Interview with Mark Watson, director of Tourism Concern

“Tourism must be founded upon a respect for fundamental human rights, sustainability, equity and social justice”

Mark Watson is the Executive Director of Tourism Concern. A Chartered Manager with an MSc in sustainability and a first degree in geography and international development, he was the campaigns director of the human rights charity Stonewall and the Executive Director of One Planet Products before founding the charity UK Foundation for AIDS Research in 2009. In 1986 he spent three months in Dhaka, Bangladesh studying the effects of poverty on social exclusion; then in 1991 he led a six month expedition to the Amazon to consider the social and environmental consequences of rainforest destruction. Before going to university Mark spent one year working voluntarily in the township of Alexandria in South Africa and in 2003 he climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for HIV / AIDS projects in Africa. Tourism Concern have just launched a ground-breaking report on Water Equity in Tourism as well as a water campaign in Goa (India). So do you believe that water equity will come about when locals get the same water-related infrastructure, facilities and consumption per capita as luxury resorts, through the construction of such resorts and by applying pressure on their developers to share the benefits, or rather that there should not be any luxury resorts as they will be always wasting and stealing water from the local people?

Mark Watson: We believe that the right to water and sanitation should not be compromised by tourism. Governments need to uphold their international legal obligations to protect the right to water and sanitation of their citizens as a priority – over the needs of tourists. This means that tourism development and land use planning should be based on assessments of water resources and infrastructure and tourism carrying capabilities established. These will need to take into account the needs of local communities, food security, population growth, climate change and environmental degradation that could affect water availability. Additionally tourism businesses need to reduce consumption and act responsibly; tourists need to be aware of their consumption and most importantly local people, especially women, who often bear the greatest burden of fetching water – need to be able to participate in water planning decisions. A related topic is that of all-inclusive resorts and holidays against which Tourism Concern are also campaigning, arguing that they offer little benefit to the local economy. Are you proposing that all-inclusives reform, for example by striking agreements and partnerships with local suppliers, unions and associations, or do their problems go so deep (e.g. as examples of neocolonialism) that all-inclusives should simply be shut down or banned as has happened in at least one country following your campaign?

Mark Watson: The All-inclusive holiday is currently popular with consumers, which offers a fixed price holiday, which enables people to budget easily. Operators can also enhance their control over the quality of the end product, and hotels can increase their efficiency and predictability of demand. There are also some places where the all-inclusive model is the only viable option – however the implications for employees, other local businesses, the destination economy, and the tourist experience in terms of meaningful cultural exchange, throws up some serious questions about the sustainability and ethics of this tourism model. Our own survey of almost 2000 holiday makers confirmed that the majority of tourists that went on all inclusive holidays rarely or never left the resort or used local restaurants. Equally, whilst 90% of people thought that the tourists and tour operators benefited, over 70% of people thought that local communities and businesses where worse off. I am not convinced that the all-inclusive model can ever be as beneficial to local communities and as other holidays – in Kenya for example the World Bank found that all-inclusive beach holidays contributed the least economic benefit to the country – a place where most people are living on a dollar a day. Whilst I am not in favour of banning I understand why some governments may decide to ban or limit the number of all-inclusive resorts in order to protect local businesses and communities. However I would like to see tourists making informed choices about their holidays – ultimately the best holiday experience is going to occur if tourists are welcomed by local people who are sharing in the benefits. Having personally witnessed poverty, social exclusion and environmental destruction in the Global South, would you prefer that Tourism Concern is classified as a non-political initiative, which tries to work with all stakeholders so as to make the current tourism model more ethical or do you see it (or would like to see it under your leadership) as politically more radical and grassroots, aiming to fully replace the current Tourism model with another one (and if so which one?)

