Tourism can act as a vehicle of dialogue and a dynamic element between populations if it is managed efficiently, with the establishment of agreements between public and private sectors. Education and awareness of host communities about their heritage is also significant when it comes to demonstrating that tourism is a resource of prosperity and understanding rather than a threat.
Tourism is one of the main mechanisms for promoting education and intercultural dialogue. It is an industry that is closely linked to the coexistence of peoples, sustainability and peace, which were the three central themes at the Forum. From this perspective, it is not surprising that tourism was the only economic activity that headed one of the dialogues.
The dialogue on “Tourism, Cultural Diversity and Sustainable Development” was structured in two major blocks in order to link tourism with natural and cultural diversity on the one hand, and with sustainable development on the other. The dialogue was a meeting point for experts, scientists, civil society, international organisations and representatives of private tourism as well as public administrations.
Showing off one’s heritage is one of the most widespread wishes of all communities. However, this wish to open up to discovery by others clashes with the fear of losing cultural features or seeing the natural resources of the area destroyed. In fact, tourist overcrowding and inadequate planning may have disastrous consequences, such as the homogenisation of lifestyles or a reduction in the biodiversity of an area. Apart from that, we should keep in mind that tourists are increasingly seeking unforgettable experiences, which can be offered only by the chosen destination. As Pedro Ruiz, Professor at the University of Córdoba, stated, “Monumentalisation or museumism is being surpassed”. In other words, what attracts visitors is no longer the material side of a community, but rather the socio-cultural heritage of the destination community.
In fact, intangible cultural heritage was the focus of most of the dialogue’s interventions. Several speakers talked about the importance of this type of wealth linked to cultural entities which refers to the lifestyles, expressions, traditions and popular creativity of each nation. We are talking about a significant creative element for the tourist industry. Therefore, aware of just how fragile it is, it is crucial to re-evaluate and preserve this intangible heritage. Responsible and ethical tourist behaviour is absolutely essential in order to guarantee the preservation of cultural diversity; it is also necessary to make the local population aware of such wealth and to set an example when it comes to respecting it. Along these lines, United Nations Special Rapporteur Doudou Diène claimed that tourism brings different groups together which tend to ignore each other and are separated by great inequalities that determine their relationship. “The economic factor weighs too heavily on culture and tourism”, stated Diène. In this sense, the United Nations representative took advantage of the situation to call for a real and profound union of tourism with culture in its ethical, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions, and this goes “far beyond the visible part of the mask”. There is a definite need to promote cultural tourism with the capacity of reaffirming its own culture, which “can be a dynamic force”, according to the Director of the Historian’s Office in the city of Havana, Eusebio Leal. “Tourism, Cultural Diversity and Sustainability” was a platform used for presenting experiences of cities in which, through creativity, tourism has been used to revitalise natural heritage and cultural singularities. In summary, the challenge is for tourism to act as a vehicle to conserve cultural and natural diversity, incorporating the principles of a culture of peace. It was shown that not only can tourism generate wealth and employment; it can also promote education and encourage the preservation of biodiversity and cultural heritage, which are, in fact, the main tourist hotspots. In order to do so, a tourist model is needed that combines competitiveness, natural heritage preservation and the cultural character of the destination. The watch-word is to take advantage of the knowledge and exchange opportunities offered by tourism, while minimising its destructive power. Therefore, in order to obtain excellent results concerning the tourist industry, a new way of thinking is needed. We should give up thinking that the more visitors a city holds the more prosperous the area becomes. Growth does not necessarily mean development; therefore, instead of worrying about the increase in tourist figures being exponential, it is much more rational to value other aspects such as the reduction of environmental impact, host community awareness, or how to translate this increase into a decrease in the local unemployment rate.
In conclusion, a sustainable development of tourism that takes into account economic, environmental and social aspects is needed. However, the term sustainability should be more precise as, “in order for sustainability to be real, it should take into account cultural and economic features”, as the Chair of the dialogue’s advisory committee, Jafar Jafari, stated. This means to broaden the term ‘ecotourism’ by adding to it not only the environment, but also culture, local inhabitants and the economic development of the area at the centre of the tourism policies. This requires a culture of sustainable tourism, that is, a feasible long-term project rather than a society focused on short-term profits. As Jafari explained, “culture is what makes something sustainable or not”. In addition, the sustainability of tourism should be framed in wider policies such as transport or economic policies, while at the same time matching local and regional sustainability strategies. Other aspects, such as community involvement in promoting sustainable tourism and a plan that incorporates the principles of sustainability in company management are also key elements for trying to make the world’s second largest industry sustainable. After all, “no sector is as dependant on sustainability as tourism”, according to Andrés Contreras, the Assistant Director General of Tourist Cooperation and Coordination in the Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Trade.
For a sustainable tourist development plan to be applied to all areas, it is essential that tour operators and the private sector be responsible and reach agreements with cultural agents in order to guarantee the welfare of intangible heritage and biodiversity. As previously mentioned, the authorities should define integrated tourism policies that fit in with local strategies. Governments should also increase the regulation framework. Natural or intangible capital can not be replaced by other forms of wealth, although tourism has to implement compensation policies. Finally, tourism is a transversal activity and, as such, requires the participation of different actors and international cooperation that can be headed by international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In fact, according to the Secretary General of the ILO, Francesco Frangialli, “it is high time we put into practice a world code of tourist ethics”. Frangialli was convinced that this code would be translated into respectful, sustainable and high quality tourism.
Travelling is the greatest human activity and constitutes an exceptional tool for knowledge and interaction between cultures. As the director of the dialogue, Tomás de Azcárate, stressed, “tourism can promote social cohesion and integration”. The principal theme throughout the dialogue was the desire for peaceful coexistence between peoples.
"Tourism, Cultural Diversity and Sustainability” concluded with the recognition of cultural diversity as an essential value that the tourist industry should not only support, but also promote. We need to rethink tourism in order to overcome the dichotomy that leads us to see it as a resource of prosperity but, at the same time, as a threat, advocated the Director of Tourism for the Regional Government of Catalonia, Isabel Galobardes. Along these lines, stronger alliances between culture and tourism should be established, as the loss of distinguishing features of identification by cities or sites would eliminate the reasons for which tourists wish to return.
The debate is expected to be continued at the World Tourist Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development, which will be held in Brazil. The tourism industry can play a vital role in the preservation of the environment and intangible cultural heritage, as well as in the creation of ties and the promotion of a culture of respect and peace. According to the President of the International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT), Louis d’Amore, “Travelling overcomes isolation and fear of the other”. Without diversity, tourism would not exist. It is everybody’s responsibility.