Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. Each year, roughly 1.2 billion people travel all around -- the equivalent of the populations of Europe, Mexico, Panama, and the United States combined. As a young indigenous person, I believe that the tourism industry can be a powerful mechanism for protecting my community's culture and the environment therein. It can also provide a wealth of new economic opportunities.
Indigenous people represent 5 percent of the global 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. Tourism, if developed sustainably and responsibly with indigenous leaders, could help address these problems.
Tourism leads to an increase in local economic development, providing opportunities for new businesses and encouraging investment and new services. The presence of tourists helps to promote intercultural exchange. The money they spend is used to help preserve natural resources along with traditional forms of arts and crafts. But it has its downside. Tourism can have negative impacts on the natural environment, increasing air and water pollution. It can create labor issues and lead to overbuilding, which can greatly influence the culture of our communities and the environment itself.
The development of tourism in indigenous areas worries me. I have experienced first-hand going back to the Guna Yala (San Blas Islands), where I grew up. As I listened to the ancient chants of my grandparents, I noticed in horror the littered plastic and cans all around me, floating away toward the horizon. Moreover, it is painful to know people in my community, who no longer go fishing or hunting, waiting for tourists to take a picture of them in exchange for a dollar.
Tourism development happened so fast and without any regulation in Guna Yala that there was no time for adaptation to the changes. In order for tourism to have a positive impact on everyone involved, it is essential to develop special policies and programs based on the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. If these sustainable programs and policies are not put into place, not only will our environment be destroyed, but our cultures will be commoditized. We are vulnerable to becoming just a show for foreigners.
Culture exchange is one of the greatest assets of tourism. Indigenous groups offer travelers experiences that cannot be found in other parts of the world. It is up to the national governments to work together with our local indigenous authorities in order to create tourism policies based on our traditions. After all, our communities have lived sustainably for centuries.
If tourism is one of the most influential industries in the world, then there should be no such thing as sustainable tourism. All kinds of tourism should be sustainable.
Photo credit: Leygh Allison