Sustainable tourism: a contradiction in terms?

Chris Simoens
28 July 2017
The United Nations has proclaimed 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Indeed, tourism appears to be a powerful driver for creating jobs. But how do you set 1.1 billion international tourists on the path to sustainability?

Travel is expanding significantly. These days, people don't want to travel once a year, but twice or three or four times. And if possible: preferably abroad. Travelling to break the day-to-day routine has developed into an enormous urge. Besides, the right to rest and free time, including regular holidays, is enshrined as a universal human right.

Faraway countries with a completely different culture are also growing strongly in popularity. By discovering so-called foreign cultures in their day-to-day human aspect, people can have a better understanding of these cultures. And if cultural heritage can be lucrative, it is worth our while to protect it. The same applies to nature, including coral reefs (snorkelling), African savannahs (safari) and rainforests (trekking).

If cultural heritage can be lucrative, it is worth our while to protect it. The same applies to nature, including coral reefs (snorkelling), African savannahs (safari) and rainforests (trekking).

Snorkeler discovering a turtle in the coral reef.
© Shutterstock

1.1 billion tourists

In 2015, approximately 1.1 billion tourists travelled abroad. The UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimates that by 2030, that number will have risen to 1.8 billion. The tourist sector currently accounts for 10% of global GDP, and 1 job in every 11. Emerging countries in particular will welcome more and more tourists in the coming years. For the Least Developed Countries, tourism is the main source of foreign exchange (7-10%). And don't forget: between 5 and 6 billion people travel in their own country.

No wonder the UN considers tourism so important. Tourism can represent a powerful lever for development, especially in poor countries. Among the Sustainable Development Goals, SDG8 is designed to promote tourism in order to create jobs and make local culture and products more attractive. Pretty much all of the 17 SDGs would benefit from a flourishing tourist sector.

Tourism disrupts

But how can you send 1.1 billion people around the world sustainably? In other words, without damaging people and planet? With 5% of global carbon emissions, tourism makes a fairly hefty contribution to climate change. 4% comes from transport (mainly aeroplanes and cars) and 1% from the hotel sector.

 

 

In southern countries, people have become disillusioned with mass tourism.

Marie-Paule Eskénazi

Besides, to what extent does tourism – and the mass tourism of major tour operators - really benefit the local population? Marie-Paule Eskénazi, an expert in sustainable tourism, has her reservations (1). 'In southern countries, people have become disillusioned with mass tourism. The fact is, it has spoiled coastlines by closing off beaches along the coast. Bridges and roads have been built at the local population's costs. Fishermen have gone to work in the Horeca sector, attracted by promises of big salaries. This has meant that fish and other food has increasingly needed to be imported. The consequence: the local population has paid more for its food. Locals end up in hotels where they have to work according to stressful timetables and are underpaid. Plus, they no longer eat their traditional diets.'

And don't local traditions lose their spontaneity and significance if they turn into a folkloric display? Doesn't a visit to a village or tribe disrupt everyday life? Doesn't a trek contribute to the deterioration of nature? Tourists account for 1.5kg of waste per day and consume a lot of water, even in countries which already often suffer from droughts.

Sustainable travel

The pretty face of 'tourism as a lever for development' therefore also has a dark side. As a counter-reaction, many initiatives in the area of 'sustainable tourism' have been implemented (hyperlink). They offer travel packages which respect people and planet. The Belgian Development Cooperation also supports a number of projects through its Trade for Development Centre (hyperlink). Nonetheless, it still remains a limited niche.

 

Doesn't a visit to a village or tribe disrupt everyday life? Doesn't a trek contribute to the deterioration of nature?

A tribe gathering
© IRD

As such, the UNWTO wants to take it a step further: all forms of tourism, including mass tourism, should aim for sustainability. Although this is a gargantuan task! The sector has already promised to reduce its carbon emissions, among other things by making hotels and transport energy efficient, and by using more renewable energy sources. More attention has been given to waste and water consumption, and for the protection of biodiversity and cultural heritage. Because the UNWTO reiterates its belief: tourism is one of the best ways of distributing wealth between rich and poor countries.

Taking matters into your own hands

As a private citizen, you don't need to wait for the efforts of the UN and the tourist sector. You can already do a lot under your own steam. In another article, we give you 17 tips (hyperlink). That way, you can choose reliable sustainable travel packages (hyperlink). Or you can offset your carbon footprint by donating money to organisations whose activities include reforestation. (hyperlink)

Above all, we need to travel less often, not as far, more slowly, and for longer.

Peter Tom Jones

It's best to keep one thing in mind: genuinely sustainable travel doesn't exist (yet). Environmental scientist Peter Tom Jones shares this assessment. He adds: 'Above all, we need to travel less often, not as far, more slowly, and for longer.' Staying home and exploring your own country can also be an exciting holiday. In addition, the whole world is just around the corner these days. Plus, you can also help developing countries without boarding a plane, for example by buying Fairtrade products, supporting NGOs, or investing in micro-credit.

 

(1) Taken from n’GO magazine, February 2017

www.unwto.org

www.sustainabletourism.net

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