Honourable Ministers, Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is my great pleasure to extend a very warm welcome to all of you. I wish you a most successful meeting and a very pleasant stay in the Maldives. We are particularly happy to host this meeting to coincide with an important national milestone – the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the tourism industry in the Maldives.
Ten years ago, in Rio de Janeiro, 182 nations made a solemn pledge to save the earth. They also agreed on the means for doing so. They called it Agenda 21.
That was indeed a blueprint for sensible living in the 21st century. It recognised an age-old wisdom: that we must treat our planet well. Certainly, the earth is not an inheritance to be wasted. The health of our habitat and the wealth of our planet must be passed on intact to future generations.
Just how to do that was the focus of Agenda 21.
Five years later in New York, when we reviewed that commitment, we emphasized the role of tourism in achieving sustainable development. We recognised that the travel industry was a vital engine of economic and social progress, and that it was also crucial for ecological conservation.
Ecotourism is the best expression of that link.
To us in the Maldives, nature tourism has a particular significance. It is already our main tourism product. Our objective is to become and remain a prime eco-destination.
We are meeting at a time when, as an aftermath of the terrorist attack on the US, world tourism has suffered a serious setback. Although, last year, East Asia and the Pacific achieved a growth of 4 percent, arrivals in South Asia fell by 6 percent. In all cases, terrorism had dealt a severe blow to an industry already affected by a global economic downturn.
A decline in such a vibrant industry is not a question merely of numbers. It is about financial loss, unemployment and social pain. That the recent troubles of the tourism industry are directly related to acts of terror, calculated to cause maximum damage and disruption, shows the importance of the world uniting for peace and development.
Prosperity cannot be achieved without peace. Indeed, terrorism is an evil that can never have any justification. It can lead to political instability, social turmoil and economic disaster. It is indeed a great enemy of peace and security, and freedom and progress, which are values that tourism promotes and depends upon.
I am happy that last December, the United Nations had endorsed the WTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. The Code will be a source of inspiration to all stakeholders of the travel industry to achieve benefit in a sustainable manner. The adherence to such a code will be vital, given the important role that tourism plays in the world economy, and its projected rate of expansion.
Indeed, the growth of tourism in the past three decades has been quite phenomenal. In 1970, international tourists numbered about 180 million. Thirty years later, the figure had reached nearly 700 million. As a result of this rapid and huge increase, tourism has today become the world’s largest industry. Its economic importance is thus enormous. Its social effects are far-reaching. Also, its impact on the environment is extensive. For all these reasons, tourism requires the close and sustained attention of policy-makers, the business-community and civil society.
By 2020, the number of tourists crossing international borders is expected to reach about 1.6 billion. Two out of every nine workers will be employed in travel and tourism. The Asia-Pacific region alone will host 416 million international tourists – more than one-quarter of the worldwide tourist arrivals, and nearly four times as much as the current number of visitors.
In such a scenario of expansion, it would be necessary to ask tough questions about what is sustainable and what is not. Long-term need should not be sacrificed for short-term greed. That could in fact seriously damage the earth and its environment. The challenge ahead of us, therefore, is not only one of developing an economically profitable industry, but also that of doing so in a sustainable manner.
The pitfalls that lie ahead are many. Catering to over 1.6 billion tourists worldwide implies substantial consumption of resources. It will impose enormous strain on the environment. We must keep in mind the extent of the pollution and waste that would be generated by the development of tourism infrastructure, as well as transportation, to cater to such an astronomical figure. Coastal areas, wildlife parks, and other assets of ecotourism could be among the most vulnerable to degradation.
To minimise the adverse effects of the indiscriminate expansion of tourist facilities on the environment, strict observation of the principles of sustainable development will be vital. This calls for careful planning, and managing resources in an economically viable manner, as well as responding to the social demands and the aesthetic needs of the present.
But, more importantly, it requires the protection of cultural values and the conservation of nature. The quality of the air we breathe and of the water we drink, the health of the coral reefs and of the rivers, lakes, seas and oceans, the majesty of mountains, the wonder of rainforests, and, of course, the beauty of landscapes must be preserved. None of these should ever become a silent victim of tourism development.
