The increasing demand for more progresive climate policy changes and an increasing demand to travellers to cut unnecessary plane flights and trips has caused a lot of noise in the public domain.

The impact is already papable to some businesses and communities: If you don’t do anything to cut off your own carbon footprint, be ready to get labelled. And even if you do something today, the question remains: What does it all mean to the future of tourism? Are we doomed to ban all flights and future vacations to save our planet?

What kind of changes does the tourism industry need to face? We go through some aspects about the future of tourism here. And how you can make a contribution by being a bit more mindful the next time you plan your trip.

Is there such a thing like "Sustainable Travelling"?

Green Travel. Eco-tourism. Eco travelling. Sustainable travelling. All these words sound so familiar, and yet, just a handful of people may come close to a definition everyone understands. But sustainable tourism has an official definition. The UN-TWO, the United Nations’ special agency for tourism, defines sustainable tourism as follows:

“Tourism that takes full account of ist current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

This definition has evolved as the United Nations has been developing approaches to a more sustainable world society. In fact, the UN declared 2017 as the Tourism year. Meaning that businesses, governments, NGOs and universities should spend more focus on how tourism can solve some of the most common issues that every society faces: Fighting poverty, promoting diversity, preserving cultural and natural heritage, and making cities more sustainable for tourism.

Governments around the world have recognised tourism's role in fighting for a more diverse and equal society.

The future of tourism is dominated by one word: Responsibility

In fact, most travel companies avoid terms like Green Travel, Sustainable Travelling or Eco-Travelling. Not because they are keen to avoid tough questions from NGOs or from the community. It’s because sustainability is narrowed down to the environment alone. There is a whole supply-chain behind tourist operators, airlines and hotels that have a heavy impact to human beings and the environment. According to the World Tourism Organisation, there are 17 factors that contribute to a more sustainable tourism, and hence, development for businesses, people and the society at-large. 

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations (Source: tourism4sdgs.org)

One key pillar in all of this is partnerships between businesses and governments. The United Nations describes partnerships as a fundamental facilitator in enhancing the quality of life for most people through tourism. Just take Colombia as an example: Since its post-conflict era in 2016,the country’s national tourism sector has been experiencing a faster growth-rate than its national GDP. Those sustainability goals also aim to address the entire value chain: Instruments for ecological certifications for hotel establishments that affect the entire supply-chain, including for tour operators are just one of many measures businesses and governments take.

In contrast, if countries don’t cooperate with the tourism sector, it can flip the whole boat: Countries like Thailand, Qatar or Montenegro have reported that consumption, particularly water consumption, and the management of natural resources are the biggest challenges and threats societies around the globe face. One of the key reasons why this has occured over a long period is the pure focus on economic outputs. Far less countries have kept an eye on the social component, especially when it comes to the impact of tourism for local communities and the wellbeing of the people. 

Acting globally, impacting locally - Business competitiveness as a key driver

On the basis of 67 Corporate Social Responsibility reports from global companies from accommodation and transport companies as well as tour operators suggest that “only 13% of the companies had actually identified the tools htey would use to measure their impact on the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] and their targets.” In other words, there’s still lot’s of room for improvements when it comes to global measures and benchmarks for several segments of the tourism industry.

Areas where most business activities have an impact on to contriubiting sustainaility development goals

Areas where most business activities have an impact on to contriubiting sustainaility development goals.



While a study by PwC in 2015 found out that 92% of companies and 33% of private citizens ever heard about sustainability development goals, the vast majority still holds the view that it’s the government who should take more progressive actions. However, private companies are the key players in this industry, from accmmodation providers to transport companies, technology companies, tour operators, and many more players who are part of the whole tourism value chain.

It’s in the business interests as well in the interests of governments to take care of a well-functioning society and a healthy enviornment. It’s those pillars that drive business and revenue for them in the first place.

Airlines, hotels and tour operators will be much more exposed to scrutiny as more and more people demand more innovative products to fight climate change.

How tourism is fighting against climate change today

While the global tourism sector is responsible for 5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it’s in the same time highly vulnerable to climate changes’ effects. It should be, without a doubt, clear to anyone that it’s in the industry’s own sector to speed up actions against global warming and carbon footprint production. While tour operators produce just a friction of those 5%, the transport and accommodation sectors have still great room for improvements.  

