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Impact of tourism on the health of indigenous populations

Callum Narita, Editorials and Publications Team PMSA


Tourism is a major revenue stream for many Pacific nations, one that is predicted to increase in coming years(1). Ecotourism is particularly prevalent, as the natural beauty of these island nations draws hordes of vacationers, the majority from Australia and New Zealand. Fiji is the most popular destination, and Papua New Guinea (PNG), Palau, Samoa and Vanuatu have built strong tourism industries(1). This sector is prospering, particularly as individuals seek to avoid mass tourism and travel “off the beaten track” to more unexplored countries. However, is there an untold impact that visitors are having to these nations?

The benefits and problems with ecotourism are widely debated(2,3). On one hand, it provides a platform for an impoverished nation to generate wealth. Tourism is the largest export in Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu(1). It provides the opportunity for employment and infrastructural development, which can accelerate the growth of a developing country.

Alternatively, the range of ramifications affecting the local population is wide. Environmentally, tourism is undoubtedly destructive(3). Land, a limited resource for small island nations, is cleared for the development of infrastructure. Vegetation is cleared for farming to accommodate increased food requirements. Additionally, extra waste is produced as a result, and through this, pollution of water, soil and air can occur(3). For Pacific nations, water quality is particularly pertinent.

Whilst development is rapid to accommodate for travellers, this may not necessarily be for the benefit of the indigenous population, and there appears to be detrimental health effects caused by tourism(2). These are far-reaching, and often immeasurable. Displacement of locals for said development can lead to homelessness. The environmental impacts can lead to health problems, particularly with regards to pollution.

Infectious diseases can be introduced by tourists into areas with little healthcare infrastructure. Once spread, the impact can be far-reaching and reach epidemic proportions. Sexually transmitted diseases are of particular concern(3). HIV infection rates in PNG are currently extremely high, and there is a large prevalence of the disease amongst sex workers(4).

Concern for the exploitation of locals is also paramount. Occupational health and safety regulations tend to be limited in developing nations, and wages can be poor relative to the work performed. A prospering tourism industry may draw skilled workers from other fields, such as healthcare(3). Culturally sacred areas may become overrun with tourists, an example being Uluru in Australia, and may lead to a loss of cultural identity(5).

Is there a solution? Ultimately, tourism is an important industry for many Pacific nations. Unfortunately, the ramifications are difficult to predict, and are to a degree unavoidable. Regulatory bodies will best control this, and local policy can assist in protecting the indigenous population. Education, particularly with regards to infectious diseases, may help prevent further negative effects of tourism.

As a tourist however, there are a few ways to counter the impact on locals. When travelling to developing nations, an emphasis on ethical tourism is paramount. Avoiding services which appear to foster exploitation, through overly cheap services or poor working conditions, can assist in countering mistreatment of locals. Also avoiding excessive environmental damage and culturally damaging practice is a responsibility of a tourist. Preventing the spread of disease is important, and travellers can assist by employing basic infectious control measures.

1. Perrottet JG, Garcia AF. Tourism (English). Pacific Possible series; background paper no. 4. Washington D.C.: World Bank Group; 2016. Available from: http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/524541503688261330/Tourism

2. Hundt A. Impact of tourism development on the economy and health of Third World nations. J Travel Med. 1996;3(2):107-12.

3. Bauer I. The health impact of tourism on local and indigenous populations in resource-poor countries. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2008;6(5):276-91.

4. UN Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Global Report: UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic: 2010 2010. Available from: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4cfca9c62.html.

5. Robinson C, Baker R, Liddle L. Journeys through an Australian sacred landscape. Museum International. 2003;55(2):74-7.

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