Published 3 years ago.
About a 6 minute read.
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The travel industry has done a poor job integrating the SDGs into business operations and reporting on them. But the Goals offer guidance on how to develop destinations that can appropriately manage tourism’s footprint and minimize environmental impact while benefiting local communities.
In the months leading up to the coronavirus
outbreak, the tourism
industry’s growth was on a steep upward trajectory. According to the World
Travel & Tourism Council
the industry experienced 3.5 percent growth in
2019 in comparison to global
economic growth of 2.5 percent. In 2010, the World Tourism Organization
international tourist arrivals would hit 1.4 billion in 2020 — but that number
was reached in 2018, two years earlier than expected.
This growth had its benefits: Tourism’s direct, indirect, and induced
impact accounted for 10.3 percent of
global gross domestic product (GDP) and approximately 330 million jobs. But this
exponential growth was also unsustainable; with the coronavirus outbreak, the
tourism industry imploded practically overnight. As of April 24, the WTTC
the pandemic would be responsible for approximately 100.8 million lost jobs and
US$2.7 trillion of GDP.
This standstill also surfaced several environmental and socio-cultural issues
brought on by tourism, many of which were well known but not adequately or
appropriately addressed when the industry was thriving. Based on information
available at the end of April, carbon emissions created by the aviation sector
declined 60 percent. In
addition, popular destinations saw a return to more natural conditions, such as
Venice, where clear water ran through the canals after years of pollution
due in large part to its overtourism problem. Yet in destinations such as the
Democratic Republic of Congo, where tourism is directly tied to biodiversity
conservation efforts, a lack of tourists — and protection — left wildlife
“Done right, tourism can move money from wealthier countries directly into the
hands of local communities, without the need for complex export tariffs,”
Justin Francis, founder and CEO of Responsible
Travel, an activist holiday company, told
Sustainable Brands™. “Few other industries place value on local
knowledge, cultures, traditions and natural environments in the same way.”
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Yet tourism has fallen down on the job in the past, often chasing a financial
model focused on quantity over quality.
“We’ve seen the negative impact of things like mass tourism to the same
destinations, where the economic impact of tourism is heavily concentrated in
one city or region of a country. While that may bolster the economy of that
city, it also comes with negative impacts on the environment and local
said Michelle Martin, founder and CEO of Travara, a
purpose-driven travel brand.
A 2019 report on tourism’s “invisible
burden” details the
financial, socio-cultural and environmental costs tourists place on destinations
— such as through infrastructure construction and maintenance, higher costs of
living, water consumption, and other unrealized and unrecognized actions.
Despite the tourism industry’s losses due to the pandemic, this global pause has
also been a chance to reconsider its priorities related to the planet, people
and profit — the triple bottom
People are eager to get back to work, but some destinations are taking this
opportunity to reimagine what tourism can — and should — look
when people can freely travel again. Long a poster child for overtourism,
Amsterdam representatives want to focus more on locals and make sure the
city attracts the “right” kind of visitor. Venice’s
wants the city to return to its slow pace of life and attract students to the
apartment rentals that previously housed travelers. More bike lanes and
pedestrian-friendly spaces will take up permanent residence in Paris,
Milan, Seattle and Berlin, among other cities.
These hints of rebuilding tourism destinations from a community-focused
perspective and at a slower, more considered pace indicate a growing interest
from within the industry to adopt practices aligned with the UN’s Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs).
“The industry can be leveraged for social impact when it’s done responsibly,
which is why the SDGs are so important when we talk about
tourism,” Martin said. “Hotels, tours and activities
can cross cut several of the goals when values are aligned.”
The opportunity to build a more thoughtful, responsible tourism industry based
on the 17 SDGs is not a new one — it’s just not been the blueprint upon which
the industry has grown at scale — yet it makes sense. For example, tourism
provides income through job creation (SDG 1), it can accelerate the
development of public and private infrastructure (SDG 9), and coastal
tourism relies on healthy marine ecosystems (SDG 14).
The SDGs also provide guidance on how the industry needs to improve. For
example, investment in utilities for clean water for tourism can also help
locals achieve water access and security (SDG 6); this energy-intensive
industry can help accelerate the growth of renewable energy (SDG 7), and
it must adopt more responsible consumption and production models (SDG
12). The invisible burden needs to be made visible, and tourism’s true impact
needs to be addressed through the SDG lens.
“We need to start with reducing carbon, arresting biodiversity loss, and
addressing income inequality,” Francis said. “Success in other SDGs depends on
Historically, the sector has done a poor job integrating the SDGs into business
operations and reporting on them, in large part due to complicated supply chains
and lack of national or global regulations.
“Most regulation, such as it is, happens locally through local authorities — in
villages, towns, cities, national parks or cultural centers,” Francis said, “but
it’s very undeveloped, with a narrow focus on tourism numbers and little
understanding of its broader impacts.”
As destinations begin opening borders and businesses get back to work, there may
be a temptation to recoup financial losses quickly and return to the former,
unsustainable tourism model. It will require industry representatives — such as
related governmental bodies, service providers and destination management
organizations — to take a more proactive leadership role in implementing
policies and modeling expectations that align with the SDGs. “Every player in
the tourism industry needs to think about how they are operating; and which
hotels, tour operators, etc they are promoting,” Martin said. “Low-volume,
high-quality tourism that supports local
and activities should be the norm moving forward.”
As the Future-Fit Foundation’s Geoff Kendall and Joanna Robertson
the blueprint for a safe, healthy, post-COVID future already exists in the SDGs.
Instead of a distraction, the SDGs offer a “shared understanding of where we
need to go.” For the tourism industry, they offer guidance on how to develop
destinations that can appropriately manage tourism’s footprint and minimize
environmental impact while benefiting local communities.
“Sustainable tourism is not a niche,” Martin concluded. “Tourism needs to become
more sustainable as a whole, and this pandemic has given the industry an
opportunity to pause and look at how they can make changes.”
Published Jun 8, 2020 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker and solutions advocate who has worked in the travel and tourism industry for her entire career. She is also the founder of Rooted — a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainable tourism, social impact and storytelling. A returned US Peace Corps volunteer, international election observer and intrepid traveler, JoAnna helps tourism professionals decolonize travel and support sustainability using strategic communication skills.