However, the UNWTO report continues, those measures by most transport companies and accommodation providers only establish basic measures, such asalternative energy sources, basic efficiency measures in order to reduce emissions.

Hotel chains and other accommodation providers basically reduce their footprint by estalishing and optimising basic resource effincies or inest in landscape protection by planting new trees, donation to desaster reliefs or providing housing for those victims.

On the other hand, transportation companies, such as airlines and railway companies mainly optimise their processes on an operational management to reduce air pollution: Invesments in efficient vehicles, retrofitting older equipment are just one of many measures. Airlines in particular implement small changes to their daily operations, i.e. one-engine taxiing, improved route planning or optimised air conditioning. 

Achieving carbon neutrality with existing technologies is a challenge for the aviation industry but joint actions with other industries can accelereate their transition moving forward. 

How tourism promotes sustainable economic growth today

The tourism sector is responsible for 10% of the global GDp and employs millions of people worldwide. The companies that were examined in the report employ more than two million (!) people. As a key driver for economic growth and a gateway opener for most countries, tourism companies can be a key promotor for decent work, equality and sustainability:

  • Hotel companies provide a linkage into local communities by integrating their business operations into local value chains, creating local jobs and demand local services. Remember: Big companies usual depend on the supply of local services, goods, products and manpower. And when local enterprises can participate in those value chains, it will ultimately raise the local economy.

  • Transportation companies are an enabler for local communities by providing training and apprenticeships for local people to keep up the demand for international standards. Again, the knowledge about local supply chains can significantly increase the local economic growth by implementing simple measures , like purchasing local goods.

  • Tour operators, on the other hand, surprisngly contriubte to global efforts by educating the host communities about decent work and empower people to know more about sexual exploitation in the tourism sector, giving all people a chance to work with diversity management. Those tour operators should increase their efforts by recuiting more locally, supporting local enterprises and promote a local culture through progammes for customers.

Still room for improvements: How businesses and governments can work together

It should be clear to most people that businesses and governments have a shared responsibility in fighting the effects of climate change and to do their fair share in reducing carbon emissions. The list is long. But ass with so many other issues, this is just a snapshot of key recommendations and action items that policymakers and businesses should bear in mind in the long-run:

 

  1. On the one hand, governments and policymakers in tourism should be more engaged when it comes to formulating new policies, agendas and approaches on a national level. Understanding that tourism has a widespread impact on the whole value chain of the economy, so does it require the involvement with other line ministries, as well as with the private sector. In other words, interlinking the knowledge and expertise of all stakeholders benefits everyone and it can educate other players in the industry as well as travellers alike.  

  2. On the other hand, there is still little awareness of the economic benefits of sustainability amongst most tourism enterprises and SMEs (small- and medium sized enterprises) on how sustainability can increase business outcomes, profitability and ultimately an increase customer satisfaction. Since the growing demand for more sustainable approaches is papaple to all, business operations with a positive impact on destinations and local communities is a prerequisite for long-term success.
     
  3. There needs to be more education and vocational training amongst tourism decision-makers and key players, so that they can better understand the principles of sustainability and cost-reducing measures can contribute both to business outcomes as well as to sustainable development goals.  

Conclusion

The future of tourism is already here. Global tourism businesses have already recognised the sheer potential and value of sustainability, both in terms of their cost optmisation, operational excellence but also in value creation. The increasing demand for more sustainable services and the demand for more transparency on what businesses do to contribute in carbon reductions will drive competitiveness. It makes sustainable a core theme in every business along the whole value chain. On the other hand, current technologies have already reached the limit as it is for the aviation industry already. Over the long-run, companies will need to implement more innovative approaches to maximise their efforts.  

Governments across the world know the potential and the urgent need to act today. They know that tourism is a key industry for any national economy that opens the doors to any nation, invites investors to invest in the local economy and to create new jobs. But when it comes to the formulation of new policies and agendas, a cross-governmental and cross-ministerial approach is required to fully maximise the potential of sustainable policies to reach sustainability development goals.  

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