Tourism is by some estimates the world’s biggest industry; it’s certainly among the fastest-growing, and few believe the events of 11th September 2001 will cause anything more than a downward blip on a steep upward curve. In 1950 there were around 25 million international tourist visits. Currently there are around 700 million. By 2020 there will be around 1.6 billion.

As it has grown, so have its destructive effects become manifest, and these are greater than most of us might suspect. Along with television, tourism is one of the most potent agents of globalization — tourists are the shock troops of Western-style capitalism, distributing social and psychological viruses just as effectively as earlier colonists spread smallpox, measles and TB in their wake. And as with globalization, there are voices urging reform.

The year 2002 has been designated the International Year of Eco-tourism by the UN. Eco-tourism is, supposedly, the antidote to mass tourism — small-scale, nature-based, environmentally-friendly. That’s the theory, anyway. The reality is that no-one has properly defined eco-tourism, no-one really knows what it means, it’s highly unlikely that anyone ever will define it in a way that will command assent from critics of the industry, and in this vacuum the marketing men, greenwashers, corporate developers and government spin doctors flourish. I have heard a casino in Laos described as eco-tourism — because it was sited in untouched countryside.

According to Tourism Concern, the British-based non-governmental organization, much eco-tourism relies on places from which native people have been excluded, often forcibly, or which are being destroyed by the sheer number of tourists. A UNESCO report recently concluded that the World Heritage site of Macchu Picchu in Peru (where a cable car has been proposed to cater for the 350,000 ‘eco-tourists’ who visit it each year) has reached saturation point. Villagers there who want a greater share of tourist revenues have protested by blocking access to the site. Can any phenomenon which so breaches ideas of carrying capacity justify the prefix ‘eco’?

Yet eco-tourism, as defined by the World Tourism Organization, represents only 2%–4% of international travel spending. Suppose it grew to the point where it dominated the tourist industry — with hundreds of millions of eco-tourists every year. Could such a large-scale industry be managed in a small-scale way? Can anyone who has flown halfway round the world in a jet powered by subsidized fossil fuel and puffing out greenhouse gases qualify as an eco-tourist — whatever the shape or content of the holiday that awaits them?

The attempt to construct an eco-tourist alternative to mass tourism does at least signify a perception that the industry has gone seriously wrong, and the more one considers how and why this has happened, the more the paradoxes abound. The first is that tourism was, and still is, seen by many as a ‘clean’ path to development — an industry without factories and fumes and the consumption of finite resources. The reality is that it has proved a terrible destroyer of landscapes, either through development or through the fundamental strains that Westernized appetites impose on fragile economies and ecosystems.

The second paradox is that, while repeatedly marketed as "of all-inclusive benefit to the economy", the financial gains of tourism are highly unevenly distributed. In practice, most of the money it makes ends up in the hands of local or international elites — hotel-owners, package tour operators and airlines. And although tourism may create jobs, the biases and distortions involved in this process mean that these displace, and often replace, jobs — or rather, livelihoods — based around agriculture or fishing.

What happens, classically, is the expropriation of native lands for national parks or five-star tourist complexes, and there are many variants of this process. The net result is that people who were once able to make a reasonably independent living off the land, find themselves wage-earners in a global economy run from the other side of the world. They have become, in a word, disempowered — one twitch in Wall Street, one tiny downturn in the us economy, and they’re out of work, with nothing in the way of skills or land to fall back on. According to the International Labour Organization, it would take only a 10% reduction in travel as a consequence of September 11 for 9 million people, globally, to lose their jobs.

Which leads on neatly to the third paradox, the idea that tourism confers vast but intangible social benefits. This notion takes many forms, from the adage that travel ‘broadens the mind’ to the principle of ‘world peace through travel’ — the motto, remarkably, of the Hilton hotel chain. Most people perceive the reality to be otherwise. Indeed, it would be hard to conceive of an industry with more potential for misunderstanding and conflict, particularly in the developing world. Throughout much of Asia, Africa and South America, tourism cruelly exposes the fault lines of global economic inequality. Most interactions between tourists and local people revolve round ‘the cash nexus’ — they are only about money.

