Zanzibar needs to master sustainable tourism (Tscherno)
List Words : Various contributors | 17 February

Threatened wonders 2009

Here we highlight six iconic locations in need of urgent care

1. Zanzibar, Tanzania

Tanzania’s lyrical spice isles need to master sustainable tourism – fast

What’s the problem?

Lured by white sands and the white city of Stone Town, travellers have flocked to Zanzibar in recent years.

Visits have quadrupled from around 50,000 a year in the mid-90s to over 200,000 today. The pace of change has led to poorly controlled building developments (particularly along the backpacker-dominated ‘Nungwi strip’ in the north), and huge pressure on a limited water supply. More insidiously, the culture of this conservative Muslim island is threatened as bikini-clad Westerners start wandering off the sand and into traditional village settings.

What’s the solution?

Stopping tourism doesn’t work. As one of the island’s main revenue sources this would simply exacerbate poverty. Good governance is the fundamental solution – and badly needed.

For visitors, the best advice is to make sure the places you visit are as responsible as possible. Ask questions of your tour operator; go elsewhere if they don’t have credible answers.

The best small, low-impact lodges are real eco-trailblazers, such as Chumbe Island and Chole Mjini, on nearby (and less-visited) Mafia Island. Even if you’re not staying at one of these, seek out the smaller, community-focused places and ask about their ownership and environmental credentials.

Take day-trips with responsible operators, such as NGO-based Eco & Culture, and understand the cultural sensitivities before you arrive. Keep beachwear for beaches and cover up in town – it’s respectful, and you’ll get a better reception from the local people too. Finally, don’t waste water; it’s a precious commodity here.

Chris McIntyre, co-author of Bradt’s Zanzibar and MD of tour operator Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com)

2. Omo Valley, Ethiopia

The culture of the Omo Valley is being eroded by the increasing popularity of ‘tribal tourism’

What’s the problem?

Home to numerous tribal groups including the warlike Nyangatom (who hosted Bruce Parry for the BBC’s Tribe), Ethiopia’s remote Omo Valley has resisted outside influences until relatively recently. However, an increase in tourism is threatening the traditional way of life here.

Brian Blatt, author of the forthcoming Bradt guidebook to Ethiopia explains: “In 2004 I spent a month in Omo independently and had a wonderful adventure. Things were not perfect then, but the changes I saw in 2008 were very disturbing. The Omo experience has become so commercialised and artificial. There are certainly some areas that are relatively untouched but for the most part the damage has been done.”

What’s the solution?

Travellers shouldn’t necessarily steer clear of the area. “The Omo Valley is not completely cut off from the outside world and change is inevitable,” says Natasha Owen from tour operator Exodus. “As tourists we shouldn’t strive to hold back a region’s development simply to maintain a ‘tourist attraction’, but we should help to protect the culture and help them to build a better infrastructure at a pace that the villagers want and can cope with.”

Choose a tour operator wisely and question their ethics before you book. The best trips are those with infrequent departure dates and small groups. You should check that your trip includes a local guide who can speak the language and that two-way interaction only occurs on the villagers’ terms.

Finally, try to head to the less-visited tribes. According to Mette Steen, tour manager for Wild Frontiers, “a major part of the problem is that organised tours tend to visit the same villages” – she advocates trips west of the Omo River, to the Omo National Park and Surma areas. Ultimately though, she says, visitors have to accept change. “A Hamer man can still be Hamer even if he wears a Barcelona football shirt.”

Anna Webber, Assistant Editor

3. Venice, Italy

The world’s most romantic city is flooding – and not just with Adriatic seawater

What’s the problem?

Climate change, cruise tourism, budget flights, threatened heritage – Venice is on the frontline of travel’s most pressing issues. Warnings have focused on sinking foundations and rising sea levels – last month St Mark’s Square was under the highest tides for two decades – but many now consider the 20 million-plus annual visitors an even more pressing concern.

“A quarter of a million people – most only there for the day – can throng Venice on a summer weekend,” says John Julius Norwich, Chairman Emeritus of World Monuments Fund Britain. “The problem has recently become still more serious owing to the dramatic increase in the size and number of cruise ships – leviathans carrying 5,000 passengers or more. These passengers spend virtually no money ashore; they’re accepted only for the huge harbour dues the shipping lines pay.”

What’s the solution?

An elaborate floating flood barrier is slated to be operational by 2012, helping to minimise water damage. For travellers wanting to reduce their impact, the key is time and respect. “We should impose strict limits on cruise visits,” says Norwich. “I’d also ban all bus tours that arrive and leave on the same day and insist on a minimum three-day stay for every visitor.”

Ian Evans of Art History Abroad – and Wanderlust-award-winning guide – agrees. “Stay in a Venetian hotel for several nights, buy food at local cafés and don’t feed the pigeons – they’re a menace to the buildings.”

A longer stay also allows you to explore beyond the throngs of Piazza San Marco: for example, few visitors go to the church of San Giovanni in Bragora, where Vivaldi was baptised – just ten minutes’ walk from St Mark’s. 

Dan Linstead, Editor

4. Kashgar, China



The ancient Silk Road trading town no longer feels as different as it did

What’s the problem?

