“Tourism can be a platform for overcoming the pandemic. By bringing people together, tourism can promote solidarity and trust – crucial ingredients in advancing the global cooperation that is so urgently needed at this time.” With these words, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, sent a landmark message to the world on June 9, calling for the restoration of tourism activities.
For months, “stay home” became an inescapable mantra, repeated over and over to raise awareness about the importance of not going out to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Building on this same idea, the World Tourism Organization came up with its own tagline, “travel tomorrow.” Today, this ‘tomorrow’ is already upon us, and the challenge is undeniable. But, in the context of this new normality, how can an industry that entirely depends on people’s mobility safely resume operation?
A key sector for more vulnerable countries
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council figures, in 2019 Tourism accounted for 10.3 percent of the world’s total economic activity. Restarting tourism is essential due not only to its fundamental economic importance, but because it is a sector that’s intimately linked to the social, economic and environmental welfare of many countries, with a particular impact on developing countries.
The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda included tourism as one of its key pillars. “The livelihoods of many depend on it, especially women and particularly in the world’s most vulnerable countries, including Small Island Developing States and Least Developed Countries. Moreover, in many parts of the world, the protection of biodiversity relies heavily on the tourist sector, from conservation to the revenue generated by those efforts,” said Guterres.
Sustainable tourism: The key to the future?
In a recent paper entitled “UNWTO Priorities for Global Tourism Recovery”, the UNWTO included “Innovation and Sustainability as the new normal” one of the seven key strategies for the industry to face this new era. Just as the additional challenge posed by the medium-term impacts of an unexpected pandemic should not be used as an excuse to stop focusing on sustainability, which was singled out last year as one of the top priorities on a global scale, this purpose should remain as a clear goal in the path to recovery for one of the world’s most important sectors, tourism.
What does sustainable tourism exactly mean? In UNWTO’s own words, sustainable tourism should:
- Make optimal use of environmental resources and help conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
- Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
- Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, and offer stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities.
Taking these points into account, the development of sustainable tourism could have a positive impact on all Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), but especially on goals 8 (decent work and economic growth), 12 (responsible production and consumption) and 14 (life below water)
Measures to reactivate tourism from sustainability
The global guidelines of the UNWTO to restart tourism published on May 28, 2020, hinted at some of the measures that could contribute to making tourism activities more sustainable.
- Promote proximity and domestic tourism in the short-term enhancing the local value chain (e.g. local producers)
- Develop segmented and sustainable products focused on nature, rural areas and culture. Some examples could be eco-tourism, small group or individual sports, history, bird-watching tourism, traditional routes.
- Promote new destinations and experiences with added value and local inspiration namely with the creative industries.
As in any other industry, the success of these initiatives will largely depend on the logic of demand. The variety of options will only expand in as far as the number of sustainability-minded travelers, who value this type of changes in their activities, increase
Tourism, an activity that in recent decades has become a commodity, not a luxury, for many people, should not remain unfazed by the climate crisis, and could play a key role in meeting some of the most ambitious goals of the plans to curtail environmental degradation, such as carbon neutrality and biodiversity conservation.