Mark Watson: I think that tourism can be a force for good, especially in developing countries – it can create positive opportunities for communities in destinations to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, it can provide revenue to protect the natural environment and I think we all gain by meeting new people and engaging with different cultures; but tourism must be founded upon a respect for fundamental human rights, sustainability, equity and social justice. Many tourists, given the choice and right information, would choose an ethical holiday and are concerned about their impacts; so in the short term I want to engage with these tourists to help them make informed choices about their holidays. In the longer term I think there has to be a radically different approach to holidays. From a purely environmental perspective it is difficult to see how we can increase international passenger numbers year on year whilst reducing carbon emissions.  Equally in many destinations the sheer number of tourist can overwhelm communities, infrastructure and the environment. The answer may be fewer, but longer holidays. Based on your personal experience with human rights campaigning with Stonewall, the leading LGBT rights organisation in the UK, would you say the global tourism industry, which otherwise readily recognises the purchasing power of LGBT tourists, is better or worse than other sectors in terms of discrimination? Do you see a need for a campaign against destinations with homophobic legislation?

Mark Watson: It was still technically illegal for a gay couple to share a hotel room in the UK until the gross indecency laws were repealed in 2004. However lesbians and gay men tend to take more holidays and travel more frequently than heterosexuals so the global tourism industry has generally been very welcoming to LGBT people and actively market to the gay community. However 78 countries still persecute people for being gay, in five the maximum penalty is death. In others cultural attitudes still make it impossible for gay men and women to live full and productive lives free from fear. Many of these countries tend to ignore gay tourists but actively persecute their own LGBT communities. Tourists have a great deal of influence on these countries so I think there needs to be a campaign to persuade governments that LGBT rights are human rights. I undertook voluntary work in the townships of South Africa during the apartheid years and was lucky enough to spend time with Desmond Tutu – I endorse his view when he said “We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about; our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. “ To what extent does Tourism Concern depend on funding and backing from the state and large tourism corporations, and through which internal processes, accountability and transparency structures do you manage to maintain your independence and pursue a progressive agenda for tourism change?

Mark Watson: Tourism Concern is an independent, non-industry, UK charity, with members and supporters from around the world. We work with partners in over 20 destination countries to ensure that tourism always benefits local people. We receive no state funding and to ensure our independence and to be able on tackle the campaigns we think are important we do not seek funding from the tourism industry. The vast majority of our funds are raised from our individuals, members, Friends and supporters. Our Council (Trustees) are elected form the members and we hold an annual AGM where members can inspect and interrogate our accounts. If we do undertake any specific work with tour operators we will always publish the terms of reference and rationale for doing so. These will clearly state that Tourism Concern’s principal accountabilities lie with the communities in destinations negatively impacted by tourism and the local civil society organisations who legitimately represent them. We do however have an Ethical Tour Operators Group of committed tour operators, mostly small to medium sized, with whom we work with to try improve standards in the industry. In Ancient Greek, Hospitality was by definition contrary to Xenophobia (fear of strangers), as it was called Philoxenia (friendship with strangers). With the far-right making a sudden comeback in Europe, including in crisis-ridden Greece, do you believe that a Tourism campaign against Xenophobia is something feasible that could produce concrete results?

Mark Watson: The Ancient Greek historian Herodotus is often called the Father of History, however I have always thought of him as the first tourist. He travelled for fun and his Histories are written in the style of a travel blog. We know a great deal about the classical world and its people because he travelled widely, met with different cultures and recorded the diversity of human experiences and settings he found. I firmly believe that the real benefit of travel is meeting people, engaging with local communities and leaving with an appreciation and understanding of the cultural diversity the world has to offer. One of my issues with the All Inclusive model is that people travel to a destination and rarely leave the resort or interact with local people. Whilst it is not my place to tell people how to have a holiday it concerns me that some tour operators sell these holidays by suggesting that people don’t have to worry about different currencies or eating ‘foreign food’ of trying to speak another language – the very things that often make a holiday so memorable. As social and inquisitive animals we have benefited greatly through our interactions with strangers – Xenophobia is both destructive and illogical, especially in times of crisis. Much of Tourism Concerns work is about promoting Xenia – the mutual respect between the host and the guest (traveller) eg: our campaign Our Holidays Their Homes was very much about tourists respecting communities in destinations countries. I am not sure about a campaign against xenophobia – however we will be campaigning for people to think about their holiday choices and will highlight that the best holidays are those where local communities benefit and everyone is treated with dignity and respect. At the same time, crossing borders is certainly becoming easier for the international (tourism) capital. Despite, or maybe because of the economic crisis in the global north, coastal tourism mega-resorts and real estate projects spring up along the coasts of the global south as international investors seek the last remaining chunks of ‘paradise’.  In general, can this process benefit host communities and countries if certain green and ethical parameters are defined and respected or should it be criticised as greenwashing and politically resisted as “neo-imperialism”?

