From Environment to Economy

Travel & Environment Desk
From Environment to EconomyFrom Environment to Economy

Tehran’s Milad Tower hosted the “One Billion Tourists, One Billion Opportunities” conference on Monday to celebrate World Tourism Day.

The confab brought together renowned experts to discuss Iran’s place in the global tourism sector and how it can capitalize on the growing industry to revitalize its stagnant economy.

As previously reported by Financial Tribune, the organizers aimed to sensitize the public toward tourism and its impact on the environment.

Esmaeil Kahrom, an outspoken ecologist and top advisor to the Department of Environment chief, Massoumeh Ebtekar, delivered a brief yet rousing speech as one of the panelists.

  Tourism and Conservation

According to Professor Ralf Buckley of Australia’s Griffith University, tourism, if used right, can have an enormous impact on the success of conservation programs.

Due to health problems, he was unable to attend the conference and sent a tape of his keynote address.

Prof. Buckley said tourism can contribute to conservation by changing land use or tenure, for instance from forests and farmlands to conservation areas or national parks; by changing the legal conditions of land use through covenants; or by simply changing the purpose of the land without altering its legal status because landowners decide “they can make more money out of it”.

“Tourism can raise money for conservation agencies and may even influence environmental and conservation laws to secure more budget for national parks,” Buckley said, but warned against copying successful models from other countries due to cultural differences.

He said economic and cultural differences between states means successful models have to be adapted to bear results.

Buckley pointed to a recent study that compared the revenue generated for national parks through tourism between developed and developing nations.

“In developed states, the money raised from visitor fees fails to cover the costs of infrastructure and management (less than 10% of total costs), so recreational activities are heavily subsidized. Yet, in developing countries, the fees cover nearly 90% of the costs, making ecotourism ideal for Iran,” he said.

 Benefits of Ecotourism

Zahra Qelichipour, an assistant professor at Hakim Sabzevari University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, echoed Buckley’s sentiments, noting that ecotourism is not a new concept in Iran, “but has only recently started to be taken seriously”.

She said developing ecotourism not only saves the environment, but also creates jobs for local communities and boosts the economy.

Qelichipour reasoned that locals tend to inflict the most damage on the environment when they change unspoiled landscapes into farmlands to generate income.

“A well-planned tourism model can generate more revenue for the locals, which dissuades them from having to resort to harming the environment to make a living,” she said.

“Ecotourism can instill a sense of responsibility in the locals when they realize the unspoiled environment they live in is a great source of income.

Qelichipour pointed to the “get-rich-quick mentality” of Iranians and said because tourism is a lucrative industry, policymakers are rushing to capitalize on it.

“Without careful planning, we risk promoting unsustainable tourism,” she warned.

  Culturally Obtuse

Moayyed Hosseini Sadr, member of the parliamentary faction on environmental issues and a panelist at the conference, took a swipe at the vice president for tourism, Masoud Soltanifar, for leaving the conference immediately after delivering his speech, before even the first keynote speaker addressed the gathering.

“It’s a mistake that even I sometimes make; we leave right after we do our part and don’t listen to what others have to say,” he said.

Sadr urged experts to keep in touch with his parliamentary faction and said the faction is ready to support sustainable plans that develop tourism without harming the environment.

However, Kahrom rejected any notion of sustainable tourism, claiming that Iranians are “culturally obtuse” and cannot look after the environment.

He urged journalists to write about how Iranians have lost “the culture of tourism” and added, “That’s why we do not dare talk about our hidden natural gems, lest tourists trample everything in sight and turn the area into a landfill.”

Referring to the Miankaleh Biosphere Reserve in Mazandaran Province, which has become a point of contention between environmentalists and tourism officials in recent years, Kahrom said the moment the floodgates of tourism open, the region will be lost forever.

“We have to reinvent the wheel; have to teach people not to litter, remind them of the importance of nature. And it is up to academics and students to instill an environmentally-friendly attitude in people before we can even talk about ecotourism,” he said.

  Economic Benefits

Professor Mohammad Taqi Rahnamaei of Allameh Tabatabaei University urged city officials to pay attention to tourism in urban planning.

“The fact that so many historical structures in cities are in a state of disrepair is because tourism has been neglected,” he said.

Rahnamaei said developing urban tourism leads to “tourist redistribution”, meaning that tourists who visit hotspots such as Mashhad and Isfahan are encouraged to visit surrounding cities.

This, he said, helps take pressure off metropolises struggling with accommodation and traffic by spreading tourists across a larger area, which in turn helps jumpstart the local economy.

The academic questioned official claims that Iran “is a top 10 country in terms of tourism potential” and challenged them to cite references or refrain from making such statements.

Rahnamaei said environmentalism and tourism are people-driven concepts, hence laws and regulations have no effect on them unless people start to care.

Afsaneh Shafiei, an economist at the Institute for Trade Studies and Research at the Ministry of Industries, Mines and Trade, warned against Iran’s overreliance on its oil and gas reserves as well as its industrial exports.

“Assuming the western-imposed sanctions are lifted soon, a number of things need to happen before we can begin exporting the same amount of oil we used to export prior to the sanctions regime,” she said.

The expert said it takes at least 12 months and a minimum of $130 billion in investments just to be able to produce that amount of oil.

Citing World Bank analyses, Shafiei said once Iran returns to the international energy market, its oil exports will result in a 14% drop in prices.

“So it is a mistake to think oil is going to be our economy’s driving force,” she said.

Shafiei said as it is a labor-intensive industry and given its low level of import contents, tourism is the obvious replacement for oil.

“Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world,” she said. “Directly and indirectly, every inbound tourist helps create nine jobs.”

  Driver of Peace

Griffith University’s David Weaver, a professor of tourism research, stressed the importance of tourism to world peace.

He pointed to the Triple Bottom Line approach—three pillars of sustainability: natural heritage, as well as economic and social issues—adhered to by proponents of sustainable tourism and emphasized that for it to work on a global scale, it needs a fourth pillar: geopolitical sustainability.

Weaver said to move toward a sustainable tourism industry, “we have to talk to each other as cultures and as people. Every country has to do this, which puts sustainable tourism in the realm of the geopolitical, but unfortunately that’s not properly accommodated in contemporary discourses of sustainable tourism.”

He lamented the lack of literature on relationship between peace and tourism, and said tourism can be both a beneficiary and a generator of world peace.

Referring to “citizen diplomacy”, when travelers have one-on-one contact, Weaver said tourists serve in an unofficial capacity as ambassadors of peace.

Weaver said through citizen diplomacy, barriers can be broken down that paves the way for constructive dialogue between states.

The conference offered the audience a rare glimpse into the academic world of tourism, where statements are backed up by hard facts and conclusive research.

Most attendees were academics, journalists and students. Hopefully, more officials will attend similar gatherings in future and listen to what experts have to say.