Poor benefit little from tourism, critics contend
By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
Asia's visitor industry is growing twice as fast as the worldwide average, and while proponents say it is a ticket out of poverty for the region's underprivileged, others say it is damaging the environment and trampling natural resources.
In 2000, Asia's tourism trade grew 14.5 percent over 1999, according to figures from the World Tourism Organization. The trade grew only 7.4 percent worldwide. Europe still gets 58 percent of the world's arrivals, but East and South Asia and Pacific nations account for about 17 percent of all travel.
Because tourism is labor intensive, often requires infrastructure investment and brings foreign capital without the drawbacks of manufacturing, its rapid growth has helped some of Asia's poorest people, panelists said yesterday at the Asian Development Bank's first seminar.
But the money generated by developing visitor industries has difficulty getting to the rural nooks and crannies of the places that bear the greatest impact of tourism, others said.
Renton de Alwis, chairman of the Sri Lanka Tourist Board, said a public-private sector project in Southeast Asia's Mekong Valley has been alleviating poverty by training people in craft skills, easing travel and promoting the region to visitors.
"Tourism gives a lucrative and fast return on investment," he said.
Not everyone benefits
In Nepal, where 42 percent of the population is considered to be in poverty, the King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation has brought electricity to some remote areas, built bridges and trails, and improved hygiene by emphasizing the need to boil water and clean toilets, said the trust's member-secretary Jai Pratap Rana. In addition, Rana said, villagers now get income by staffing lodges and tea houses, and by growing or making products for tourists, as well as through other tourist-related interactions.
De Alwis and Rana could not offer figures on job growth or increased per capita income in the project areas because of tourism.
In many cases, though, tourism's benefits don't make it to a country's outer reaches, even though those areas bear the impact of tourism, said Mingma Norbu Sherpa, a Nepalese representing the World Wildlife Fund-US. For instance, he said, Nepal's famous trekking areas bring in a great deal of tourism revenue, but people living in those areas see only 2 percent of it.
"These are issues we need to deal with in designing tour-ism," he said.
Tourism offers opportunity
Sherpa said 70 percent of the people in those regions cannot grow enough food to last more than six months and 77 percent of the women are illiterate. He advocated tourism programs focused on increasing the yield per visitor, not just the number of visitors.
Hawai'i's representative to the panel spoke forcefully about the positive effects tourism could have in Asia.
"Tourism is the widest avenue of escape from poverty that's ever been invented," said Robert Fishman, chief executive officer of the Hawai'i Tourism Authority. "You just have to figure out how to get on the highway."
Fishman said tourism can alleviate poverty in Hawai'i at a higher level than in countries where the industry is not as fully developed.
"We are providing educational opportunities for people to elevate themselves," he said, referring to the Travel Industry Management School at the University of Hawai'i and to culinary and other programs around the state. "For many in Hawai'i, it's a ticket to grow in the world outside Hawai'i."