Mark Watson: International tourist arrivals are expected to continue increasing, especially as an emerging middle class in Brazil, China and India travel more. This will put increasing pressure on new destinations; especially in the global south that still have natural resources that tourists seek. All destinations want the Goldilocks number of tourists – enough to bring jobs and income but not too many that they overwhelm the destination. Unfortunately the history of tourist development suggests that neither governments nor the tourism industry is very good at ‘sustainable tourist development’ – in many cases governments bow to pressure from international tourist resorts that bring few benefits to local communities and often  displace people from their land or jobs. How many once beautiful places have been blighted by over development? We believe that local communities must have a say in any tourists development and that governments must resist the allure of the short term benefits but instead plan tourism development that benefits local people, is environmentally sustainable and economically viable in the long term. Tourism Concern is currently working on a code of conduct for tour operators ‘engaging’ with indigenous people. On the one hand, one wonders how easy it is to define who qualify as indigenous people in each destination and who is authorised to represent them or able to interpret their wishes and best interests, and on the other hand if such a code of conduct would be respected by the tourism industry, through self-regulation and without international and national legislation, or just by a handful of quality operators. How optimistic are you about the feasibility and impact of this code of conduct?

Mark Watson: Whilst there is not a precise definition of indigenous people there are clearly communities in countries which preserve a degree of cultural and political separation from the mainstream culture. Our code will be developed in accordance with recently established international laws such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO Convention No.169. These declarations indicate that it is governments’ responsibility “to ensure indigenous peoples’ fundamental rights and work together with indigenous communities to end discrimination. As discussed I believe that cultural exchange can be an important part of a holiday so tourists often want to meet indigenous communities such as the Masai in Africa or the Aymara in Bolivia. Our Code of Conduct will provide guidance on the right for indigenous people to decide whether to engage in tourism activities; land rights – making profit of indigenous territories and cultures without “Free, Prior and Informed consent” ; natural resources, socio-cultural issues, economic benefits and the marginalisation and discrimination of indigenous women. Whilst there are a number of challenges we believe the driver for change will be the tourists themselves, who will refuse to book tours to visit indigenous communities with tour operators that have not signed up to and adopted our code. A similar code we developed for Porters Rights resulted in almost 50% of the industry adopting the code. Being based in London, how concerned are you about the environmental and social impact of the London Olympics, other mega-events and “mega” sport tourism in general?

Mark Watson: Although I wasn’t a big fan of the Olympics, especially corporate sponsorship, I am fairly relaxed about the impacts of mega sporting events in terms of travel. I am not convinced they result in extra travel necessarily – they often just displace other travel (people will have one big trip a year and that will either be a sporting event or a holiday). In terms of social impacts I think the benefits to local people of these events are often exaggerated. I do have worries that even in developed countries the cost of putting on the events is high with few lasting benefits for local people. In developing countries these impacts tend to be even more negative and can be an expensive distraction. In a time of crisis would you say British and other European tourists allocate more or less thoughts to all of the above issues and to the real impact (environmental, economic, social and political) of their holiday in the sun? Has the crisis made them more selfish perhaps or, on the opposite, more concerned about the common good?

Mark Watson: I actually believe most people want to do the right thing and are interested in these issues. We have been at events, conferences and festivals this year and almost everyone we meet is engaged with what we do. In most cases people want more information on how to travel more ethically and we are currently devising an interactive online map to help people make informed choices about their holidays. It is possible that some of the environmental issues have dropped down peoples list of concerns, but I think a lot of people in the UK are currently experiencing difficult economic times so are sympathetic to the idea of their holiday benefiting local people.

Originally published in

Viaje a la Sostenibilidad