The concept of sustainability is not new anymore. Its roots lie deep in the Green Movement and its inception in the stormy years of the late sixties and early seventies.
It was a time of change where scientific discovery epitomised by man’s landing on the moon clashed with the horrific destruction by defoliants and napalm in the jungles of Vietnam. The streets were filled with protesting hippies professing free love and understanding, while American university students challenged rifle-toting soldiers with red roses.
This movement eventually led to the curtailment of the Vietnam War and started making people aware of the environmental destruction brought about by the unfeeling and unswerving march of rampant industrialisation.
The effects had started to be felt by the American people and lone voices such as that of Rachel Carson quickly joined a chorus of protestations that wanted answers to why spring had suddenly lost its voice and became so silent.
“Where have the birds gone?” asked Carson in her book The Silent Spring.
Many green parties around the world were instrumental in increasing environmental awareness and convincing people to take active roles in its protection. The fact that many citizens were seeing with their own eyes the debilitating effects of pollution, and unrestrained development also helped. Increases in rates of asthma in children, massive deforestation and the resultant extinction of flora and fauna and serious pollution problems, particularly in cities where horror stories were unfolding before people’s eyes.
It is true that rampant development does provide work in the interim, but environmental disasters such as Carson’s silent spring and the dumping of 27 tonnes of mercury in Minamato Bay between 1932 and 1968 that claimed 3,000 victims, revealed the high price of uncontrolled development.
And that was only the beginning!
Rivers, lakes and seas mired in sewage, industrial sludge and soap bubbles, stinking to high heaven and devoid of fish; major cities hidden under thick blankets of smog and pitted by acid rain and escalating colon cancer, asthma and emphysema rates of city dwellers going through the roof − this was the local price of rampant development!
What about the global consequences?
Disasters such as the Exxon Valdex and the continuous pollution of the sea with petroleum products; the destruction of the ozone layer by CFCs (ChloroFlouroCarbons) and more recently climate change due to global increases in the production of carbon dioxide − the most common industrial pollutant produced by industry and vehicles from the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil.
For 20 long years, environmentalists were called Luddites and tree-huggers, and some may have been that. But as time passed many of these came to be called “Greens” and, begrudgingly, politicians and international institutions had to listen to their arguments. The earth was telling them that the Greens were actually right!
Unfortunately, politicians are bipolar creatures caught between the power they wield and the votes of a fickle electorate. To obtain enough votes they must provide work so that the electorate has money to burn. So environmental protection is never high on the political agenda of developing countries and all those laws intended to control the level of pollution, emission and poisons from the industry are never popular.
Many developed countries such as the US and those of North Europe had to start controlling industry as the environmental destruction and degradation begun escalating to the extent that the result was huge hospital and clean-up bills, and a public outcry that accused the governments of preferring to protect investments rather than citizens’ health.
Concurrently, the destruction of large areas of forested land, animal extinction and polluted lakes and rivers started the search for alternatives to the manufacturing industry.
Some thought the answer was tourism!
The sustainability concept
Before the move from secondary industry (manufacturing) to tertiary industry (services such as banking and tourism) began, there already were attempts to develop the secondary sector more sustainably. The attempts didn’t really work for the simple reason that industry creates work and the manufacturing industry had the irritating habit of running away to poor countries that are so starved of foreign investment that they are ready to accept anything without imposing any conditions.
The term sustainability is a nice word that in a nutshell means to develop something − a product or a place − reasonably.
The main problem is that development always has a price. That is the nature of being human and wanting to use the environment to better oneself by working the land (clearing out all the different plants and animals), by practising agriculture; rearing animals (such as goats and sheep which practically denude forested areas due to their ravenous eating habits), quarry and mine the land to obtain building stone and ores to make tools (destroying vast tracts of land and poisoning lakes in the process) and finally build habitations and cities.
What can be done is develop places and locations in a more reasonable and logical way; and this is the basis of the concept of sustainability. In fact, little by little, many governments are realising that industrial activity must be scrutinised by measuring the associated gaseous emissions, noise, water and solid pollution it creates and find ways to make such operations cleaner and more environmentally friendly.
