Many people are becoming more aware of their environmental footprint and the impact they have on people and the planet. This awareness can be harnessed by the tourism industry to shift passive sea-and-sun tourists into more conscientious, actively engaged travelers.
Long before COVID-19, the tourism industry’s shaky foundation was falling apart: Destinations suffered from overcrowding and gentrification, precious natural resources were diverted from local communities to meet traveler needs, and Indigenous people were forcibly removed from their land to make way for resort construction — all while Instagram defined picture-perfect travel experiences.
“As tourism grew, so did the opportunity to expand the visitor experience. The idea was the more experiences you have, the more visitors you attract. More visitors equals more revenue. More revenue means a healthier economy. And a healthier economy improves lives and livelihoods. Or, does it?” posited Chris Flynn, president and CEO of the World Tourism Association for Culture and Heritage, at A World for Travel’s recent hybrid Evora Forum (Sept. 16-17).
Ultimately, Flynn said, “As tourism grew, it became the victim of its own success.”
The pandemic may have exposed tourism’s problems, but it also invited debate on how to address them. At the Evora Forum, conversations centered on solutions for prioritizing residents alongside tourists, addressing the climate crisis, and putting regenerative practices into place to form the foundation of a new tourism model.
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Three themes — collaboration, localization and actively engaging travelers — surfaced throughout the event as key pathways toward a more sustainable future for the tourism industry.
Collaboration is essential
Yesterday’s competition must become today’s partner if the tourism industry — and society at large — is to actively address the global challenges we all face. In order for tourism to be integrated into communities in a meaningful way and support local people, it must work in partnership with both the public and private sectors, in tandem with government objectives, and across sectors.
“Before 2019, most governments were thinking the tourism sector and tourism generally were working on its own,” said the Hon. Nikolina Angelkova, a Member of Parliament in Bulgaria and the country’s Minister of Tourism from 2014-2020. “This pandemic shows that, actually, tourism needs to be supported.” She emphasized the industry should be aligned with national policy, local governments, and non-profit organizations working on sustainability efforts.
Numerous stakeholders are invested in developing high-quality, profitable tourism experiences. However, Holly Budge, founder of How Many Elephants, unscored the importance of collaborating with local people — particularly Indigenous communities — in developing a more sustainable tourism model.
“By investing in local communities and Indigenous people — and I mean really investing in them; bringing them into the boardroom and partnering with them, rather than seeing them as tourist attractions — then they become the best protectors of the wildlife and the wild spaces, and, in turn, your tourism business.”
A local focus
“When we talk about sustainable tourism, this is a more resilient form of tourism that resists crisis,” said Frédéric Hocquard, deputy mayor of Paris. COVID-19 is the current top-of-mind crisis; but terrorism, civil unrest and unexpected climate events have all recently impacted international tourist arrivals — a trend the industry must consider moving forward. “We have to work toward tourism that is centered and stronger, instead of depending on international flows,” Hocquard said.
Dianne Dredge, founder of The Tourism CoLab, pointed out that the last 18 months have given people an opportunity to more deeply explore their own communities, which has seeded unique opportunities for domestic tourism. Experiences like walking tours and cooking classes led by Indigenous people and migrants have become more popular over the last couple of years. “It’s locals who go on these tours because they’re seeing their own place through a different lens,” she said.
Promoting local social enterprises such as these not only provides new avenues for domestic travelers, it can also change the way inbound tourists experience a destination. Robin Tauck, chair of Tourism Cares, pointed toward the organization’s Meaningful Maps, which it is creating with destination partners to promote organizations about which tour companies might not be aware. The Meaningful Map of Jordan, for example, highlights dozens of groups across the country beyond traditional tourist sites such as Petra. “The Jordan Tourism Board has shown that ten or up to fifteen tour companies and cruise companies coming into Aqaba have actually changed their itineraries and added days in the destination,” Tauck said. “The impact on these smaller groups that heretofore had not been introduced to tourism was absolutely incredible.”
Actively engaging travelers
Generally speaking, people are becoming more aware of their environmental footprint and the impact they have on people and the planet. This awareness can be harnessed by the tourism industry to shift passive sea-and-sun tourists into more actively engaged travelers.
Yolanda Perdomo, a global tourism strategist with ICF, explained how a shared-values approach that includes tourists as key stakeholders has benefited the Canary Islands.
“When tourists travel to Lanzarote, they can feel they are causing a positive transformation — that they are doing something that leaves a legacy there, and that there’s a connection to the place.” This has required a shift away from the traditional tourism model, but the environmental and social benefits far outweigh the short-term financial gain. “This is a long-term strategy, and it has more value for locals,” she said.
“People who are traveling close by and far away have really been made aware about what they’ve been doing, and it’s opened their eyes to supporting local communities. Not just going and seeing their beautiful heritage sites, but realizing that people are living there,” said Carol Savage, founder and CEO of Not in The Guidebooks. “I believe that people are becoming more conscious travelers.”