Tourism and people

Posted: 10 June 2008

Tourism is said to be the world's largest employer. It plays a crucial role in world economics and has a significant impact on many people's lives - but this economic impact has been relatively little studied. It is also hard to quantify less tangible impacts such as the effects of tourism on local cultures. These impacts can be both positive and negative. For example, in many countries of the South, a culture of beach boys has developed which is in stark contrast to their own traditions and customs and this in turn creates conflict in their societies. On the positive side, tourism can encourage pride in local traditions and support local arts and crafts. Tourism brings income to the local communities and supports employment. It can, however, also cause price hikes, especially in land and food, which may be disproportionate to the earnings of the local people.

Displacement: Local communities are sometimes forced off their land for tourism development. Pastoralist groups such as the Maasai and Samburu in East Africa are amongst the worst cases of displacement from lands that they inhabited for centuries. This is due to conservation and tourism policies which have favoured safari tourism above the needs of the local people. The effects have been devastating, further fuelled by the drought in 2007 when the Maasai’s livelihoods were destroyed because they were not allowed to use pastoral land next to the reserves for fear of being an eyesore to the tourists.

Tourist inside a Maasai cultural manyatta village© Adrian Arbib/Still Pictures
Tourist inside a Maasai cultural manyatta village© Adrian Arbib/Still Pictures
Tourist inside a Maasai cultural manyatta village© Adrian Arbib/Still Pictures
  • 2004 saw the forced displacement of hundreds of indigenous people from the inner states of India, in Chhattisgarh, due to government plans to bring tourism to the area through the development of a national park.
  • 2004 also saw the tsunami which was the biggest natural disaster in modern history and deeply affected the lives and livelihoods of coastal communities in Asian countries. In India and Sri Lanka, people even now remain displaced from their land and livelihoods because of planned strategic developments mainly for tourism, from which they have been excluded and marginalized. Living in temporary shelters which can barely withstand heavy monsoon rains, these people are still waiting to be rehoused in proper homes (see Tourism Concern for more information).
  • Statements by the Chinese government and estimates by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE ) show that 1.25 million people have already been displaced as a result of Olympic related urban development. Though Beijing has seen a lot of improvement infrastructurally for the masses of tourists who are expected to come, it is estimated that a total of 1.5 million people will be displaced by the time the games are underway.
  • In 2006, 1.5 million visitors travelled to Cambodia to see the Angkor Wat temples. There has been a definitive boom in tourism in the country but at the cost of the local people with outside investors and developers taking over their land for tourism purposes. In July 2007, "the forests, lakes, beaches and reefs - and the lives of thousand’s of residents - were quietly transferred into the hands of private western developers". People were jailed, thrown out, or displaced without any compensation. Unfortunately, disregard for the poor continues while massive development costing millions of dollars is taking place on the other hand (see article in The Guardian for more information).
Child labour: The International Labour Organisation estimates that between 13 and 19 million children under the age of 18 work in tourism. This amounts to between 10-15 per cent of the total worldwide tourism labour force.

Handicrafts: Handicrafts offer an important avenue for women, the poor and indigenous communities to earn income from tourism. According to research, in Lalibela, the main cultural site visited by 90% of the tourists in Ethiopia, craft sellers earn only 1% of tourist revenue due to a variety of reasons including limited sales outlets, limited variety of handicrafts, difficulty in using credit cards etc. On the other hand, In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, crafts are the second most important sub-chain, generating around $1.8 million in semi-skilled and unskilled earnings per year (Pro-Poor Tourism).

Economic dependence of the local community: Many countries are heavily dependent on the tourism sector to improve their economies but an overdependence on tourism for economic survival might actually put a terrible strain on the industry. In countries like Gambia, 30 per cent of the workforce depends directly or indirectly on tourism. In small island developing states, percentages can range from 83 per cent in the Maldives to 21 per cent in the Seychelles and 34 per cent in Jamaica. (UNEP report)

Sex tourism: A recent publication by ECPAT states that even in countries like Colombia which are not really associated with tourism, child sex tourism exists, with estimates of at least 20,000-35,000 victims of commercial sexual exploitation. An estimate in 2006 by Cambodia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, states that approximately 30,000 children are forced into prostitution in Cambodia. In 1998 ECPAT Sweden initiated the development of a Tour Operators Code of Conduct against child sex tourism for the tourism industry. and over the years action has taken place in other countries of the world. Working conditions

According to the industry group World Travel and Tourism Council, the tourism industry is estimated to generate 1 in every 12.8 jobs or 7.8 per cent of the total workforce. This percentage is expected to rise to 8.6 per cent by 2012 which would mean that tourism is also the world’s largest employer, accounting for more than 255 million jobs, or 10.7 per cent of the global labour force (WTTC 2002).