Even developed countries took their time in implementing these measures, and fortunately they have also become part of the European Union’s requirements that include stricter environmental laws and principles such as the ‘polluters pay principle’ and benchmarking.
Although the US and northern Europe are at the forefront of implementing some principles of sustainability, they still have serious problems to the extent that the US was incapable of signing the Kyoto Protocol to limit the emission of greenhouse gases.
It is a well-know fact that the US administration is afraid such a protocol will affect its energy production system and lead to a fall in the standard of living of the American people who are used to big petrol-guzzling cars, huge amounts of water and a steady and cheap supply of electricity, all at mostly unsustainable prices.
Europe has similar problems. The North Sea is a huge marine trashcan and many of the major rivers are full of sewage and pollution.
Let’s not start on the problems facing the Mediterranean Sea!
To gauge the extent of environmental damage, these countries started to utilise the concept of “environmental indicators” − a series of factors that must be studied and measured to provide a snapshot of the environmental state of an area at that particular time. Simple examples of environmental indicators include a measure of concentration of CO2 in a specific area (town, city, etc) or a measure of the biodiversity in a freshwater stream.
Such indicators provide a picture of the state of the environment of a particular place and what needs to be done so that pollution falls under a certain limit stipulated by an external agency such as the European Union.
Even the idea of “acceptable limits” is controversial as governments realise that the more rigorous a limit is kept, the more the government must control the polluting agencies such as factories and refineries. If the controls are too stringent and too costly, industries may move to developing countries in Africa and Asia where environmental controls are poor or non-existent.
of sustainable tourism
Mass tourism started developing after the Second World War. The conflict had given the technological impetus for the development of the first passenger planes, and slowly, the cost of a passenger ticket started to fall and the demand for tourists started to rise.
Most of these tourists came from the victorious countries − the United Kingdom, the United States and their allies. These countries were rebuilding and respective labour markets and were burgeoning to the extent that many opened the doors of immigration − the main reason why thousands of Maltese emigrated to the UK, US, Canada and Australia in the sixties.
In less than a decade, the citizens of these countries had accumulated enough money to create a new middle-class that wanted to enjoy its newfound wealth. Tourism offered an ideal way to spend money by experiencing new countries, climes, cultures, food and drink in exotic localities and a relaxed atmosphere where local workers pampered the foreign tourists.
It is ironic that while countries such as those of Northern Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan were still smarting from the environmental problems caused by traditional petrochemical and manufacturing industries, and were starting to invest in more sustainable practices and alternative forms of energy, the promise of new profits from the tourism services was too strong a lure and once again, these countries started investing without considering the negative effects of rampant mass tourism.
And in many countries the cycle was repeated again!
The tourism industry started to expand without adequate controls. Hotels were built in the most picturesque of places − quiet and isolated places that had never seen any development; coastal areas were colonised and encased in concrete, the banks of lakes and rivers, mountains slopes, forests and jungles and sensitive ecological areas were all bulldozed to make way for hotels and flats.
No place was left untouched to the extent that pathways through the Himalayan and Andes Mountains were strewn with coke-cans up to Mount Everest, while traditional camel trails through Libya and Tunisia were covered in potato crisp bags and plastic shopping bags!
By the end of eighties, mass tourism had managed to pollute all four corners of the earth, from the African Serengeti to the Arctic!
Once again, politicians started to talk about sustainability and coined the term sustainable tourism. Unfortunately, it’s common knowledge that politicians talk a lot and rarely act on what they say.
The idea of sustainable tourism entered popular discourse in 1987 when the World Commission on Environment and Development published the influential Brundtland Report. This offered a vision of socio-economic development based on “Sustainable development [that] is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:
“1. The concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
“2. the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.”