THE FEUDAL NORTH–SOUTH relationships characteristic of tourism are hardly likely to increase international understanding. And there are two further distinctive features that seem almost guaranteed to increase resentment. First, unlike most other industries, which keep their raw material decently out of harm’s way inside factories or offices, tourists get everywhere, often in large numbers; people who gain no benefit from tourism must thus suffer its consequences. And second, in its drive to ‘broaden the mind’, tourism seeks out the richness and strangeness of other cultures, and routinely, inexorably, destroys them. There is the phenomenon labelled ‘staged authenticity’, in which a local cultural tradition, once celebrated for its own sake and out of a belief in its intrinsic value, turns into a tourist spectacle and thus, insidiously, into a performance.

In Thailand, for example, under the impact of dollar-driven tourism strategies and with the collaboration of local hoteliers and chambers of commerce, old festivals have expanded beyond recognition, and new ones have been conjured up spuriously from history or simply transplanted from abroad — Chiang Mai, bizarrely, now celebrates Mardi Gras. The city’s flower festival in February — "rooted in history", the brochures would have you believe — didn’t exist twenty years ago. Buddhist ceremonies have become such a tourist draw that the most important local temple, Doi Suthep, last year announced plans to charge foreign nationals $3 for entrance.

In one sense, you could argue, it’s harmless enough — like the hill tribe women donning their indigenous finery to sell baubles or the local administration instructing staff to wear regional costume in the office. What’s wrong with dressing up and pretending? Isn’t that what they do in Disneyland? Equally, it’s not what it purports to be. It has undergone a subtle interior change, into a branch of commercial culture, of marketing.

It’s true that within this bleak global vista there are shafts of light. Tourism, it is often said, is good for conservation — and indeed there are many cases where it has helped save a species. The mountain gorillas of the Congo and Rwanda are probably the best-known example. Throughout the world tourist revenues keep national parks in existence — and motivate governments to protect them. Whale-watching, famously, is now worth far more than whaling. And whether it’s a cottage in the countryside or a cruise in Antarctica, travel can still confront the individual with dimensions of reality that are new, disturbing, wonderful — and that may leave something more than an image in a photograph album.

It’s also true that human contact may sometimes transcend the cash nexus. And merely having been to a place may create an attachment that could, in the long run, prove of value. If one has visited the rainforests of Costa Rica, for example, one is more likely to want — and to pay — to save them.

Unfortunately, these are successes achieved, as it were, against the grain — the odd victory in a war that is being lost. The industry, as a whole, doesn’t work this way. Mass tourism is the human equivalent of a discount warehouse, operating on the ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ principle. It’s an industry dealing in human interactions and experiences which lacks any idea of what should inform these. It’s also a leading protagonist of the globalization which is eradicating all the uniqueness and beauty upon which tourism itself thrives — a classic example, in other words, of an industry devouring its own resource.

MANY CRITICS AND non-governmental organizations now pin their hopes on community-based eco-tourism, in which, typically, local organizations run facilities, accept visitors into their midst, organize environmentally-friendly activities, provide a taste of local culture and channel the proceeds into locally-run industries. There are growing numbers of such initiatives around the world — Tourism Concern has listed many of them in its new Community Tourism Guide — and they are undoubtedly a vast improvement on mass package-tourism, not least because they remove many of its financial inequities. Whether they’re anything like a full answer is doubtful. Community tourism could not possibly handle the increase in tourist numbers projected without turning into something quite different.

If that sounds like a counsel of despair, it may well be. If the tourist industry is to handle the hundreds of millions more people jetting round the globe in the coming century, it will have to undergo major reform. One could imagine how that could happen — planning controls, tourist and aviation fuel taxes, enforced carrying capacities, airport restrictions, a global tourism convention and so on — but there is not the slightest indication that it will. Neither governments nor industry are remotely interested — most countries (the uk being a recent notorious example) are far keener to boost capacity, particularly of airports, whatever the environmental cost.

Tourists themselves, meanwhile, are largely ignorant of the damage done in their name, and although travelling may encourage the beginnings of a rudimentary planetary ethic — a sense of responsibility for other parts of the globe — this is nothing like strong enough to withstand the individual yearning for the experiences that journeys to distant places are believed to provide. In that sense, tourism is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ — many individuals, acting independently and in what they perceive to be their own interests, destroying a collective good. What is needed is a new travel ethic, in which people start to ask themselves about the purpose and value of their journeys — why they need to escape, what it is they hope to find — but I fear this will only begin to form when enough people start returning with the sense that their journey had very little purpose or value, by which time it may well be too late.

David Nicholson-Lord was in Thailand to lead a workshop on the environment for journalists from South-East Asia, under the auspices of the Indo-China Media Memorial Foundation and the Thomson Foundation.