  • Research gathered in seven different popular destinations by the International Travel and Tourism Research team led by Tourism Concern confirm that concern for job security, low wages with an overdependence on tips and service charge, long hours and unpaid overtime are consistent across numerous destinations (Report: Labour standards, Social responsibility and Tourism)
  • Tour Operators have a responsibility to ensure their business practice does not add to the deterioration of the working and living conditions in the tourism destination. A group of European tour operators joined forces in 2000 to create the Tour Operators™ Initiative for Sustainable Tourism Development and have committed themselves to integrate sustainable development to their business practices. They have developed performance indicators to enable their membership to report on economic, environment and social issues.
  • Trekking porters in Nepal, a country which in the past has heavily relied on income generated from trekking, typically earn £2-3 a day. Most of the estimated 100,000 porters in the country are employed on a casual basis. Porters die every year due to the effects of altitude and inadequate clothing. In a study of Nepalese porters, 45 per cent had experienced medical problems on treks. Groups such as Tourism Concern campaign for better conditions for porters. The campaign group Inka Porter Project fighting for porter rights working on the Inca trail, have managed to improve their conditions and wages over the years. Organisations such as Leap Local provide a system of reviewing and recommending local guides in the destination country so that tourists and native communities can come together and the locals benefit.The International Porter Protection Group ( and Tourism Concern ( campaign for better conditions for porters.


'Financial leakages in tourism occur when revenues arising from tourism-related economic activities in destination countries are not available for (re-) investment or consumption of goods and services in the same countries.' There are hidden costs to tourism which can have negative economic impacts on the destination country and often the poorer countries are least able to realise the positive effects of tourism. This is due to ‘leakage’. According to current statistics assembled by UNCTAD, leakages in the tourism sector total upto 85 per cent in some African least developed countries, more than 80 per cent in the Caribbean, 70 percent in Thailand and 40 per cent in India (Third World Resurgence)

  • According to a UNEP a study of tourism 'leakage' in Thailand estimated that 70 per cent of all money spent by tourists ended up leaving Thailand (via foreign-owned tour operators, airlines, hotels, imported drinks and food, etc). Estimates for other least developed countries range from 80 percent in the Caribbean to 40 per cent in India.
  • Two-thirds of the income from tourism in the Mediterranean - the world's largest tourist destination - returned to less than 10 tour operators from northern Europe. (WWF)
  • According to research, most tourists to The Gambia are Europeans buying a package holiday but little of this directly reaches the poor. Between 20 and 35 per cent of the package accrues to hoteliers and the rest to ground handlers, tour operators, airlines etc (
Tourism and gender

Globally, 46 per cent of the tourism workforce are women, compared to an average of 34-40 per cent for the world's workforce as a whole. On average, women working in tourism earn 79 per cent of what men earn, and work 89 per cent of the hours men work - i.e. they are paid less and are more likely to be part-time. Women are much less likely than men to be found in managerial positions and tend to be found in the hotel, catering and restaurant sectors. (Gender & Tourism: Women's Employment and Participation in Tourism, UNED-UK Project Report, 1999).

  • The tourism industry in Barbados has played a crucial role in the economy, expanding opportunities for women and helping considerably in reducing poverty levels. Data from the Barbados Statistical Service informs that in 2004, of a total labour force of 12,200 persons employed directly in tourism, women comprise 59 per cent compared to 40.1 per cent men (Case study from Gender and Trade)
  • In the 1970s and 80s Sai Kung, the second largest administrative district in Hong Kong, was transformed from a fishing village to a centre for tourism and this had a great influence on the women of the fishing communities. Many found opportunities owning and operating small boats catering to tourists, while others in the restaurant trade, and still others in the retail business which gained an impetus due to the increasing tourists (

This section was compiled by Junie Wadhawan from Tourism Concern.