An estimated 120 million jobs were lost in the tourism sector during the pandemic, according to the U.N., and earlier this month General Assembly president Abdulla Shahid called for rebuilding the global tourism sector — but in a more sustainable way than the pre-pandemic reality.
Because while tourism can be an important economic driver, it can also be disruptive to local communities, environments and wildlife. And in many popular destinations, a significant portion of tourism dollars leak back out of the community through foreign-owned hotels and travel companies.
According to Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda, a Kenya-based organization promoting sustainable travel, that kind of economic “leakage” has long characterized the relationship between tourism and host communities in Africa.
“In the mid-1990s, a study in the world-famous Maasai Mara showed that less than 1% of the tourism dollars spent by tourists in Maasai Mara National Reserve stayed in the destination,” she said in an interview with Marketplace’s David Brancaccio.
Kepher-Gona said the last few decades have brought some improvement, including development of employment opportunities for local Maasais and new arrangements that pay residents a monthly fee for the industry’s use of their land. But in East Africa and elsewhere, she thinks much more can be done to protect host communities from the industry’s ills — particularly as it rebuilds from a pandemic that devastated vulnerable populations whose economies had been drastically reordered by tourism.
“In destinations that once lived off of fishing, the fishing boats had now become tourist boats. Tourism had been sold as the answer to the community needs. Now, suddenly, there is no tourism,” she said.
“It is important that tourism receives a social license from the destination. And that social license will set the limits to what tourists can do — to how many tourists can arrive; to how many ice cream parlors we can have that are replacing our regular stores; to how many Airbnbs we can have so that we do not have our cities becoming too expensive for the host communities and residents to live in.”
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
David Brancaccio: A major point that you make in the documentary film [“The Last Tourist”] is that tourism can, in theory, be a distributor of wealth — but, often, that’s not the reality. You have seen cases in your part of the world where the tourism is very extractive; it leaves few dollars behind in the communities the tourists visit?
Judy Kepher-Gona: Yes, the policies for tourism development in Africa were never designed for African tourism investors. This has led to exclusion of the distribution of the tourism revenues. In the mid-1990s, a study in the world-famous Maasai Mara showed that less than 1% of the tourism dollars spent by tourists in Maasai Mara National Reserve stayed in the destination.
Brancaccio: That’s an astonishing statistic. Maasai Mara is where often travelers go, tourists go to go on safaris?
Kepher-Gona: Yes, we have seen, in the last 15 years, increased investments in tourism that includes local Maasai communities. We have seen a surge in local employment after the European Union built a local guiding school to train the Maasai to be employed as guides in Maasai Mara. This has had a tremendous improvement in the livelihoods of many of the young Maasai morans, who had for a long time watched by as vans came in and went out, driven by other people telling stories of their land. And I’m so excited that today we have Maasais hosting people on their land — not other people guiding tourists on Maasai land. This has been a tremendous improvement — coupled with the fact that now there is direct revenues going to households thanks to a model of conservation that was introduced in the Mara in the mid-2000s, where now the Maasai put land aside for tourism and they are paid on a monthly basis — a lease for their land — directly out of tourism revenues. So we are seeing changes, but I still think a lot more could be done so that we have more retention.
Brancaccio: Right, so changes in policy. But also you would like would-be tourists to ask tougher questions before they choose a particular company to do business with for their vacations?
Kepher-Gona: Yes. We know the power of consumers in driving the markets. I do admit that price still plays an important role in choice of places and what to do by travelers. But even as they make the choices based on price, you still have an opportunity to ask questions like: What does tourism do for this community? Has tourism contributed to a loss of biodiversity? These are questions that a tourist can ask irrespective of their budget.
Brancaccio: You must have been pleased to hear United Nations General Assembly President Abdulla Shahid singing your song. He had a conference as the U.N. was looking at the 120 million jobs that were lost around the world in tourism because of pandemic, and he said, “We must not reboot global tourism in a business as usual manner. We must … be more responsible than that.” That fits right in with something you’ve been working on for decades.
Kepher-Gona: Yes, it does. I have been amongst those who are saying it is not enough that tourism recovers, because recovery takes us where we were — and I don’t think tourism wants to go back where it was. The vulnerability of the industry was exposed. And the statistics that you hear are about the number of airlines that are grounded; the number of hotels that have been closed down — but you don’t hear statistics of people in destinations whose livelihoods had been changed so that tourism can thrive. In destinations that once lived off of fishing, the fishing boats had now become tourist boats. Tourism had been sold as the answer to the community needs. Now, suddenly, there is no tourism. And this is the message we are sending out in “The Last Tourist” — that tourism cannot take over destinations; that it is important that tourism receives a social license from the destination. And that social license will set the limits to what tourists can do — to how many tourists can arrive; to how many ice cream parlors we can have that are replacing our regular stores; to how many Airbnbs we can have so that we do not have our cities becoming too expensive for the host communities and residents to live in because of tourism. Tourism cannot change people’s quality of life.