The necessity to shift away from capital intensive approaches to tourism

The International Mangroves Day last week coincided with or followed instances of extreme flooding across the world, and the irony shouldn't be lost on anyone. I came across the illustration below on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, and I haven't been able to shake it off since. The original illustration is by the Brazilian Instagram account @arvoreagua

It’s clear that we can’t solely blame seemingly aberrant and disproportionate rains or a rapidly deteriorating climate balance for the calamities we are increasingly finding ourselves in, but also the abilities (or the absence) of our urban landscapes to tackle manifestations of the climate crisis. Earth’s natural geology is generally meant to absorb most anomalous weather and climate situations. What hinder these abilities and exasperate the situation are myopic approaches to development and unstudied manmade interferences. A global burgeoning tourism infrastructure, built in response to increases in tourism demand over the last decades, has contributed in large scales to the climate calamity. With anomalous weather now proving to be more rule and less exception, the damage and loss of life because of frequent natural calamities will gradually be less about the climate change and more a function of our inability to protect against it.

There is an obvious increased interest in destination development and resilience of destinations in the face of climate crisis. Yet, the amount of preemptive impact assessment done before development of emerging destinations continues to be largely inadequate. The urgency to rapidly unveil new products, collect immediate economic gains from increased capacity, higher visitor numbers and tourism dollars are often prioritised over appropriate planning, understanding and assigning suitable carrying capacities to touristic sites, long term impacts of infrastructure interventions, and the many physical and social pitfalls of overtourism. In less serious situations, this myopic approach can lead to a variety of ‘expenses’, such as frequent repairs and maintenance arising out of climate-driven incidents or rapid degradation of delicate heritage structures leading to a premature loss of heritage. In more serious situations, it can lead to avoidable accidents and potential loss of life.

All destination strategies quantify demand and targets as visitor arrival numbers. The necessary supply to meet regional demand is almost always expressed as number of keys, leading to development of demand generators such as tourism products and new hotels in an ever-growing list of newly-defined categories. I am yet to come across a destination strategy that works the other way round, using the destination’s existing natural assets, ecology and carrying capacity as a starting point for the development of a strategy. Except maybe my current idée fixe' Bhutan, and newly discovered Palau.

So then do we arrest all sorts of development that leads to the build-up of infrastructure?

No. But we do need to insist on climate considered infrastructure development and diligent urban planning. We do need to think about meeting visitor demands through what I call ‘tourism guerilla tactics’, such as inclusion of local communities and mainstreaming of homestays to bridge accommodation demand and supply, complementing existing hotel portfolios. The rising trend of experiential travel too could provide that necessary nudge away from the archaic capital-intensive approach to tourism, towards a leaner and more nimble approach that is kinder to the destination’s ecological balance and its local communities.