Indeed, the tourism industry must be enlisted as a benign force for conservation.
Ecotourism is today a rapidly growing segment of the travel industry. The demand to visit, view, absorb and enjoy the exotic and the beautiful locations on earth is high. Such areas are not only natural wonders of the world, but are frequently among the most ecologically vulnerable regions. But the potential for travel and tourism to become a force for reclaiming the natural and cultural legacies of such favourite vacation spots is immense. For, ecotourism promotes environment-friendly technologies and sustainable practices.
Nature tourism has a particular appeal and relevance to the Maldives. We value the natural beauty of our country and the cultural legacy of our nation. We seek not only to showcase the charms that nature has given us, but also to protect our fragile habitat. Tourism for us is by necessity a force for conservation.
The Maldives has been able to develop an industry that has continuously expanded. It has remained profitable, stayed environment-friendly and increased in its added value. The industry has greatly helped national economic growth and has strongly contributed to social development. In fact, tourism has heightened awareness about environmental perils, revived cultural traditions, and promoted friendship with other countries.
The success of tourism in the Maldives has largely depended on the pioneering vision of our versatile entrepreneurs and, equally, on the enterprise of their foreign partners and investors. The input of everyone who has worked in the industry has been vital. Indeed, tourism is a national enterprise. The peace and harmony, and the traditions of hospitality of the people are, no doubt, part of the capital that is invested in the industry.
The partnership between the private sector and the Government has given the industry the space for initiative and the means for sustenance. The role of the Government has been one of planning, facilitating, regulating and monitoring. It has also set up a viable policy framework to integrate tourism into the overall concerns of the economy and the society. Such a role will continue to be needed to meet the challenges of sustainable development of tourism in the years ahead. The second ten-year Tourism Master Plan, now its fifth year of operation, and which has followed the effective implementation of the first ten-year Master Plan, has sustainable development as its central objective.
To us in the Maldives, conservation is not only a route to development, but also to survival. I say this because the beauty of our islands is threatened not so much by the expansion of tourism as by the greenhouse effect caused by the relentless degradation of the global environment.
Global warming and climate change could destroy habitats, particularly coral reefs and all the biological diversity that is hosted by reef systems. Sea-level rise will damage coastal infrastructure, which are often related to tourism. And it is here that the dependence between the travel industry and the environment becomes mutual.
The one cannot indeed survive without the other.
Moreover, like the environment, the forces that destroy or rehabilitate nature tourism do not begin or end at national borders. Ecotourism is mainly transnational. It is about protecting the web of life. And, just as the quality of the environment is indivisible, so is the appeal of ecotourism. Acid rain, oil spills, toxic rivers and contaminated winds can ruin wildlife in countries far away from the source of pollution. Therefore, national and regional initiatives to protect the environment do require international support in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.
Tourism today is more than simply travelling for leisure. Neither is it merely exploring nature, observing wildlife and discovering cultural traditions. Whole communities and national economies rely on it. Indeed, the volume of traffic is so high, and the wealth that it creates is so great, that it is today a powerful force that can influence the future of the entire planet.
Just as tourism is one of the most influential forces of our time, conservation remains one of the most daunting tasks of the present. If we did not make the preservation of the natural habitat a primary objective, civilisation will be imperilled before long. The unplanned expansion of tourism will extensively damage the environment. But, the cause of conservation can have few allies more resourceful than tourism that is properly managed. This is a relationship of mutual dependence that the whole world must build upon.
We are talking about the world’s biggest industry, one that values wildlife, and respects natural beauty. Large numbers of people travel thousands of miles just to see and enjoy what is pristine, pure and rare. If we mobilise these millions of travellers and the millions more who work in the industry, is there any room to doubt that ours would be truly great human endeavour?
Honourable Ministers, Mr. Secretary-General, Distinguished Delegates:
No matter how great an endeavour tourism is, the industry cannot survive where the earth is dying. We all love mother earth, our world, our home.
What is the value of love, if we do not save what we love?
That, I believe, is the ultimate message in observing the International Year of Ecotourism.
That also is the challenge that we have to face, and the promise that we have to redeem.