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Human rights and tourism who cares and who should care

Julia Schonharl writes about tourism and human rights in 2012

So far, the process of public awareness rising has been successful: the debate on human rights in tourism is in full swing. NGO and representatives of the tourism industry and governments are hosting meetings to discuss the challenges and opportunities highlighting how the tourism industry, as one of the world´s largest services industries, has an obligation to engage more with human rights protection.

However, I wonder if the “normal” tourist, i.e. not the so called “conscious traveler”, does care at all about the human rights impact of her/his trip. Or, in other words, if that normal tourist does at all understand the possible connection between the all-inclusive-trip to the Maldives or Canary Islands and human rights violations that might happen to make this trip worth the money paid.

Obviously, this is a big step. Can we ask anybody to think beyond the fences of the holiday resort? That is, to think about how little the farmers earn who produce the food at the buffet; how water is redirected to the tourism location leaving local people without enough water; how many people might have been forcibly displaced for the construction of the hotel; how unfair hotel staff might be treated, how women employees might be harassed; how local people are denied access to the beach that has been occupied by the resort? Et cetera.

With those questions in mind we can – just as we did a decade ago when the issue of ecological friendly traveling was coming up – raise the question of whose responsibility it is to
a) make the tourist aware about human rights issues during travelling, and
b) to make the tourism industry aware to respect human rights in all its operations.

The media certainly do have a great possibility to inform their readers and make the topic of human-rights in tourism more accessible.
However, it is unknown if the interested reader incorporates the relevant information into his/her next travel decision.

If the information is properly presented and easily accessible that person might tend to look further and try to make an “informed choice”, but the current and future way of online travel booking presents a challenge of how to present the information to consumers. Selected websites claim that they do only or mostly offer eco-conscious trips. But there is no way of proving it.

In a travel agency, the sales clerk has a much higher chance to engage the consumer in a talk and provide information. This requires that the sales person is aware, trained and conscious to not only offer the trip that generates most profit for the travel agency but the one which is “fair” and fully respecting (and not violating) human rights.This would require a change in the sales pattern.

Christian Felber, an economic lecturer and activist of ATTAC Austria highlights this in his recently published book “The public welfare economy”: He argues that there needs to be a change in the values along which the global economy is working. Financial profit cannot be the only and ultimate goal anymore. The system needs to acknowledge what people “really” want: trust and happiness.

From a tourism perspective that happiness would have to comprise the tourists, providers AND local people. And again, which industry, if not the tourism industry, would have to take the leadership role to promote that everybody involved is enjoying “happiness”?

Within the realm of such “modern” economic ideas, some tour operators are taking the lead (or may they just follow the public pressure) to think about the impact of their operations in the respective destinations: not only the ecological impact but also the socio-cultural impact and, desirably, at one point the human rights impact.

Naturally, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is taking the leadership role in this debate with the World Committee on Tourism Ethics offering a high-profile platform for discussions.

When we talk about human rights and tourism: what do we need to look at? And why is it so “hot” these days?

Since 1990, ECPAT is challenging the industry to be aware and stop the sexual exploitation of children in tourism. The movement has been growing ever since as does child exploitation in tourism.

Of course, there might be some projects where the rights of children are protected. But the challenges seem greater than ever: world population growth in the global South; poor health situation; the deepening gap between the poor and the rich; the growing lack of public money for social and children care projects; and the growing demand for low-budget trips where cheap = child laborers are used.

Apart from children, other groups continue to suffer from discrimination in tourism: women in general (due to the known discrepancy and lack of equal rights) and particularly women of minority populations (e.g. indigenous) in many Southern countries.

When writing about tourism and human rights one also has to look at the “right to travel” – or the right to tourism, as it is understood. In my opinion, mixing these issues does meander far away from what “human rights in tourism” means. It is a completely different approach.

The right to travel, i.e. to be a tourist is by some seen as an international human right. This, actually, appears almost cynical to me: putting the right to travel (as a tourist) as an international human right fails to respect the dire straits of the poor majority of the seven billion people on this planet who either travel to find a new day job, a spot to beg, or to migrate: be it voluntarily or forced! Leisure trips do not even exist in their minds and lives.

On the other hand, there are those who can afford to travel for leisure but are limited due to a lack of accessibility/transportation. Their “right to travel” is defined as tourism without barriers or “inclusive tourism”, and they comprise an ever increasing and diversifying group of our societies. “Fairness” in tourism must ensure that those who have the means, interest and potential to travel for leisure can do so – a responsibility of local and national governments that needs a change of paradigm and a de-stigmatization of the respective persons. The latter is a responsibility of tour operators to create “tourism for all”.

Thinking further about human rights and tourism we have to look at the climate change tragedy. The current products and operations (including leisure and business tourism), which follow an ever rising luxury demand of consumers (“more is beautiful”) do consume immense quantities of fuel, energy, land, water, food. Only a complete eco-balance would show the true impact of a tourism product including its direct and indirect, internal and external cost.

In 2009, the ThirdWorldNetwork published Anita Pleumaron´s “Change Tourism, not Climate” stating that “unless tourism policymakers take drastic action to reverse the dominant “business-as-usual” attitude within the industry, tourism will become a key force of GHG emissions in the world, undermining the overall progress made to stem global climate change” .

Looking at the possible “reduction” of the industry´s threatening climate impact, the future doesn’t look promising: long-haul tourism is growing as is the number of people worldwide who can afford it, and consequently long-haul flights and carbon dioxide emissions are increasing.

