There should be no such thing as sustainable tourism

This article originally appeared on G7G20.

With 1186 million tourist arrivals, a number equivalent to the populations of Europe, USA, Mexico, and Panamá combined, and accounting for more than USD 1260 billion of travel receipts in 2015, tourism has established itself as one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.

As a young indigenous person, I perceive tourism as an opportunity for economic diversification and a great means for protecting our cultures and the environment. Globally, indigenous people represent 5% of the population, and most of us are greatly affected by poverty, child malnutrition and alcoholism. On top of this, we have very limited access to basic public social and health services. Even though we are culturally and environmentally rich, we face the highest rates of child mortality and illiteracy. I believe these problems can be diminished if tourism were developed sustainably with leaders in indigenous area.

Tourism largely increases the amount of local economic development, providing opportunities for new businesses, encouraging investment and new services in the area, and creating tangible economic value from natural and cultural resources. This economic value, which comes from tourist spending, is used for the preservation of these resources, and promotes intercultural exchange as well as traditional forms of arts and craft. However, it may also have negative impacts on the natural environment, increase air and water pollution, create labour issues and lead to overbuilding, all of which greatly influence the culture of our communities.

The development of tourism in indigenous areas still worries me. I have experienced first-hand going back to the islands where I grew up listening to the ancient chants of my grandparents and great-grandmother and watching in horror how plastic and cans were everywhere, floating away in the horizon. Tourism development happened so fast and without any regulation in the area where I am from that there was no time to adapt to the changes. In order to achieve economic development through products derived from the tourism market, it is essential to develop special policies and programmes based on the three pillars of sustainability, which cover social, environmental and economical dimensions. If these sustainable programmes and policies are not put in place, not only will our environment be destroyed, but our cultures will be commoditised and vulnerable to becoming just a show for foreigners.

I cannot express how painful it is for me to know people in my community who no longer go fishing or hunting anymore and instead wait for tourists to take a picture of them in exchange for a dollar. If tourism is one of the most influential industries in the world, then it should be possible to develop it in a sustainable manner.

I deeply believe and have experienced that culture can serve as a main asset to attract tourists. Our countries with ethnic minority groups are able to offer tourists an experience that cannot be found in other parts of the world. It is up to the national governments to work together with our local traditional authorities in order to create tourism policies based on our traditions. After all, our communities have lived sustainably for centuries. Being one of the most influential industries in the world, I believe there should be no such a thing as sustainable tourism. All kinds of tourism should be sustainable.

Diwi is an indigenous Guna One Young World Ambassador from Panama. A social entrepreneur, he co-founded Bodhi Hostels and the Wolftrip App. He holds a Bachelor of International Business in Hotel and Tourism Management from Cesar Ritz Colleges in Switzerland, worked as a destination marketer for the Panamanian Tourism Authority, and is an International Tax Auditor for the Ministry of Economy and Finance. He has also conducted workshops in several Latin America countries, sharing his experience overcoming social and personal challenges to become a better project manager.