Better Vacationing

Van Long Reserve, Ninh Binh Province, Vietnam

Today it was announced that South Korea will host a new sustainable tourism-eliminating poverty (ST-EP) body of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, with forty member states to begin with.

Such an organization is sorely needed. As I travel around Southeast Asia, I see every sort of tourism, from well managed World Heritage sites like Hoi An, to chaotic free-for-alls like Bagan and Vang Vieng, and everything in between. Today I went on a ride in a cement-lined rowboat — seriously — pushed along by a woman who’s lucky if she gets a passenger once every three weeks, because there are too many rowers and not enough tourists at the Van Long Reserve, and because the government hasn’t provided these rowers with the lighter, more durable, more expensive metal boats that they gave to the women down in the more popular Trang An. (In Trang An, though, there are a thousand boats, so the rowers wait just about as long for a turn at some business.) In theory, these rowing jobs are an improvement over the rice farming everyone used to do before the land got turned into tourist reserves, but I’m not sure it quite works out that way.

A new UN body will not fix all of the problems of unsustainable tourism, from overdevelopment to displacement to environmental degradation. But a UN body can set norms, make recommendations, track progress, set benchmarks. It can give sustainable, poverty-eliminating tourism a focal point and become a clearinghouse of information for travelers and governments and developers. It’s a good step (sorry) in the right direction.