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St. Maarten Director Of Tourism Urges Government Action To Protect Biodiversity From Tourism

Regina LaBega
, director of Tourism for St. Maarten, took the opportunity during the celebrations of World Tourism Day to warn the tourism industry that biodiversity is under a serious threat, needing action instead of just words and urging that government must enact legislation to protect and strengthen biodiversity. The St. Maarten Tourist Bureau celebrated World Tourism Day with a dinner gathering of industry executives from a wide diversity of areas including hotels, attractions, shopkeepers, marketing consultants and politicians.

Ms. LaBega told attendees: "All over the world, biological diversity, or biodiversity, is under serious threat. According to some recent studies on a global scale, 13.6% of bird life, 22% of mammals, 31% of amphibians, and 27% of reefs are threatened or in danger of extinction. This is as a result of the impact of several areas of human activity, including tourism, on the ecosystems found in forests, wetlands, savannah, jungles, coral reefs, mountains, seas and polar zones among others. "The World Tourism Organization's 'Vision 2020' estimates that in this year alone international travel will reach the 1.006 billion mark and will jump to 1.561 billion by 2020 at an annual growth rate of 4.1%.

"These figures show a strong growth of the tourism sector that has a significant effect on the conservation and sustainability of biodiversity, and the resulting danger of this translating into serious environmental challenges – particularly as it concerns the inordinate use of limited resources like land and potable water. "Add to these, the huge pollution and waste which activities in this sector generate, exceeding the quantities that a particular area might be able to withstand, and the relationship between tourism and biodiversity could be seen as antagonistic.

"The picture becomes even gloomier if we consider that tourists are more and more attracted to destinations where nature and the environment have remained relatively untouched. Although this attraction could be fatal, tourism and biodiversity are not foes unto death. To the contrary, for tourism to continue to grow in a sustainable manner, it has to assume its responsibility in defending, preserving and ensuring a critical balance with our biodiversity. "Let me put it bluntly: tourism needs biodiversity; but biodiversity does not necessarily need tourism. However, the more we respect and take care of nature, the more we would be able to enjoy its beauty and guarantee our survival as a species.

"The theme of this year's World Tourism Day is in recognition of this proclamation that arose from the deep concern for the social, economic, environmental and cultural implications of the loss of biodiversity, including negative impacts on the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, and stressing the necessity to adopt concrete measures in order to reverse it." The Secretary-General of the UNWTO, Mr. Taleb Rifai, in his World Tourism Day address, noted that "Recognizing the value of Earth's natural capital to its long-term sustainability, the tourism industry is called upon to protect and sustainably manage biodiversity. A healthy tourism industry depends on a healthy resource base, and sustainable growth in tourism means increased funds for conservation."

He further added: "Safeguarding biodiversity is an urgent challenge that concerns us all – the international community, governments, companies and travelers – but it is not too late to act." LaBega went on to say: "Action, indeed, speaks louder than words, and it is in this respect that the St. Maarten Tourist Bureau has been partnering with environmental protection groups such as the Nature Foundation, and EPIC to disseminate information and educate particularly our youth about the importance of biodiversity to tourism and the delicate balance which should be struck between both.

"However, I would like to stress that private sector initiative alone is not enough; government must enact legislation to protect and strengthen biodiversity, maximizing the benefits and minimizing as much as possible the environmental costs of tourism. Of course, this calls for planning, education and financial support for NGOs dedicated to the noble cause of conservation. "Those businesses operating in the tourism sector also have a responsibility to ensure that our biodiversity is not compromised as a result of their operations. It is morally, ethically and it should be legally wrong, for businesses to set up shop with utter disregard for the impact their operations would have on our biodiversity. Such impact studies should be mandatory before they can be issued operating licenses.

"Also, tourists need to be educated in ways of achieving sustainable tourism and about the real benefits that can be derived from the conservation of our biodiversity. Respect for the nature and culture of the host destination should be paramount for a rewarding tourism experience. "The paradox that tourism offers by, on the one hand growing rapidly due to the attraction of natural and cultural sites, while on the other hand, posing a dangerous and even deadly threat to the same attractions, can be resolved through the concerted effort of all stakeholders.

"We need to urgently find ways to strike a balance between tourism and biodiversity in such a manner that economic development and the protection of the environment would no longer be viewed as mutually exclusive, incompatible and in opposition to each other, but as two sides of the same coin."  World Tourism Day, held every year on Sept. 27, is designed to create awareness of the importance of tourism to the culture and economic wellbeing of the world. This year's theme was "Tourism and Biodiversity" following the lead of the United Nations which named 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity.
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