What does tourism mean for culture?

Tourist taking picture at Thingvellir in Iceland

The best way to learn about another country’s culture is, of course, to go to that country and experience it firsthand. That means talking with locals, trying the cuisine, maybe taking in local music or movies, visiting cultural heritage sites, and trying to speak the local language. But what happens when tourism begins to encroach on that culture? Could tourism ever completely envelop culture?

The potential is there in Iceland. We’ve already blogged about the language extinction and how the status of the Icelandic language is currently in danger due to its already low number of speakers and the ever-growing influence of English. Tourism may also be playing a role in changing the language- and culture-landscape of Iceland as well. In 2017, Iceland saw over two million tourists, a significantly higher number than its 335,000. This has led to a strain on the country’s natural and economic resources—though the tourism industry has helped catapult the country’s economy, it has led to higher housing costs, pushing out younger generations and making it harder to rent apartments or purchase homes. A CityLab article notes that “tourist-oriented chains are pushing out long-standing local businesses such as food shops and music venues in the city center, eroding some of the charm that helped to attract visitors in the first place. The number of Airbnb rooms has increased 124 percent in a year, and the residential character of some streets is under threat as vacation rentals proliferate there.”

The sudden surge over the last few years has led to overcrowding on many of the country’s beautiful sites, which is the draw for so many tourists in the first place. An Al Jazeera piece states that “some visitors do not respect the paths or markings, sometimes causing irreversible damage to plant or geological formations of the sites. As a result, markings and signage are being increased at the expense of the pristine character of Icelandic nature.”

Iceland is not the only country seeing its resources strained by the growing influx of tourists. A BBC article recently looked at five other places around the world that were seeing the strain of tourism, and what the governments are or are not doing to help preserve the natural beauty and cultural heritage in those places. These locations include Maya Bay in Thailand, Machu Picchu in Peru, and Caño Cristales in Colombia. The strain of tourism is an issue that every country around the world has the potential to experience.

So what can be done to combat the issues that arise with the growth of tourism? This is where the concepts of sustainable and responsible tourism come into play. The Global Development Research Center describes sustainable tourism as “an industry which attempts to make a low impact on the environment and local culture, while helping to generate income, employment, and the conservation of local ecosystems.” Responsible tourism is considered a branch of sustainable tourism, in that it “that is both ecologically and culturally sensitive.” Responsible tourism consists of active efforts on the part of communities, businesses, governments, and tourists to all do their part in taking care of the environments and cultures which are affected by tourism.

The Convention on Biological Diversity compiled a set of guidelines on biodiversity and tourism development, which includes sixteen goals. These goals include:

  1. Fair and equitable sharing of benefits of tourism activities, with emphasis on the specific needs of the indigenous and local communities concerned;
  2. Poverty reduction, through the generation of sufficient revenues and employment to effectively reduce threats to biodiversity in indigenous and local communities;
  3. Protection of indigenous livelihoods, resources and of access to those resources;
  4. Diversification of economic activities beyond tourism to reduce dependency on tourism;
  5. Prevention of any lasting damage to biological diversity, ecosystems, and natural resources, and of social and cultural damage, and restoration of past damage where appropriate;
  6. Supporting the effective participation and involvement of representatives of indigenous and local communities in the development, operation and monitoring of tourism activities on lands and waters traditionally occupied by them;
  7. Access by indigenous and local communities to infrastructure, transport, communications and healthcare provisions laid on for tourists.

The United Nations Environment Programme discussed one such example of sustainable tourism, in conjunction with these guidelines, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The three countries came to an agreement regarding “transboundary gorillas.” They write: “Respecting the natural habitat of mountain gorillas, this groundbreaking agreement caters for safeguarding everyone’s interests, thus making tourism a great example of environmental peace-building and transboundary collaboration. For many years now, when a gorilla group crosses the border into another country and the new “host” takes tourists to see the gorillas, 50 per cent of this tourism income goes back to the country where the gorillas were originally living.” Not only has the gorilla population increased in this region, but the money that comes from tourists to see these gorillas benefits all of the countries involved, and 10% of tourism revenue goes directly into the local communities. Tourists thus are able to continue to see the natural beauty of eastern and central Africa, while also managing to contribute to local conservation and community-building efforts.

It remains to be seen how exactly Iceland will work on combating the negative effects of tourism, which has overall been a positive effect on its economy. The question is, of course, how do you encourage tourism to continue, but control it at the same time? In the meantime, tourists—to Iceland, and to any destination—can work on being responsible tourists themselves. Here are a few ideas of where to start:

  • Be mindful of the communities you will be entering into. Do research beforehand on each place you will be visiting in order to understand them better.
  • Support local businesses and restaurants.
  • Don’t assume you can get by on English alone: show that you care about the country’s culture by embracing local languages, and learning some key words and phrases.
  • Leave every space as clean as how you left it: don’t litter, and only drive or walk on marked paths.
  • If you are taking part in an organized tour or staying at a hotel, check to make sure these companies engage in responsible, sustainable practices, and work with or support with local communities.