Friday, 25 May 2012

Summit to think about... Has tourism on Everest peaked?

The recent revelation of the number of permits to climb Mount Everest (Chomolungma) this spring, an increase of 28% on last year’s allocation, made me think about the classic question: how do you prevent tourists destroying the very place that attracted them in the first place?

While it took 30 years for the first 150 climbers to reach the summit of Everest, this was exceeded in a single day in May 2010, with 169 climbers making the top, and with them come the problems associated with increased accessibility to the world’s highest mountain.

Its growing reputation as “the world’s highest garbage site” describes what is arguably the most notorious issue; litter from the hundreds of people leaving oxygen tanks, food packaging and tents in their wake. But this is not the only problem affecting the sustainability of ecotourism on Everest, which is part of Sagarmatha National Park UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Successful management of ecotourism is defined as creating a relationship between people, resources and tourism, in which each can contribute positively to the other.

In terms of socio-economic benefits, the permit alone, which allows entry to the Everest area from the south via Nepal, costs between $10,000 and $25,000 per person. There are approximately 2,500 Sherpa people living within the national park, who rely on tourism to make their living and whose cultural heritage is also valued under the park’s UNESCO World Heritage status. Reducing visitor numbers would compromise their livelihoods, but is it right that they should continue to endanger their lives for the increasing number of less experienced climbers attempting to conquer the mountain?

A recent article in The Guardian also brought up concerns over the “overcrowding” of Everest. Every May, several hundred inspired people will try for the summit in one of the weather windows, resulting in dangerous bottlenecks packed with climbers, the reality of which was sadly demonstrated by the death of four climbers in May, raising the question: has the mountain become too accessible?

We are often told to “take only photographs and leave only footprints”, but is that actually one of the problems here? Besides the rubbish left behind by climbers, the degradation caused by increased footfall is also evident, threatening biodiversity as well as the aesthetic value of this area of “stunning natural beauty”, as described by Sir Chris Bonington.

Where to draw the line? Balancing tourism and conservation.

Not everyone believes huge numbers of visitors will be detrimental to Everest: “Unquestionably Nepal wants the money and locals want the money - they want people to come” (George Martin, Indeed, small scale tourism elsewhere has been found to be inappropriate or unsustainable socio-culturally in the wrong circumstances. For example in the Tufi region of Papua New Guinea, inter-clan balance was disrupted when one clan began to profit materially from the operation of traditional-style guest houses. Conflicts intensified further when well-meaning foreign agencies provided the operators with motor boats and other aid. In contrast, large scale tourism may in some circumstances prove sustainable. Some of the major European tour operators, for example, successfully endeavor to ensure that their clients do not contribute to negative socio-cultural and environmental impacts in the destinations that they visit.

Carrying capacities can be raised through appropriate management and some believe that the best strategies are those which concentrate large numbers of visitors in a small area. In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, for example, the 700,000 annual visitors are restricted almost entirely to just 4% of the land. Although limiting visitor numbers by permit undoubtedly prevents wide-spread degradation, concentrated visitation to the prime sites used in ecotourism often still results in an unacceptable level of degradation. The absence of adequate environmental assessments and site audits can lead to “self-destructive ecotourism”.

“The assessment of a particular tourist product as good or bad does not depend on scale, but rather on the effectiveness of the management practices that are applied to the circumstances of each individual destination
(Weaver, 2001)

Monday, 21 May 2012

Iraq - Restoring peace in paradise

It’s a pity that fewer than half the leaders of the Arab League made it to the Summit in Baghdad in March, as they would have found a city transformed.

Masgouf in Baghdad
There as a guest of the Tourism Board of Iraq, I visited Baghdad for the third time in March. It was a different experience to my last visit, when American tanks still sat outside Iraqi ministries and I had to stay in a hotel surrounded by concrete barricades and armed guards. Now it was possible to stay in a small boutique hotel and openly walk along the Corniche to select the perfect fish for my Masgouf.

