How do we maximise the benefit of mass tourism while minimising the harm?

Instead of leaving your footprint when visiting a country, spend a day cleaning it up

Outside the gates of Mysore Palace in Mysore, India, which has launched a campaign to recycle rubbish for compost and electricity. Corbis
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Birdsong and the distant rumble of traffic accompany the sound of my breath; I call it the symphony of existence. It's early morning but the Sun and the Moon are both still visible. This is something I never knew was possible until I came to the UAE. From my hotel balcony, I can see the green of the treetops stretching off into the distance, eventually merging with the Hajjar mountains. The whole scene is bathed in an early morning haze but this veil of mist is not enough to conceal the beauty of the Al Ain oasis.

Abu Dhabi is on track to attract 4.9 million hotel guests this year. The human-made attractions like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Formula One racetrack, Yas Waterworld and more are complemented by the natural beauty of places like Al Ain, Liwa and the Empty Quarter. I love taking my visitors to experience the futuristic practicality of Masdar City. I typically follow the trip to Masdar with a quick visit to Emirates Palace. The juxtaposition of austere simplicity with Louis XIV-style opulence can be mind-altering.

It is hardly surprising that Abu Dhabi’s visitor numbers are on the rise and with more attractions on the way, I’m sure the 4.9 million figure will be smashed this year. Tourism, however, can be a double-edged sword. Popularity can carry with it the seeds of its own demise.

Mass tourism with large groups of people travelling for recreation and leisure is still a relatively new thing. Its inception is often credited to Thomas Cook, a British entrepreneur who began offering rail tours around the UK in the 1840s. These excursions began as outings for members of the temperance movement, a socio-political group whose members stood against the ills of alcohol, a group to which Cook himself belonged.


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It seems a little ironic that a temperance advocate like Cook would unwittingly popularise an activity like tourism that is sometimes criticised for bringing out our most loutish, disrespectful and intemperate behaviours. Tourists misbehaving – typically drunken tourists – has become cliche in some nations. Being a stranger in a foreign land is disinhibiting for most people but for a small minority, it unleashes an inner beast. 

The outrages of unruly holidaymakers have become a staple of mainstream media. last year we saw reports such as the story of a tourist who damaged an 800-year-old museum artefact just so he could take a photo of his child and headlines about visitors to Thailand arrested for taking nude photos at a historic temple. Even as far back as the 1920s, there are reports of American tourists causing outrage in Paris as they took advantage of the weak franc and the availability of cheap drinks.

Tourist misbehaviour is undoubtedly the exception rather than the rule. Most tourists are respectful towards their hosts. However, as the number of tourists grows, the misbehaving minority also increases in size, as does their negative impact. Over the second half of the last century, the number of adults taking foreign holidays went from nine million a year to 32 million, more than a threefold increase in less than 50 years. According to the United Nations' World Tourism Organisation, the burgeoning middle classes in nations such as China will swell the number of tourist trips taken each year to about two billion by 2030. 

The challenge now is how to maximise the benefits of mass tourism while minimising its harms. On a personal level, we can lessen some adverse effects by being sensitive and respectful to the people, laws and social norms of the places we visit. This obviously necessitates learning a little about the destination before departure.

Perhaps we also need additional, alternative metrics for calculating the net benefits of tourism. Beyond the number of visitors and economic impact, we might even consider counting, monitoring and reporting the number of tourist-related incidents. It is also worth exploring ways in which tourists might contribute to the social good of our societies beyond merely spending money. Perhaps it is time to spend one day cleaning a beach and another day enjoying its beauty.