The idea that tourists swimming in a jungle waterfall or strolling around an ancient temple can help reduce poverty seems too good to be true. But it is a fact: an increasing body of research clearly demonstrates that tourism can help the poor.
"In places where there is a robust tourism industry with lots of visitors, you can really see how poor people benefit - local people selling food and handicrafts, working as tour guides, and offering transportation," says Steven Schipani, a social sector specialist with ADB based in Thailand. "As long as it well structured and well-managed, tourism really can be a powerful tool for poverty reduction."
With the World Tourism and Travel council estimating that $6 trillion or 9% of global GDP was generated by the tourism and travel industry in 2011, Schipani says there are large pools of money and opportunities that the poor can access, particularly in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), which saw international arrivals top 31 million in 2010.
ADB provided nearly $60 million in loans and grants to the GMS tourism industry between 2003 and 2011, much of it focusing on building infrastructure. Projects have included tourism management courses and the publication of guide books, with a swathe of positive results.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, the gateway to the extraordinary world-heritage listed Angkor Wat, a loan for urban environmental improvements has reduced flooding, installed a wastewater treatment plant, and helped establish a night market which employs 200 women.
A 22- km road improvement and management plan for Kuang Si Waterfall in Lao PDR saw the number of annual visitors jump to 150,000, generating over $300,000 in revenue in 2009. A river pier improvement project on the Mekong in Viet Nam generated 1,000 local jobs.
"Tourism is one of the few industries that provides an opportunity for unskilled workers to readily enter the service economy, and presents them with a reasonable chance for advancement to management positions. Along the way, tourism workers often develop a greater sense of environmental awareness, as well as realize the benefits of preserving their culture and heritage," says Schipani.