Years ago I visited Stonehenge in England, went right up to it, but wasn’t quite impressed. Reading up on it later, I became intrigued by this mysterious Neolithic monument. Too bad! Going back there now with my short-sighted vision, the experience is far less intimate since the site was fenced off at some distance. Many similar sites have limited access, some have lost their charm, and others you can only read about, never see. The same applies to experiences and customs eroded or compromised by overtourism, climatic change or human interference. The future of tourism as we know it is under threat.. from itself.
Saving tourism from itself
Concern for the environment used to exist in the realm of scientists and New Age hippies, but we’ve matured from being eco-friendly to assuage our guilt about the disappearance of natural habitats and species, or in response to eco-warrior scaremongering about the ozone layer, deforestation and climate change.
We’ve finally arrived at the point of actually caring about the natural world, its resources, and our neighbours’ welfare; and we acknowledge tourism’s significant impact on all of it.
Evidence suggests that younger travellers (hello Millennials!) already practise sustainability at home and work. They don’t expect to take a holiday from conservation; so the demand for sustainable tourism will become more widespread.
We previously explored the various travel motivations among which the enhancing, luxury and immersion perspectives make the strongest arguments for sustainability. There’s even demand for travel to places at risk of disappearing forever.
The way we cater to these motivations must simultaneously mitigate the long-term impact of tourism on destinations.
Modern travellers have become conscientised about the health of the planet and compassionate toward the economic and social well-being of the communities they visit. Have you woken up to the demand?
Who cares? Your responsible traveller. They’ll want to work with you to mitigate negative impact, make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, and generate economic benefits for host communities. They care about the working conditions of the people servicing them during travel. News reports on modern day slavery in the workplace or seasonal work are always met with abhorrence. Animal interactions and voluntourism to third world orphanages are now controversial. We cannot expect to sustain these kinds of practices without attracting serious flak.
Discarding bad, old practices
Responsible tourism holds both travellers and the tourism trade to task for their affiliations, operations and offerings. Consider the finer points of the experience you sell, the accommodations you use, and even how you market your brand. The time for it is ripe, given that UNWTO has designated 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.
It takes one mind-shift. Sustainable tourism is fed by responsible tourism, eco-tourism, ethical tourism and green tourism. Voluntourism also makes a cameo. Euromonitor International describes responsible tourism as the choice of travel destination and tourism products based on ethical, political, cultural, environmental considerations. Ecotourism refers to ecology and the welfare of both locals and visitors. Ethical tourism avoids participation in activities with negative outcomes, from human rights violation to economic expropriation. Green Tourism refers to environmentally-friendly travel.
The obvious truth is that entering any area for tourism, we consume resources, create waste, absorb a share of its physical capacity, we spend, and leave behind our own legacy of interactions.
Responsible tourism suggests that we eradicate the bad and encourage the good impact.
There are already travel companies that specialise in this kind of tourism as a niche rather than a mainstream concept. The future of tourism needs us to turn that notion on its head.
One bad assumption that has to go, is that travellers don’t want to interact with locals – the immersive trend suggests otherwise. Also idea that they only want to see the pretty and have no interest in keeping the natural environment of a destination intact, when this is actually the reason that voluntourism is becoming more popular among different age groups. Tourism products that contribute in any way to global warming or threaten any living species, need revision.
Exclusion of the host community from decision-making that affects them or from economic activity generated by tourism, is unsustainable. Excessive consumption of natural resources in-destination and reckless disposal of waste are unacceptable.
Carrying on as we are just fuels the vicious cycle. Failure to act will likely have dire implications, and not necessarily for the distant future.
Scientists believe overtourism will result in damage due to natural erosion and exacerbate extreme weather conditions, which in turn impedes safe travel and causes water shortages.
Damaging natural or historical sites eventually make them unattractive to visitors and/or force them to close, leaving local residents stranded.
Enhancing travel through sustainability
Whether you believe in climate change or not, travellers care and they’ll make a bigger fuss of giving their business to brands that care too. They’ll want to book with brands that are invested in the preservation of local natural resources, culture, and the empowerment of the host community.
