International Congress on Ethics and Tourism

Two weeks ago I decided to go to Madrid for the first congress on Ethics and Tourism hosted in Madrid out of curiosity about what a congress like this would look like. As I’m just about to do a Masters in Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University I though I could benefit from the experience, as well as Tourism Concern, the campaign organisation I hold an internship in, that was not even invited to attend, could benefit from having a represent there whose critical eyes and ears, could deliver some views on the whole fest.

I say fest cause that’s the impression I got. Important (tourism) ministers from all over came dressed in black to share their opinions on Ethics and Tourism. And from early on it was highlighted that even the Spanish prince would come and give his opinion on the last day of the congress. No wonder we were excited. Food and drinks were included both days in stylish surroundings, and high tech conference solutions like speaker translations into three languages on head phones were offered the attendants. But did the congress come up with anything new?

Here is the summary I wrote, also published on Tourism Concern’s webpage

This Congress earned the UNWTO and big travel agencies lots of attention in Spain. I’m left with mixed thoughts and feelings.

The Congress focused very little on human rights, or on practical actions being undertaken or required for a more ethical tourism. Civil society, including grassroots campaigning groups representing those negatively impacted by tourism development, was hardly represented or mentioned at all. The primary purpose of the Congress seemed to be showcasing the new countries signing up to the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism (adopted by the UNWTO in 1999 and ratified by the UN General Assembly in 2001) and publicising the attendance of the Prince of Spain. He went along to show his support for what a ‘brilliant’ idea it is to (finally) make tourism more ethical. Forgive me if I sound a little cynical, but I felt that most participants talked about the ethical tourism concept as if it was: totally new; lay outside tourism as a whole; and could be neatly implemented with yet another code.

On day one The Minister of Tourism of Ecuador, Freddy Ehlers, was apparently one of the strongest and most radical speakers at the event (unfortunately I missed his slot), urging the industry and government representatives ‘to start the walk and stop the talk’. Jorge Sampaio, High Representative of the UN for the Alliance of Civilizations, also talked of the challenges for local people touched by tourism.

In the second session, ‘The Global Code of Ethics as a Guarantor of Equality and a Bulwark against Exploitation’, human rights violations were discussed in relation to child sex tourism. The president of UNICEF Spain, Consuelo Crespo moderated this session and one could feel her passion for this very serious topic. Kathleen Speake from ECPAT international reminded us of the harsh truth of tourism facilitating sexual exploitation of children in tourist destinations and claimed companies in the sector could do a lot more in the fight against this. This very serious topic is critical in the work for a more ethical tourism industry.

However there was no mention of all the other human rights violations that can come with tourism, such as forced displacement, livelihood impacts, poor labour conditions, and loss of access to water and other essential natural resources.

In the third session “Fair Tourism and the fight against poverty”, the director of International centre for Responsible Tourism, Harold Goodwin, stated that much too little has happened in tourism since the Global Code of Ethics was introduced. He argued that it is not enough to develop codes of ethics without actually taking actions to implement them and demonstrate what is achieved. Furthermore, he stressed that companies must be more transparent and willing to report in order to seem responsible.

The rest of the speakers elegantly danced their way around the core issue: Ethics. There was little attempt to define this concept beyond linking it with ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsibility’ (which also needed a common definition for the purpose of the conference). Figures were frequently bandied around that showed how big and important tourism is, both for development in poorer countries and for Europe’s economy. The tourism ministers in attendance largely framed the ethical challenges of tourism as an environmental issue.

Meanwhile, the corporates focused on the negative impacts of the financial crisis on the industry, which I didn’t feel had much to do with what ethical tourism is supposed to be.

The topic of social and cultural tourism – as a product in which there is increasing interest amongst consumers – and the particular challenges this could present, was discussed. However, there was little room for meaningful discussion about tourism’s wider ethical impacts.

However the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism of Tanzania addressed the problems in his country due to tourism, and underlined the need for the international tourism industry to address these. He said that responsible tourism is possible, with actions and adherence to regulations and laws by international companies. The the South African tourism minister followed up this topic in his speech, highlighting the new Responsible Tourism standard of his own country. Its focus is to achieve the goals of sustainable development, environmental integrity, social justice and economic prosperity.

The topic of Day Two was Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The Sri Lankan Chairman of PATA (Pacific Asia Travel Association) said some interesting things about the ineffectiveness of CSR codes, using tourism in Sri Lanka for the last 10 years as example. He argued that actions have to be taken more seriously and followed up. However, he ended his talk with a point about tourists’ unwillingness to put their hands in their pockets to pay for ethical products (with the implication being that companies are therefore not improving their ethical practices). At this point, journalist Catherine Mack asked: “isn’t it about time the multinationals put their hands in their pockets and pay back the societies from which they benefit so enormously”.

Like Day One, there was little time for the audience’s questions and thoughts. Presenters spoke at length about all the good they do with different community projects. However, there was no serious discussion of the problems of green washing in the tourism industry (though it was mentioned!), or of making CSR obligatory and regulated by law.

On the other hand, there was a surprisingly responsible speech by Andrew Cooper of Thomas Cook. I thought he was spot on about concerns about human rights challenges in tourism – especially regarding to water access (golf courses were mentioned) and land grabbing. However, he failed to say anything about what his own company is doing in order to address these – which of course should be the main point.

In summarising the Congress, BBC World News presenter, David Eades, highlighted key points about the current lack of action and the importance of responsibility at all levels, by all stakeholders. He then asked, “should tourism be seen more as a privilege than a right?”

To even think of travelling as a “right” seems absurd to me, especially when, in many cases, tourism leads to violations of the human rights of people who can only dream of travelling themselves. And as if that wasn’t enough, in his closing remarks, the UNWTO Secretary General, Taleb Rifai, said: “Travel is part of human need, and therefore part of human right, and that’s the only way to think of it”. He also stated: “there is nobody I’ve thought should have been here, that isn’t”.

On a positive note, although the Congress was mostly a show for the gallery, I believe in the positive effects it can have in the longer run. Having more and more people reading about “ethical industries” in the media will, in my opinion, serve to influence and educate. For the industry and local communities, it remains to be seen what ethical actions will be initiated in order to improve the conditions of people hosting the travellers, as they ‘realise their human right to a holiday’. It would be fantastic if the host communities also get to realise fundamental human rights too.

And here is Ethical Travel writer Catherine Mack’s coverage on the same congress and its main topic

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  1. Pingback: Soledad « Jeatrix

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