The above paragraph became the basis of the most important theme of the 1992 Earth Summit − the Global Environmental Conference in Rio − which was instrumental in bringing countries together to control major environmental problems. Although not a total success, the Summit did manage to convince a majority of the participants to cut down on chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) emissions that were destroying the ozone layer. It was a victory of sorts because for the first time almost all the countries had agreed that technology was destroying the planet. CFCs used in production of plastics, refrigerants and aerosols attacked and neutralised the ozone layer that absorbs the deadly ultraviolet light given off by the sun, which was leading to increases in skin cancer and eye disorders due to a higher UV index.
Sustainability as a practical tool started to gather traction with the publication of the Agenda 21 Manifesto that presented a set of planning principles, practices and processes presented in an unofficial “codex” to set development agencies to start thinking seriously on implementing sustainability in their operations.
The most developed European countries started embracing the ideas behind Agenda 21 and “number 21” quickly became synonymous with many international sustainability programmes and cooperatives such as ‘Baltic 21’ and ‘Green Globe 21’– an initiative that originated from the World Travel & Tourism Council as a certification for tourism businesses and destinations that were basing their operation on principles of sustainable tourism.
In the US, Agenda 21 is not so well known, but sustainable tourism has made inroads especially in agricultural and ecological areas of the United States and has borrowed ideas from Agenda 21, namely that sustainability should be based on three major concepts: environmental, social and economic − all of which depend on organized planning between concerned groups and the use of environmental indicators so that the quality of life of the citizens does not deteriorate due to the actions that need to be taken to make sustainability a reality.
and small states
Small emerging nations quickly joined the rush to adopt mass tourism and they had good reasons to do this. Such small states, particularly islands that had been British colonies like Malta and Cyprus, and many Caribbean and Polynesian islands that had become independent embraced mass tourism to start-up their economies.
Many were practically destitute after centuries of colonial exploitation and the only raw material many had left was tourism. Some like Malta and Cyprus had an ideal climate and were close enough to mainland Europe to provide investment opportunities in mass tourism mostly based on the sun and sea, while Caribbean and Polynesia islands were exotic, adorned with natural beauty and wildlife and tended to attract US investment.
When tourism was introduced in these countries, salaries were low, labour was plentiful and food prices were low too. The governments of these countries, many just starting to take care of newly independent states jumped at the opportunity of foreign investment. Here, tourism was a lifesaver kick-starting many budding economies including Malta’s. Unfortunately, many became totally dependent on a mass tourism product that developed at such a fast rate that ignored anything that could stall its momentum. Governments showed no interest in developing sustainable forms of tourism. They just wanted foreign investment until the negative effects of mass tourism started to destroy the very assets that made these countries attractive: beaches became overpopulated, the coast taken over by hotels and high-rise apartments, jungles cleared, clean azure seas polluted, wildlife destroyed … and in some cases the tourists started to leave.
Taking Malta as an example, the exploration for investment in tourism started in the late fifties and the first investments arrived in the sixties. But the age of Maltese mass tourism took off in the seventies and increased seven-fold in the eighties after the British left for good. During these two decades mass tourism spread uncontrollably throughout the islands including Gozo and Comino. The philosophy of the Labour government of that time was that tourism had to become Malta’s major industry to provide enough work for all.
Environmental considerations were ignored to the extent that investors manage to get the best seaside properties and the most spectacular views; most of the Maltese coast was occupied by hotels and some were even built in ecologically sensitive areas.
As soon as the manufacturing industry started to wane in the nineties, governments continued to invest in mass tourism even though many cautionary tales were showing that islands and countries basing everything on this type of tourism eventually enter a period of decline—something that can be explained as the ‘the tourism destination lifecycle’. Some countries managed to evade collapse by diversifying the touristic product and investing in new forms of sustainable tourism such as rural tourism, agritourism and ecotourism.
Our country has never attempted such an initiative. Successive governments remain obsessed with numbers, even though we are already feeling the effects of rampant mass tourism. All this, notwithstanding the almost daily political speeches lauding tourism sustainability and explaining why our country must invest in it.
Unfortunately, up till now any talk of sustainable tourism has to remain political rhetoric that is preached to the converted in some weekend political event or to impress some foreign dignitary from the European Union. The only certain thing about sustainable tourism in Malta is that the government does not have a clear, logical and realistic plan how to introduce it