Growth and Impact of Tourism

By the mid-1990s, tourism had become the largest industry in the world. Each year, more than half a billion people spend some time as international tourists, while uncounted millions more travel domestically. The advance of tourism has reached farther and deeper into more isolated areas of the planet than all the invasions and migrations of history. Many areas are becoming dependent on the tourism sector as their primary source of income. The infrastructure built to facilitate this transnational flow of people, goods, services, and currency includes air, rail, land, and sea carriers, roads and airports, hotels, restaurants, and resort complexes. Tourist ministries, international agencies, and entrepreneurs also restore heritage sites, promote commercial handicraft enterprises, and commodify nature and culture for mass consumption.

Tourism is one of the world's largest export industries, but instead of exporting raw materials for production or finished goods for consumption, the tourism sector of the economy "imports visitors to consume goods and services locally" (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 1998, p. 153). The environmental impact of mass tourism on natural sites and fragile ecosystems can degrade the resources upon which it depends. The development of economic infrastructure with a large carrying capacity for visitors is a virtual prerequisite for countries to create and maintain successful tourism sectors. The commercial transformation of sites, which may have been attractive primarily for their unspoiled beauty, tends to increase proportionately with the carrying capacity of roads, hotels, and sewage facilities for visitors. Thus for optimal benefit to residents, regional interests, and tourists, development must proceed by balancing growth with limits.

These issues are matters of concern for those in charge of formulating and implementing global north-south policy. In the Third World, long-term protection of the environment and a fair share of profits for impoverished local residents can be difficult to attain. The transfer of wealth from First World guests directly to the multinational corporations of the travel industry often fails to generate enough income for local workers, sales to regional consumer businesses, and taxes to state governments, to benefit the community. International organizations have a role to play in establishing and monitoring a framework in which ecological priorities are weighed against economic issues to promote equitable and sustainable development and conservation solutions.

Before the Industrial Revolution, leisure travel was reserved mainly for the wealthy few. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, workers' occupations became automated, their mechanized tasks grew tedious and repetitive, and their hours were strictly regimented. There arose a recognized need for relaxation and stress reduction, but few public outlets for recreation were available. For the first time organized leisure activities, promoted for their beneficial effects on health, fitness, and psychology, became a regular part of life for the great masses of working people. City parks and nature preserves were established, and travel by steamer or rail steadily expanded throughout the first half of the twen tieth century. With the inauguration and increasing affordability of jet travel during the postwar era, vacationers from the United States, Japan, Germany, and all corners of the industrialized world have taken to roaming abroad in ever greater numbers. Today, with millions of people taking annual holidays, the travel and leisure business has expanded to become the largest of all global industries.

Natural scenery and warm climates are attractive to sight-seers, adventurers, pleasure-seekers, and package vacationers. The tourist industry as a whole is vertically integrated, largely controlled by the apparatus of state governments and large multinational corporations—principally hotel chains and airlines. At the same time, destination locations undergo extra strain placed on local resources for goods and services to satisfy the crowds of consumers. The appeal of many Third World destinations to tourists depends on keeping the natural environment relatively pristine while accommodating pleasure-seeking visitors accustomed to First World lifestyles.

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