Guest column/Coping with opportunity, challenges of tourism

The phrase “the world is flat” is now part of today’s lexicon.

In an interview given more than a decade ago, journalist and author Thomas L. Friedman, explained how he came up with the idea and wording.

“I was in India interviewing Nandan Nilekani at Infosys. And he said to me, ‘Tom, the playing field is being leveled.’ Indians and Chinese were going to compete for work like never before, and Americans weren’t ready. I kept chewing over that phrase — the playing field is being leveled — and then it hit me: Holy mackerel, the world is becoming flat.”

These words have done much to help explain the forces — evolving technology; easy workflow between and among countries; and readily accessible information — that have created the 21 century’s complex international web of economies and cultures.

One part of the interconnected world that has received too little attention is the ever growing impact of tourism.

Tourism is not a new phenomenon. Two thousand years ago, wealthy Romans escaped the city to spend summer in cooler climates and more peaceful settings. In medieval times, pilgrims sought shrines and holy relics for spiritual salvation. In the 19th centuries, those with money travelled to learn about foreign histories and cultures.

The industrial revolution gave birth to modern tourism. An expanded middle class, more disposable income, and the advent of trains, introduced travel to many who had previously been excluded.

But no one could have foreseen the extraordinary growth of the last 25 years.

The 2017 annual report of the United Nations World Tourism Association sheds light on this.

¯ In 1990 there were 435 million international tourists. In 2016 there were 1.2 billion.

¯ In 1990 international tourists spent $271 million. In 2016 they spent $1.2 trillion.

¯ As worldwide exports, tourism ranks third after chemicals and fuels and ahead of automotive products and food.

A few specifics give a sense of the enormous numbers involved. In 2016, France had 83 million visitors, and the United States and Spain each had 76 million; Hong Kong had 28 million visitors, and London and Singapore each had 17 million.

And there seems to be no end to the growth. Services like Airbnb, Uber and Internet reservation sites make travel simpler and more convenient. The result is that by 2030, it is estimated that there will be 1.8 billion international tourists annually.

This flow of people has both positives and negatives. On the plus side there are contributions to local economies, job creation and broadening understanding of other ways of life. On the minus side there are overtaxed ecosystems, insufficient infrastructure, disruption of local life and dilution of cultures.

A debate is now under way about the impact of tourism and whether costs outweigh the benefits. In cities such as Venice and Barcelona, there have been active protests against unchecked tourism. Some areas, like Machu Picchu and the Galapagos, now enforce various kinds of restrictions. And the nation of Bhutan only accepts tourists who have been granted visas and book their trips through government approved travel agencies.

The flat world presents new opportunities. It also poses challenges. Mushrooming tourism is now part of the complex web of our lives but unchecked, it can become a destructive and dividing force.

If this story is to have a happy ending, we must acknowledge both the pluses and minuses and work to find an acceptable middle ground.

(Budig is the former president of Illinois State and West Virginia universities and former chancellor of the University of Kansas. He was also past president of baseball’s American League. Heaps is a former vice president of the College Board in New York City.)