Last December, the United Nations declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
Taleb Rifai, secretary-general for The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), stated that the adoption of this theme “is a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental – while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.”
For some, this was a long-awaited recognition of tourism’s powerful bearing on the rest of the world. For others, it prompted the question: What does sustainable tourism even mean?
If you identify with the latter, you’ve likely heard the term used here and there over the years in relation to conservation and emerging destinations, but haven’t given it too much thought. You’ve probably noticed it being used more frequently in the last year or two, often by large travel companies promoting “responsible” new products and initiatives.
If you’ve really been paying attention, you will have also noticed that the definition of sustainable travel has fluctuated as it evolves. It has been equated with being green, eco-friendliness, and occasionally, cultural sensitivity, according to circumstance. At one thankfully shortlived point, the burgeoning principles of sustainable travel were obscured by volunteer travel, or “voluntourism,” where well-intentioned travellers could indulge their philanthropic tendencies along with their leisurely ones.
Interestingly, sustainable tourism – often considered to be a niche sector by most industry professionals – has existed almost as long as mainstream travel itself. In the 1970s, it was referred to as “gentle” tourism, falling into step with a number of books which explored the potentially negative effects of mass tourism. The word “sustainable tourism” came into use in the 1980s, around the same time as early recognitions of ecological preservation and economic development. By the 1990s, it was a term used by UN agencies to aid in the discussion of everything from ethics in travel to the relationship between tourism and climate change.
More recently, sustainable tourism has been used in parallel with terms such as “purposeful” travel. A misguided few will even equate it with authentic or immersive tourism, in an aim to tie the popular travel styles to socially or environmentally conscious experiences when they are, in fact, distinctively different (although they can, admittedly, complement each other when done correctly – but I digress).
The UNWTO provides a more definitive definition, outlining sustainable tourism as: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
Forehead still crinkling? Did you have to read that more than once? You’re not alone. Sustainable tourism enjoys its malleable identity in part because it’s a term that represents a complex set of issues. And like most complicated concepts, it’s tricky to sum this one up in a catchy phrase or buzzword without compromising its integrity.
But regardless of where or how it originated and evolved, the UN’s decision to dedicate an entire year to sustainable travel means that it is a sector of significance – perhaps more so than many of us ever realized. It starts with the numbers.
According to the UNWTO, 2015 saw approximately 1.2 billion international travellers, up from 674 million travellers in 2000. That figure is expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2030. Such growth will certainly influence the future health and longevity of our planet, and with tourism advancing so much and so quickly, world leaders and travel experts tend to agree that we too, as an industry, are at a critical turning point.
With that in mind, when you examine events in very recent years, it quickly becomes obvious that sustainable tourism has not only been growing steadily in importance as a driver of change and conservation throughout our trade; its evolution has been championed by travellers themselves.
Recent operational developments, such as SeaWorld’s announcement to end its orca theatrics and TripAdvisor’s new policy against certain animal attractions, is a clear result of consumer preference. Films such as Blackfish and Blood Lions tug at the hearts of everyday travellers, and their jolted awareness spurs them to demand more from their choice products. Issues like overcrowding and waste mismanagement within destinations and their famed landmarks contradicts with romantic traveller expectations, prompting changes in their bucket lists – and thus, in industry priorities.
Indeed, more and more travellers are beginning to care where and how their adventures affect the world. And because the concept of sustainable travel has been historically challenging to define, consumers invested in curbing their carbon footprint are unsure of where to look. What is LEED certification? Why is “voluntourism” now considered a dirty word? How can one be sure that the money they spend in-destination is being put back into the community?
All are common concerns among the socially conscious traveller, and rightfully so. When contributing to an industry that makes up 10 per cent of the world’s GDP, accounts for one in 11 jobs globally and has the power to change the face of entire cultures, awareness of your impact is paramount. Unfortunately at the moment, it’s also woefully difficult to feel confident about it.
So how does this all concern the modern travel advisor? Put simply, just as the intricate and ever-growing cruise sector demands professional expertise for busy travellers with particular tastes, this rise in global awareness presents a unique opportunity to make advisors even more essential to their customers.
With this column the singular aim is to provide you, our travel expert reader, with a reliable, educational insight into the expansive landscape of sustainable tourism. The IMPACT section will feature the latest products, trends and trade developments as well as Q&As and profiles with industry professionals, while respected organizations such as Sustainable Travel Network and UNWTO will serve as regular resources to ensure credibility – all so you can better serve your clients.
2017 will be a big year for us all. The travel industry is, by nature and necessity, motivated to ensure that safe water and sanitation, sustainable agriculture, affordable and reliable energy, resilient environments, gender equality and cultural understanding are achieved everywhere.
After all, when you consider the available inventory, protecting our industry’s merchandise is the only way to secure future success.
According to the UNWTO, sustainable tourism is
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
According to the UN, the International Year will promote tourism’s role in the following five key areas:
- Inclusive and sustainable economic growth;
- Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction;
- Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change;
- Cultural values, diversity and heritage; and
- Mutual understanding, peace and security.
READ: Overbooked, by Elizabeth Becker: Where many see only dazzling promise in the growth of the tourism industry, Becker’s frank and thorough examination of the evolution of travel and its impact on our world’s culture, conservation, and economics is the long-ignored - and sometimes deeply disturbing - perspective every travel expert needs.
LISTEN: Sustainable Travel with Geoff Bolan - Green Connections Radio: The CEO of Sustainable Travel International talks defining sustainable tourism, who sustainable travellers are, and what they want from their experiences.
REFERENCE: United Nations World Tourism Organization website: www2.unwto.org