Tourism Development in the GCC States:
Reconciling Economic Growth, Conservation and Sustainable Development

Andy Spiess
NDRD & University of Hamburg, Department of Economics and Policy, Germany


Tourism is one of the world's largest as well as fastest growing industries and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states are expected to be increasingly important engines of such growth. By boosting both international travel and generating increasingly vibrant regional or domestic tourism sectors, tourism promotion is often considered an integral element of their economic strategies. The sector is generally publicized as a vital source of employment, revenue, foreign exchange benefits, public infrastructure, diversification and inducement in reviving national pride. Nevertheless tourism as a catalyst for economic development can be a controversial device. While certain short term economic benefits clearly arise from an expanding tourism industry in the Gulf economies, its unsustainable rapid development has had detrimental environmental, socio-cultural and security impacts, particularly because this industry is dependent on and a major user of natural resources and habitually collides with the values, skills, and aspirations of GCC nationals.

One feasible response to these negative side effects could be the promotion of sustainable tourism, which stimulates a prominent concern for equity and fairness. Thus it can contribute to the conservation and sustainable management of natural resources, the protection of local heritage, and a revival of indigenous cultures. Nonetheless, the concept of sustainability in general and especially when applied to tourism is either perceived in various ways or even worse entirely misunderstood by local stakeholders. Indeed, the term has been bent into a variety of shapes and meanings and some policy makers seem to believe it means ‘business as usual’. Consequently, the tourism sector still justifies expensive infrastructure developments that primarily serve to enhance the power and privileges of local elites, sustain their underlying political ideologies and simultaneously expand control over their societies.

While the pace of the current large scale tourism expansion in the GCC should conceivably best be seen as a ‘threat multiplier’ that intensifies existing problems and vulnerabilities in the region, there is a dearth of studies that have deconstructed the efficacy of these policies. The objective of the session is hence to fill this void and to draw together interdisciplinary research on the relationship between tourism, conservation and sustainable development in the context of the Gulf economies with respect to lessons learnt and conclusions drawn from the utilization of tourism as a diversification tool. In this context, we will explore questions concerned with achieving environmental, social and economic sustainability of tourism alongside the governance mechanisms needed to support more sustainable development pathways. In addition to these specific aims, there is an urgent need to explore the institutions of the political culture, the power dynamics, and the benefits and costs of tourism development for regional and local development and to ensure that long-term prosperity and the quality of life of future generations of Gulf nationals is not placed at risk.

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