Najib Saab. 20/8/2023

Had I known that my success would be at the expense of destroying the planet, I would have chosen another job, lamented the founder of one of the largest budget travel and tourism operators in Europe. That was in the wake of the fires in the Greek Islands and the floods in Slovenia, where tens of thousands of his clients were injured or trapped, and he was busy making contingency plans for their evacuation. He stressed that when he stasrted his company 25 years ago, he did not imagine the extent of the contribution of mass tourism to pollution, destruction of natural habitats and climate change. However, discovering these devastating effects today will not stop him expanding his business in cheap mass tourism, because if he does, other investors will be ready to take his place, and the destruction will not stop. He tried to carefully select his words with the shrewdness of a businessman, vowing to devote a portion of his company’s profits to repairing the damage caused by its business. However, by then it may be too late and there might be nothing left to be repaired.

While the fires that struck popular tourist sites in the Mediterranean countries attracted media attention, because they affected hundreds of thousands of people and turned homes and vast forests into ashes in popular locations known to hordes of tourists, they were not by any means the only environmental disaster this season. The record rise in sea water temperature has hit coral reefs from Florida to Sharm El-Sheikh, causing them to bleach and degenerate. In addition to their importance in attracting tourists due to the beauty of their unique colorful formations, coral reefs play a crucial role in providing food for a large group of marine organisms and maintaining biodiversity. While coral reefs tolerate high temperatures, because they live in warm waters, the temperature rise for long periods above normal levels ultimately leads to their death. The latest in a string of environmental – touristic disasters this season were the fires in Hawaii, which struck Maui, a favorite tourist destination.

There is scientific consensus that climate change is the main reason for the increase in extreme natural phenomena, in terms of their size, number and frequency. This is manifested in unusually high temperatures that extend for long periods, as well as in heavy rains that defy usual dates and locations, storms, hurricanes, and frequent severe floods. Mass travel, with the destruction of natural habitats that accompanies it, is a major source of carbon emissions that cause global warming.

If oblivion is a blessing, as it helps people overcome adversity and turn a new leaf, it becomes precarious when it leads to neglect taking benefit from experiences, in order not to make the same mistakes. When the corona pandemic struck, confining people to their homes and countries and impeding travel between continents, domestic tourism flourished. Many people discovered wonderful sites in their immediate vicinity that they had not visited or knew existed before, because promotional campaigns focus on far away exotic tourist destinations. While observers thought that getting used to domestic tourism would continue after the pandemic, it turned out they were wrong, because during the last year tourists returned in droves to foreign destinations, like a prisoner escaping jail. As soon as the fires subsided in the Greek islands, accompanied by heavy rains in northern Europe following the heat waves, tourists returned there by the thousands, fleeing the northern rains, as if nothing had happened.

Exploring distant regions of the world was in the past limited to a small group of adventurers, who were considered “explorers”. Some of them shared their experiences with others by writing about the characteristics of nature, architecture, ways of life, culture, and the customs and traditions of peoples, thus contributing to the dissemination of knowledge and interaction among civilizations. But most of the tourist tours around the world today have turned to recreation, as the tourist often goes from lying on a beach in his country to stretching on a beach in another far away country. Many tourist trips actually lack any cultural, heritage or historical element, such as when a tourist goes to Paris and is satisfied with visiting night clubs, shopping, and sitting in cafes and restaurants, without setting foot in any museum, concert, art gallery, or even a public park. I recently met a tourist in the Austrian city of Salzburg, who asked me for the address of a restaurant serving Arabic food, only for me to discover that he wasn’t aware that the city was hosting, during that time, one of the most important music festivals in the world, and that it is the birthplace of the great musician Mozart and includes important museums and archaeological sites. It was as if his desire to travel thousands of kilometers and cause tons of pollution and carbon emissions to visit this city with a long history was just to eat a meal of meat and rice.

In times of major environmental and climatic challenges, the unrestrained expansion of recreational mass tourism needs some controls. Continuing at the current pace threatens the elementary foundations on which tourism is based, such as favorable weather, clean beaches, green forests, and attractive natural and archaeological features, in addition to threatening the environment. This does not mean banning recreational tourism, but regulating it, which necessitates setting restrictions such as imposing fees on trips, to be spent towards measures to protect the environment, repair damage to ecosystems, prevent pollution, and treat waste. It also requires limiting the number of tourists and keeping some sensitive areas closed. Cultural and heritage considerations must also be integrated into tourist excursions, so attention is not limited to beaches and entertainment venues within cities, but extends to interaction with indigenous communities.

It is also necessary to encourage domestic tourism, by creating attractive attractions to the people of the country and its neighbors, while preserving the environmental balance. This not only helps reduce emissions and relieve pressure on the global environment, but also supports the local economy and preserves native ecosystems. Traveling to nearby regions reduces emissions and limits the expenditure of national wealth abroad. Perhaps most important is for citizens to discover natural and historic sites in their countries, which is a motivation to protect and preserve them. I remember that when I published “Nature Book” in 2002, with 14 chapters exploring little known forests, deserts and seas in Arab countries, I was surprised that most of the local population had not heard of these wonderful sites before. A lot needs to be done to promote controlled local tourism, for its enormous economic, cultural and environmental advantages.