Climate change does cause dramatic and life-destroying effects on people, nature and places in the southern hemisphere. Hurricanes, flooding and land slides cause the displacement of (coastal and mountainous) communities, the destruction of historic/traditional places and natural landscapes. Droughts, exorbitant rain falls, as well as logging, mining, contamination of water and regions are severely challenging the industry to find new “beautiful” places. The industry is forced to redesign its products with regards to the climate change challenge or create entirely new products, as is the case in the Alpine regions where the snow season is diminishing.

No problem! With some more wellness spas and adventure domes the industry will overcome that challenge! The tourism industry has an amazing capacity to deviate tourists away from the destruction and guide them to the most beautiful places – to fulfill the promise of harmony, beauty, relaxation. The truth is that industry and governments continue to maintain or expand tourism infrastructure and facilities, probably to “compensate” the “lost paradise” but failing to acknowledge that with the construction and operation of each new place, more energy, more land, more supplies, more cheap labor is needed. And ultimately, human rights are negatively impacted.

As long as the industry is offering its resource-consuming products: can we argue that the tourist should be more aware of climate change or human rights?

In the ecological discussion, it was a combination of both, tourists and providers, resulting in a higher awareness for environmental friendly products driven by the drive of the industry to “sustain” the environments of destinations, of the local civil society requesting eco-friendly operations, and of tourists asking for a greener product.

As in many industries, CSR is a much discussed topic in tourism, too. From its definition, however, CSR is not necessarily based on human rights protection as such. It is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. It is left often how far a company embraces its responsibility and encourage a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees, communities, stakeholders and all other members of the public sphere. Human rights, on the contrary, are not something that can be left up to a self-regulating mechanism! They are universal rights.

The TourCert initiative in Germany is trying to define a regulation mechanism for the industry. It is based on ISO 26000 stating that “the essential characteristic of social responsibility is the willingness of an organization to incorporate social and environmental considerations in its decision-making and be accountable for the impacts of its decisions and activities on society and the environment.” That initiative is most welcome and important as it might take the issue up to a higher level, legislation. There is hope that the human rights issue will grow into something more than a “luxury” debate.

Lets have a look at a destination where I was working last year Mindanao, the Southern most and largest of the Philippine islands, suffering from a harsh civil war in the west and south that has been prohibiting tourism for the last decades.

International Alert, a UK based NGO, took the initiative to engage the business sector in Mindanao and Manila (the capital) to discuss the opportunities and threats of the war and the potential to engage in peace building activities. Interestingly, the tourism sector was not even invited to the first sessions. Despite tourism continues to be one of the income generating sectors in the Philippines, except Mindanao, though.

Does it makes sense to think about the potential of tourism to engage in the peace process, not only to make more money but to take a leading role? As it claimed to have in the African Peace Park program? With the ongoing human rights violations on the one hand, and the tourism potential of Mindanao on the other hand, it will be interesting to see where tourism will go. Small scale project, such as in Palestine or the South African Fair Trade in Tourism initiative, do embrace human rights in peace building. They are ongoing for quite some years, and I wonder why not more similar projects mushroom in the world as there are so many in-country conflicts going on.

In the end, the prevalent system of economics is guided by competition and profit making in a capitalistic / money approach. As long as “more and more” is at the pinpoint of any industry, including the tourism industry, a true human rights approach won’t be incorporated.

The hybrid consumer of the industrialized world and the rising economies (China, India, Brazil..) will continue to be reminded that they have a “right” to enjoy time off as a tourist and traveler. This rights-notion will probably be able justify any and every type of vacation: even socially and ecologically harmful ones. Back at home, tourist will compensate and justify their holidays by buying more goods at fair trade and organic shops. Fair enough, isn´t it?

Being aware that the discussion on human rights in tourism is young, i.e. not even one generation “old” (taking ECPAT´s foundation as a starting date) it might take a few more decades to reach out in a truly “all stakeholder” approach on human rights. And desirably change the notion of tourism all in all. But we know that change is the most difficult thing for any human being.

With this in mind I leave you with a quote of the great Indian guru Rumi: “Beyond the right and wrong there is a field: I will meet you there.”

This article is written by Julia Schoenhaerl and published 2012.01.03.,

Julia has been working in the field of sustainable tourism development since the late 1990s. Starting in Europe she later gained expertise in development projects in Central America and Asia: Chile, Honduras, Sir Lanka, Thailand, Philippines. Her impact at ECOT (Thailand) from 2007-9 helped to revive that global civil-society network on humanrights and tourism.

Julia has a Masters´ degree in tourism and a sound working background in the global business world. However, she directed her career early on into the non-profit sector. Julia is currently in Germany and offered to write for “Vision on Sustainable Tourism” – while researching job opportunities. Contact:; You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Skype.

The article is quoted from TravelMole and published January 2012.

This article is uploaded by Majbritt Thomsen, administrator on ‘Views On Tourism’.

Read up on Global Code of Ethics for Tourism
The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism sets a frame of reference for the responsible and sustainable development of world tourism. It draws inspiration from many similar declarations and industry codes that have come before and it adds new thinking that reflects our changing society at the beginning of the 21st century.
With international tourism forecast to reach 1.6 billion arrivals by 2020, members of the World Tourism Organization believe that the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is needed to help minimize the negative impacts of tourism on the environment and on cultural heritage while maximizing the benefits for residents of tourism destinations.
The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is intended to be a living document. Read it. Circulate it widely. Participate in its implementation. Only with your cooperation can we safeguard the future of the tourism industry and expand the sector’s contribution to economic prosperity, peace and understanding among all the nations of the world.

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