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Sustainability? The Unbalanced Pursuit of Balance

I have participated in more sustainable-tourism conferences than is probably healthy for any human being.  I have learned that sustainable-tourism discussions seem to demand a high tolerance for acronyms and eco-gibberish and an unflinching faith in tourism’s ability to distinguish between using nature or culture and abusing natural and cultural assets for economic benefit.  The trick is, of course, the line between use and abuse is very much in the eye of the beholder. There are members of the tourism community who are convinced that creating one dead-end service job is worth more than one acre of mangrove.   I have been impressed by how many speakers pitch the audience on the need for balance as if there were widespread agreement within the industry as to what balance means.

At first, calls for balance confused me. If tourism is on a collision course with nature and culture, is balance really the best response? Advocating for moderate course corrections is easier to sell to skeptical audiences, but what exactly are we balancing? Authenticity vs. Disney sensibilities? Turtle nesting beaches vs. tourist basking beaches? Locally owned and operated fish fry huts vs. fast food corporations? Shameless profiteering vs. self-righteous turtle hugging?

A "balanced" beach with just the right amount of tourist trash in Eleuthera, Bahamas. Photo: Andy Dumaine.
A beach “balanced” with just the right amount of tourist trash in Eleuthera, Bahamas. Photo: Andy Dumaine.

The first sustainable-tourism conference I attended was wrapped around the virtues of balance. The word was built into the title: “Keeping the Right Balance.” If I have learned anything from my decades of conference participation it is this: Those in the sustainability camp seem believe that the pursuit of  balance will restore our most beautiful and fragile places.

Once I became aware of the cold facts of tourism’s destructive force, calls for balance smacked of self-delusion and naïveté. If you found yourself in a crowded minibus heading straight into a brick wall at 100 miles an hour, would you calmly urge the driver to balance his instinct to avoid the deadly obstacle in the road? Conference presenters have a fundamental weakness—their need to be perceived as moderate and rational, but sustainable tourism seeks to address challenges that are anything but moderate and rational.  Razing an irreplaceable historic structure to make room for a generic all-inclusive resort is an irrational, immoderate act perpetrated by an industry that cloaks its irrationality in the name of job creation and balance.

The need to embrace sustainable practices is all too real and all too urgent.  Once a destination loses its authentic sense of place, it is gone for good.  No amount of pleading and planning or balancing with Disney’s most-talented experience designers will bring it back. Authenticity cannot be reproduced.

Calls from the podium for “a balanced approach” certainly play well with audiences with their hands deep in the tourism cookie jar, but advocates of balance are dangerously underestimating the costs of inaction. The idea that the tourism industry can balance its way out of its destructive habits bleeds away any sense of urgency. “Balance” holds out the false hope that destinations can always buy more time, that we can always restore what tourism destroys, that we can compromise with the planet’s ecosystems—ecosystems that appear disinclined to compromise with humanity.

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