A few years ago, when I was in Bagan (Myanmar), a little boy tried selling me postcards. Only that this little boy, with unkempt hair like loose straw streaked across his face, was peddling doodles of his own, unlike postcards and trinkets peddled by hundreds of other little children at the same monument. Myanmar is poor, so child labour is as common as international tourists.

From waitressing at restaurants to hawking knick-knacks across tourist attractions, children can be found in various places working hard to make money, perhaps so their families don’t starve. Child labour is prevalent in Myanmar’s booming construction industry, and a study by the United Nations says that a third of the country’s children have jobs.

The doodles were nothing to speak of, and it was clear to me that he wasn’t a budding artist. There were crude stick figures and pastoral scenes — the figures were squatting in front of huts, absorbed in domestic chores, with an irregular circle of sun in the background. Something about his situation broke my heart a little. Needless to say, I bought the work of this crafty entrepreneur, who wanted to get by with the limited resources available to him.

The UN declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, but one question remained unanswered — the role booming tourism business plays in eradicating poverty. Tourism is on the rise all over the world, as world population grows, and the next batch of millennials starts exploring the world. India recorded a staggering 10 million foreign tourist arrivals at the end of last year.


 

How much of the tourism buck really trickles down to the local economy? To know some answers, professors at the Sustainable Tourism Department of the Griffith Institute for Tourism developed a dashboard, with their colleagues in other universities in Australia and the UK, to track tourism’s performance in terms of sustainability. “The number one sustainable development goal is poverty alleviation. Tourism has long been recognised as a vehicle to alleviate poverty,” says Professor Susanne Becken at the Griffith Institute. What emerged wasn’t a positive picture.

“Mainly, the dashboard shows, global tourism is an economic exchange between rich countries. Citizens of 10 nations, most of them in Europe and North America, make about half of all international travel. China, which in 1995 was not a member of this frequent flyer club, broke into the top 10 in 2000,” writes Becken in the academic website, The Conversation.

An average tourist’s responsibility today is hence greater than before, especially travelling to economically backward countries. Even as you are saddled by the additional responsibility of spending locally, environmental consciousness is another area to pay attention to. “A major concern, as part of the sustainable goals, is carbon emission and climate change. Tourism contributes about 5% of global emissions. And half of that is due to aviation. Even though the aviation industry is trying to improve efficiency, the growth rate is just too big,” adds Becken.

Speaking of which, the alternative to fast and cost-effective air travel that leaves streaks of fuel emission fumes across the sky is often time-consuming train/road travel. But who’s not willing to save some bucks or get somewhere quickly? It’s a dilemma as old as time itself. Economy takes precedence over environmental ethics. Even the generous-hearted philanthropist among us is swayed by it. But we try. Like the boy in rural Myanmar, peddling home-drawn doodles and hoping against hope that he can charm a tourist into buying it. It works too.

The writer is an independent journalist who lives in Stuttgart, Germany, and often writes stories that intersect food and travel.

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