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SDGs Key to (Re)Building Tourism with an Eye Toward the Future

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 (WTTC), 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 predicted 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 estimated 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 vulnerable to poachers.

“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.”

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 culture,” 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 line. People are eager to get back to work, but some destinations are taking this opportunity to reimagine what tourism can — and should — look like 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 mayor 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 tackling these.”

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 businesses, and environmental consciousness-building and activities should be the norm moving forward.”

As the Future-Fit Foundation’s Geoff Kendall and Joanna Robertson recently noted, 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.”

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