..local participation, drawing on local perspectives, priorities & knowledge, is a pre-condition of sustainable tourism development.
Paris Declaration on Heritage as a Driver of Development
As we move in the direction of growth, it shouldn’t be just for the sake of short-term financial gain. We’ll call it a trend for now, but it’s really a commitment to doing things differently for posterity. Iconic or excessively touristy sites are late in recovery but lesser-known, off-beaten-path destinations with less available funding, need tourism companies to take a decisive stance if they’re to stand a chance.
Or we’ll find more desperate cases like Barcelona, Venice, Machu Picchu and Iceland, where visitor numbers now have to be limited. In some cases, locals protest in the streets against infringements on their quality of life, and travellers are viewed (and treated) as a nuisance.
To achieve genuinely sustainable tourism, companies will need to go beyond the business case & use truly innovative thinking around traveler expectations…use sustainability practices to shape & improve experiences.
A moment ago our Twitter threw up a healthy stream of ‘Save the Rhino’, voluntourism and ecotourism posts, illustrating that elements of sustainable tourism are trending on social media. #tourism4development #TravelEnjoyRespect
Where are you in this beautiful space? Start with visitor management, site presentation and promotion of your destinations. Assist your clients with prior education on the culture, religion, geography, customs and ecosystem of the destination – tell them what to do, not to do, what to wear or not to wear. Focus your experiences on observation first to avoid disturbing the local wildlife with minimal, guided, low impact interaction. Facilitate meaningful interactions between your clients and the host community to promote better understanding of the lifestyle and local issues. Monetising participation in local customs and rituals must be handled with sensitivity and respect.
Provide your clients with quality immersive experiences that don’t degrade or damage cultural values. Offer adventure packaged as environmentally-friendly tourism products. Apply the concept of heritage-based tourism, which presents invest opportunities in culture and local industries/services to sustain and showcase cultural assets. It works for the host community and resonates positively with travellers.
As one of the world’s leading employment sectors, tourism provides important livelihood opportunities, helping to alleviate poverty & drive inclusive development.
Sustainable business strategies in tourism sees locals employed by travel companies, local accommodation used for the duration of a tour, local produce sourced. It’s mutually beneficial to local community and visitor who gets to sample the same homegrown fresh produce consumed by locals. Harness indigenous knowledge, cultural traditions and practices to guide effective management of natural resources.
Long-term view of sustainability
Sharing knowledge with your host community is essential. Some may struggle to see the bottom-line benefit of expending extra resources, but sustainability is about taking the long-term view. Uninformed locals might jump too hastily onto the cash cow of local tourism and that’s where your vision should shine through. UNESCO cited tourism as being responsible for 9% of gross domestic product globally and providing 1 in 11 jobs, but that’s not all:
Currently contributing approx. 5% of the global total, carbon emissions from tourism are predicted to more than double within 25 years.
Cue initiatives like litter clean-ups, recycling or other green collaborations with NGO’s or community leaders. Encourage self-drives, train and boat journeys, biking, and other lower carbon emission modes of transport. Where possible, include local public transport and restaurants that source food in the vicinity, in your tours. Promote souvenir shopping at local markets for some locally-crafted goods and direct contact with local culture, gastronomy, music and sports.
Market your destination from the community perspective. If you can make content on heritage sites and experiences digitally accessible to the public, it binds your brand to the well-being and preservation of your destination and its people. It communicates your values and initiatives, and the integrity of your travel products and experiences.
The ideal is a natural symbiosis between travellers desiring a local cultural immersion and wishing to associate with brands that have good relationships with their local community, and that provide economic support and opportunities.
Set a code of conduct for all travel suppliers you associate with to manage your shared values, help you meet waste targets and other ecological requirements.
Elicit client feedback – reward it even – on ideas for fundraising, educational projects, causes to support, etc.
Your host community becomes your local partners in the process: empowered, consulted, and up-skilled.
As travellers consider their options more carefully in fear of global warming and natural disaster, we share responsibility for protecting our destinations. The wanderlust for local interaction compels us to save cultural heritage from exploitation, disruption and obliteration. We need a mind-shift: from niche to mainstream, for sustainable tourism to become, just, tourism.