Industry attitudes to research and to funding sustainability need to change, says a leading academic. Ian Taylor reports
The travel industry should embrace tourism taxes to fund research on sustainability and development, and demand government support for studies.
That is the view of Professor Megan Epler Wood, director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at Harvard University’s Centre for Health and the Global Environment. She told Travel Weekly: “There is very little study of tourism taxes and where they go, but the system is broken.”
Epler Wood said: “Most studies look at the effects of getting more travellers, almost never at the impact on destinations. We need research, [but] we lack resources on an enormous scale.”
Tourism is out of kilter with other sectors, she said. “There has been an effort by other industries, such as textiles and cocoa, to look at the costs of social externalities [impacts]. There is a lack of a similar approach in travel. We need destination-based studies.”
For example, she said: “Cancun now has 100 miles of development all the way to the border with Belize and this sprawl is happening worldwide. We see increasing demands on water, so we need to track water levels in tourism. On the coast, where you have white sand beaches you want to know the condition of the coral reef.”
She cited Belize, where a Cornell University study in 2010 found tourism tax revenues did not cover the cost of water treatment, and a privatised sewage company was charging hotels and wealthier residents, while other sewage went untreated. Epler Wood said:
“It undermined the concept of a sustainable destination next to a barrier reef.
“There are occupancy taxes, bed taxes and licensing taxes. [But] we don’t know how to allocate revenue to protect destinations. Depending on the country, money goes to the destination or to central taxation. One study found 50% of tourism taxes stay in the central treasury. A Cambridge University study found very little revenue generated by protected areas was captured by the areas.
“At a municipal level there is often a small tax base and hotels may not be getting recycling or composting.”
Epler Wood added: “Take Honolulu. In August last year the sewage system overflowed because of a storm. Waikiki [a beachfront neighbourhood] was overwhelmed by sewage. It’s a wealthy community, but the tax structure was insufficient to pay for the $1 billion sewage system required.
“We need to look at the cost of managing tourism and how to generate revenue [to pay for it] – there are way too few studies.
“Tourism is growing at double the rate of global GDP. There is a lot of discussion about sustainability and the benefits of tourism, but we have to look at the costs,” she said.
“Nobody wants to pay tax, but no one benefits if we have despoiled destinations.
“So how do we share the costs? Most destinations and tourism ministries are simply not working on this.
“We need to quantify tourism’s costs and benefits.
“You find most industries invest in research. But the concept of tourism research is relatively new. I’m the only tourism expert at Harvard.
“The industry is essentially operating under the radar.”
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