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Respect for people and nature

27 September 2005

"Respect for people and nature" is the central message of the World Council of Churches (WCC) for this year's World Tourism Day.

Every year on 27 September, the World Tourism Organization observes World Tourism Day with special events organised by governments and civil society groups around the world. Many church groups continue to mark the day with activities which demonstrate their concerns about contemporary patterns of tourism. They will point to the fact that the theme of the World Tourism Day in 2005, "Travel and transport: from the imaginary of Jules Verne to the reality of the 21st century", tends to hide the real impact of tourism on people and nature in tourism destinations.

The WCC commends the pioneering and cutting edge work of the Ecumenical Coalition on Tourism (ECOT) and outstanding church-related initiatives located in every region of the world. Underlining the social and ecological dimensions of tourism, they observe that tourism, while being a potent force for good, has sadly turned into an activity that leaves in its trail massive numbers of victims.

Travel can genuinely enrich peoples' lives in encounters that safeguard the dignity of every person, respect multiple cultural identities, protect and promote the earth's integrity and thus make tourism a way forward for global understanding, harmony among people and between people and nature. Understood in such a way, tourism can contribute to peace and justice in the world, help to overcome patterns of hatred and violence, and strengthen respect for the wonders of nature.

As an important economic activity, however, the benefits and burdens of tourism are very unequally shared. In "receiving countries", mostly situated in the developing world, patterns of tourism have shown that the benefits of tourism bypass the local populations. Yet, it is also argued that tourism can help to make poverty history. The everyday experience of grinding poverty, however, is growing in the very destinations where tourism is developing rapidly.

The tourism industry is dominated by a small number of enterprises focusing on high returns. Compared to their profits, only very small amounts of money stay in the local tourism destinations where even people are often reduced to mere tools of the leisure-seeking rich. ECOT has shared stories showing how millions of women and children are abused, cultures denigrated and exploited, and workers underpaid.

ECOT deplores that nature and wild life are converted into commodities for consumption. Seas and rivers are often the victims of mega-tourism activities and enterprises that disregard the most elementary environmental standards while they callously throw wastes into the seas, dump garbage from cruise ships, and leave coastal communities to fend for themselves when all the damage has been done. In such forms mass tourism follows the pattern of colonial and imperial domination and destruction.

For all these reasons, issues of tourism are a matter of acute concern for churches around the world. It has been so since the 1960s. Yet, the complex, multiple and wide-reaching social, economic, cultural and environmental fall-out of tourism must compel churches to be even more alert and responsive, and with a far greater sense of urgency and intensity than ever before. Denial of human dignity, unjust distribution of the benefits and disregard of environmental sustainability are sources of violence and destruction.

We are midway through the Decade to Overcome Violence (DOV) and member churches of the WCC have embraced the spirit and intent of this initiative. For all engaged in the DOV, it must be a strategic choice to recognise the dehumanising and violent aspects of tourism, especially in relation to women, children, marginalised communities, cultures, and the environment. This, in turn, requires churches to be part of the ongoing processes and wider movements which are involved in questioning and resisting the negative consequences of commercial tourism.

Nine months after the tsunami, just when the tourism season starts in the affected regions, there is another very serious issue at stake that needs our attention. Despite the many tall claims about reconstruction, and the millions of dollars being poured into tsunami aid, for too many people little has changed. Tens of thousands of people see little hope in their lives.

A lesson to be learned from the tsunami is that much of the impact of the tsunami could have been averted if only the tourism industry along the coastal belts of the affected countries had been environmentally responsible. The violence of tourism against nature, as can be witnessed in the destruction of mangroves, sand dunes, coral reefs, and coconut plantations, are all factors that contributed to the death of tens of thousands and the destruction of entire community resources.

Natural disasters reflect the imbalance in the relationship between people and nature. Churches have now the obligation to monitor what the tourism industry does in the post-tsunami reconstruction processes. This becomes even more crucial in the wake of reports of the haste with which tourists are lured back to these already fragile eco-systems without any corrective ecological checks and balances being put in place.

Peace, Justice and the Care for Creation are central to the work of churches everywhere. So are hospitality for the stranger and those who travel - as in many traditional cultures and also other religions around the world. Churches have to pay attention to how tourism happens and how the tourism industry maintains and enhances the ecological balance and assumes its social and cultural responsibility as expressions of the basic care for the dignity of human life and the integrity of creation.

These are the values which guide the churches in their development activities and advocacy. For us as Christians, there are lessons to be learned. History will ask us if we were willing to learn them. The criteria for the judgement of the nations according to the Gospel will be "as much as you did to one of the least of these" (Matthew 25:40). Let us take action - now.

Rev. Dr Samuel Kobia
WCC General Secretary