This fabled old Silk Road oasis city is losing its identity and fast becoming a playground for Chinese and Western tourists. What was once a chaotic, colourful bazaar in a dusty field on the edge of town has been moved into a covered market and turned into a sanitised tourist attraction.

The livestock market where Kazakh and Uygur traders haggle over horses and sheep is now one giant photo opportunity.

Worst of all, the Uygur culture – a nomadic, Turkic-speaking, Islamic people from Central Asia – is in danger of being overwhelmed as tourism achieves what decades of political suppression has failed to do. The Chinese are travelling in greater numbers than ever and across the country, from Xinjiang to Tibet, local cultures are being marginalised as temples, mosques and villages are given the theme park treatment and turned into tacky, commercialised ‘scenic spots’. The ancient Uygur city at the heart of Kashgar is surrounded by six-lane highways and it is starting to resemble any other Chinese city.

What’s the solution?

Go now while the Uygur population is still a majority. Instead of just flying in for the Sunday bazaar, stay a few days, giving you time to get to know the city. Ignore the ‘Kashgar Old City Scenic Spot’ and instead wander the souq-like lanes of the old town, where veiled women sit outside mud-brick houses and old men with beards and prayer caps bake nan bread in clay ovens on the street.

If you can, go during Ramadan (from 21 August 2009), when the streets burst into life with music at dusk and everyone gathers at the night market by the main mosque to eat mutton, noodles and dumplings.

Tony Kelly, travel writer

5. Ranthambore NP, India



Rajasthan’s stunning tiger reserve epitomises a national crisis, not helped by poorly managed tourism

What’s the problem?

Thanks to its prized pelt and fetishised bones, India’s wildlife icon, the tiger, has been poached to the brink of extinction. The latest census estimates only about 1,400 remain in the wild (down from over 3,600 a mere five years ago), and some conservationists believe better-managed tourism is a key hope for their survival.

“Empirical evidence suggests that within tourism zones of parks – often only 25% of the park – tigers are most secure, prey is most numerous and breeding is healthiest,” says Julian Matthews, founder of pressure group Travel Operators for Tigers (TOFT). “Tourism is a safeguard from poachers, cattlemen and woodchoppers; it creates jobs where few existed; attracts more funding; gets visits from politicians.”

The problem is the way tourism is managed. “Tigers are hunted around parks such as Ranthambhore – the country’s best-known reserve – by convoys of ‘gypsy’ vehicles, carrying a human cargo that cares little about anything except catching a glimpse of the world’s favourite animal,” says Matthews. With visitor numbers at Ranthambore rising by 20% annually, the result is an increasingly poor wildlife-watching experience: a crush of vehicles whenever one of the park’s 20-odd tigers is spotted; a thriving black market for limited seats; and little money being spent on conservation or local communities.

What’s the solution?

Splitting Ranthambore into a number of zones is one answer, with the bulk of day-trippers paying a low fee for one zone, while serious photographers and enthusiasts pay a premium for a true wilderness encounter. If channelled appropriately, the park proceeds would pay for improved conservation, better guiding and funding new reserves – directly improving the tiger’s chances of survival.

Until then the options for tiger-spotters are simple: visit a less-congested park (such as Madhya Pradesh’s Satpura) and/or book through a TOFT member, all of which have signed up to a code of conduct.

Dan Linstead, editor

6. Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt



Mass-market tourism is turning Egypt’s Sinai peninsula into an environmental disaster zone and sidelining the local Bedouin

What’s the problem?

Two million visitors descend each year on Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of Sinai, for the climate and the diving. No infrastructure existed before the resort’s development, and everything – from food and souvenirs to manpower and building materials – is brought in from elsewhere. It has 90,000 beds; a further 90,000 are planned, most in ever-larger hotels. Developers also hope to build 50 hotels in the hitherto low-rise, laid-back town of Dahab, an hour up the coast.

According to Dr Xavier Font from the International Centre for Responsible Tourism at Leeds Metropolitan University (www.icrtourism.org), “Sharm produces ten times the amount of waste as elsewhere: everything is brought in, and therefore packaged.

“Rubbish goes to landfill and the wind blows it back out. Hotels vary in terms of waste, recycling and water consumption. The best are foreign-owned and managed; second are those managed by internationals and owned by Egyptians; worst are Egyptian-owned, Egyptian-run. I wish it was the other way round.”

Hotels are mostly staffed by men from Cairo. “We estimate that at the most £3 in every £100 spent by each holidaymaker stays in the district,” says Dr Font.

Half of visitors are from Western Europe, with former Soviet countries making up a quarter. According to Dr Font, the Austrians and Swiss are leaving, but the British market is expanding.

What’s the solution?

Efforts are underway to expand responsible tourism in Sinai, and the main message is to avoid Sharm el-Sheikh and instead head further up the coast or to the interior.

“If you go to Dahab, Nuweiba and St Catherine’s you can stay with local people or at eco-lodges managed by local sheikhs, and see how the Bedouin live,” says Dr Font.

For over a decade a cooperative of 300 Bedouin women, Fansina (www.fansina.net/english.html), has been making handicrafts, for sale across Sinai. More recently a programme, funded by a group of tour operators, is training 350 Bedouin to be desert and snorkelling guides and local travel agents.

Yolanda Carslaw, travel writer