SINCE 1980, World Tourism Day has been celebrated on 27th September.
Its aim is to increase awareness across the world of tourism's social, cultural, political and economic importance.
In recent years, in particular, emphasis has been on tourism's role in helping countries meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and — as 2012 is United Nations International Year of Sustainable Energy for All — the theme for this year is Tourism and Sustainable Energy: Powering Sustainable Development.
Consequently, all over the world, concerned governments and other stakeholders in tourism will be discussing this theme, and some of these discussions and the various celebrations can be seen on the website of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (http://wtd.unwto.org).
World Tourism Day has some powerful supporters. Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General, for example, writes: "Tourism is especially well placed to promote environmental sustainability, green growth and our struggle against climate change through its relationship with energy."
And Taleb Rifai, the Secretary General of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) says: "I urge all tourism stakeholders — governments, businesses and tourists themselves — to play their part in reaching the UN goal of achieving sustainable energy for all by 2030 and position tourism at the centre of the clean economies of the future."
Tourism is undoubtedly big business. It is likely that by the end of this year a billion tourist trips will have been made across international boundaries, and many times that number for purposes of domestic travel. And in Fiji, government ministers and hoteliers will be celebrating the achievement of more than 600,000 international trips to Fiji alone.
Now, then, is a good time to consider the role of international tourism in the South Pacific, especially Fiji, where tourism contributes about 25 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product, directly employing about 20,000 people and indirectly providing jobs for many more.
Is this good news? For the economy, yes. However, life is not that simple. In Europe and North America, for example, the main mode of tourist transport is the car, and cars use fuel. By contrast, when tourists visit Fiji and other Pacific Island Countries, they come by air, and aircraft also use fuel. Indeed, air travel is one of the fastest-growing contributors to climate change.
This gives us a problem: we are naturally concerned about the impacts of climate change in the South Pacific and want to see them reduced. At the same time, we want our economies to grow, and the benefits of tourism to be spread more equally, but the primary way this can happen is for increased numbers of tourists to visit - which means producing more greenhouse gases!
What can be done?
Developed countries have always been the main contributors to the causes of climate change, and these now include such emerging economies as China and India.
For a real difference to be made, these countries must make radical changes in what they consume, where it comes from and how it is delivered. However, travel and tourism sectors can play their part. Producers of aircraft are making them more fuel-efficient and quieter. This is good news, especially for people who live near airports. However, it is not enough.
Bus and car owners can try to ensure their engines are efficient and pollution is at a minimum. In this respect, in Fiji there is obviously much to do!
According to the UNWTO, tourists can also play their part. When hotel rooms are unoccupied, lights and (especially) air-conditioning units should be switched off, and appliances unplugged. Water use can be minimised by taking showers instead of bathing in a tub, and by not insisting that bed linen and towels are changed every day.
Tour operators, the transport industry and hoteliers can commit to using renewable energy sources (for example, solar heating panels and low-wattage light bulbs), and by adapting energy efficient technologies to reduce their carbon footprint.
Some are doing so, but many are not. Recently, for example, a postgraduate student at USP commenced a project on advising hoteliers how to reduce their electricity bills by decreasing power consumption, only to find he has difficulty in finding hoteliers willing to participate.
What can you do?
You can ask questions.
* If you work in an office, ask if the A-C is necessary. How often do you see office workers wearing heavy sweaters and jackets because the temperature is so cold?
* What is government doing? Does it have a policy on climate change? Does it pay attention to World Tourism Day?
* What are hoteliers doing? Have a look around. If you visit a hotel or guest house, look for the solar panels, and ask about the cleaner environment policy. Turn off the lights and the A-C when you leave the room.
* What really happens at eco-tourist resorts? In what way are their practices genuinely sustainable?
Perhaps most of all, people can educate themselves on the advantages and disadvantages of tourism.
In a country like Fiji, especially, everyone should understand the importance of tourism, and should be aware of the need to ensure its economic, cultural, social and environmental impacts are understood.
This is why there are tourism programs at the University of the South Pacific, as well as at some national universities. Indeed, the increasing importance of international tourism in the South Pacific, especially to Fiji, has been matched by the growth of tourism education and training in the region. As part of USP, the region's pre-eminent higher education institution, for instance, the School of Tourism and Hospitality Management participates in such developments.
A vital function of universities is to carry out research, and USP staff are working on a number of topics, including the structure and value of the tourism industry in the region, the impact of political uncertainty on tourism, the economic and socio-cultural impacts of tourism on small Fijian communities in Viti Levu and Kadavu, and the historical and current images of the South Pacific that promote the region to the outside world.
This research is of value to policy-makers and to the industry, and is also incorporated into our teaching.
Our undergraduates, for example, can study Tourism Studies as a joint major, take a BA in Tourism and Hospitality, or join our new four-year Bachelor of Commerce in Hotel Management. In all of these programs students are encouraged to develop relevant and transferable skills appropriate to the tourism industry, but a university degree is about more than providing job-ready applicants.
As citizens of Pacific Island countries, graduates must also be well informed about the benefits properly-planned tourism can bring: how it can help alleviate poverty in rural and urban environments, or introduce them to new skills and greater knowledge of an increasingly globalised world, and to visitors from all over the world, whose cultures, tastes and expectations need to be accommodated.
They also need to know how unplanned tourism can bring unwanted developments: environmental damage to terrestrial and marine resources, for example, and social and cultural tensions that require skill, understanding and patience to resolve. As the books might put the problem: we need to know how to manage change.
These days, it is increasingly recognised that tourism and the wider environment are inter-linked. Tourists come to the South Pacific for the numerous attractions of sun, sea and sand, as well as to experience different cultures. Ensuring our marine and terrestrial environments remain beautiful and unspoiled, and that leatherback turtles, humpback whales, or a threatened lizard, for instance, are protected, makes good economic sense. Such conservation is also part of our responsibility to future generations.
We might not be able to completely eradicate climate change, or prevent tourism from having an effect on our cultures and social systems, but we can try to understand what is happening to our overall environment. We can learn how to adapt (for adapt we must) to the pressures different kinds of tourism can bring. And we can carry out research on these issues, and suggest policies that can make a difference.
In the South Pacific, especially on World Tourism Day, we should protect our environment, and treasure bio-diversity and cultural diversity.
They are part of of our inheritance, and properly-planned tourism and the protection of this inheritance go together.