All the old Baghdad hotels, such as the Mansour, have been upgraded, whilst leading international companies, including Coral and Rotana, are advancing their plans to establish new 5* hotels.

With a renewed relationship between the Tourism Board and Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, there is a new optimism amongst officials, even though the annual number of Western tourists to Baghdad remains below 1,000, with the UK’s Hinterland Travel still leading the way. The more than a million Iranian visitors represent more than 90% of arrivals and they demonstrate that Iraq already has the infrastructure to accommodate many people, especially in the remarkable World Heritage sites, where UNESCO is helping to develop tourism management plans for Babylon and Najaf. Scotland’s Royal Botanic Garden is leading an international team to regenerate the Marshes, reputedly the Garden of Eden, which will in the future become once again a major tourism destination: ‘Paradise Restored’.

Yezidi village in Kurdistan
Meanwhile in the North, the Kurdistan Regional Government is managing to attract many Western visitors. Divan and Rotana have both recently opened world class 5* hotels in Erbil/Hewlêr, although if you want an authentic Kurdish experience, you’d opt for the enchanting Chwarchra Hotel with its famous restaurant just a short stroll from the 10,000 year old Citadel, the restoration of which is also being supported by UNESCO. Elsewhere in the city, the trendy Mamounia Sky Bar at the Noble Hotel is the kind of place you might find in Beirut; surely it won’t be long before Hg2 discovers this city too! Locally run The Other Iraq Tours remains the leading DMC in Kurdistan.

Sinjar/Shingal, the KRG-administered province in the northwest of Iraq is perhaps one of the most exciting prospects for tourism in Iraq. Key to the old Camel Road between Isfahan and Aleppo, it is now almost unknown, but it is stable and a mosaic of civilizations with Yezidi villages and archaeological sites in every corner. It is mountainous and extraordinarily beautiful.

The leaders of the Arab League need to visit Iraq soon – before it is overrun with tourists.

A version of this article also appeared in TTG MENA in May. Read here

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Real Champions of Yemen

Despite the challenges faced by Yemen recently, Dunira Strategy who represent Yemen Tourism Promotion Board (YTPB) in the UK and Ireland, have been working on some exciting projects to help broaden perceptions and share an insight into this mesmerising country. 

An all-star cast including Ewan McGregor, Emily Blunt and Kristin Scott Thomas offer a glimpse into the captivating world of Yemen in the new movie Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. The film was recently released in the UK, following its successful release in the US, where the gross takings stood at more than $4 million. Dunira Strategy has facilitated the production of an advert promoting tourism in Yemen which is being shown in cinemas across the UK throughout the screening of the movie. Viewed by an estimated 75,000 cinema-goers in the first week alone, audiences have been charmed by the rich sights of the country.  

Another initiative which will win the attention of audiences will be the showcasing of Yemen’s seven Olympic athletes in a series of personal portraits, stories and interviews published through a range of social media channels including an interactive blog tracking the athletes’ progress during London 2012. By showcasing the athletes home regions, the development of their career paths, training and ultimately performance at the Olympics we will gain exposure into the diversity of the country and potential that it holds.  

Yemen Tourism Promotion Board Executive Director Fatima al-Huraibi commented: “The last year has been difficult for Yemen. But when we are ready to welcome back our friends in Europe and the rest of the world, letting them know that there is far more to Yemen than the revolution will be key to success. Our involvement in these innovative projects can help us achieve that and they present a great opportunity for Yemen to demonstrate its rich heritage and tourism offer.  Tourism is the industry that can offer perhaps the greatest opportunities for sustainable social and economic development in Yemen.”

Dunira Strategy has experienced continued interest in Yemen as a tourist destination from journalists, the media as well as individuals and groups. Exhibitions such as the Arabian Travel Market, and World Travel Market due to take place in London in November, are essential in helping Yemen educate the industry about its tourism capabilities. 
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