable tourism in their economic stimulus packages, many of which offer wider support for "green jobs."
"The ultimate goal should be to strive for what is being termed ‘smart tourism.' By this we mean clean, green, ethical and quality at all levels of the service chain," said WTO Assistant Secretary-General Geoffrey Lipman in a press release. "There is no better sector for this green economy approach than tourism."
True Test of Sustainability
Even if the "recession tourism" market fails to materialize, experts say, most destinations should be able to withstand the loss of revenue - provided the region is developed in a truly sustainable manner.
In other words, communities should not rely entirely on tourists, said William Powers, a senior fellow at the New York-based World Policy Institute.
Sustainable development efforts have often focused on the tourism sector as an alternative to ecologically destructive livelihoods such as mining and logging. If the recession leads tourism businesses to lay off workers, however, these and other extractive industries are not likely to provide renewed employment opportunities, due to the drop in global demand for the commodities.
Meanwhile, the upgrades that are often necessary for a tourism business to be considered sustainable, such as energy efficiency retrofits or solar panels, will likely be delayed until the global economy recovers.
"Companies will have to look at their costs on a whole host of levels," Spenceley said. "I'm concerned they may invest less in environmental responsibility and corporate social responsibility."
For Rainforest Alliance's Sanabria, the recession may provide a rare opportunity to reveal the true intentions of travel businesses that market themselves as sustainable.
"Those who see us just as a marketing write-up might cut [sustainability measures]. But that's OK. We only want people who see sustainability as important," he said. "It's a good test to see [which operations] are really committed."
Photo credit: flickr/hjallig, Creative Commons license.
Finanzkrise hat 50 Billionen Dollar vernichtet
Wer hoch hinaus will, kann tief fallen: Eine Studie der Asiatischen Entwicklungsbank bestätigt dieses Sprichwort. Ungeheure 9,6 Billionen Dollar hat die Finanzkrise demnach die aufstrebenden asiatischen Volkswirtschaften gekostet. Weltweit wurden geschätzte 50 Billionen Dollar vernichtet.
Dabei war Asien stärker betroffen als andere aufstrebende Regionen: Dort seien 9,6 Billionen Dollar vernichtet worden, etwas mehr als das Bruttoinlandsprodukt (BIP) eines ganzen Jahres, berichtete die ADB am Montag an ihrem Sitz in Manila (Philippinen). ADB-Präsident Haruhiko Kuroda sprach von der schlimmsten Krise seit der großen Depression im vergangenen Jahrhundert. Doch werde sich Asien als eine der ersten Regionen von der Krise erholen.