Thursday, 25 August 2016

How do we mainstream sustainable tourism?

by Jeremy Smith

THIS QUESTION – which should be at the heart of all our discussions – was the theme of an inspiring event I attended at the United Nations. After two days of discussions, workshops, walking tours, networking events and more, all organized by Travel + Social Good, these were the five thoughts left running round my mind as I try to answer it.

Stop worrying about labels 

It really doesn’t matter whether it’s called eco, sustainable, responsible, geo, fair trade, pro-poor tourism or whatever. No one outside of a very small inward-looking clique cares, and it makes those who obsess about such things sound like the People’s Front of Judea from the Life of Brian. It’s called tourism. Either we do it well … or we don’t.

End the snobby ‘I am a traveller … they are tourists’ divide 

It’s perfectly possible to go on a responsible, sustainable holiday as a tourist. It’s equally easy to be a selfish, wasteful traveller. It’s not what sort of holiday I choose to take that matters. It’s how I choose to take it.

All tourism is luxury 

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization there are about one billion tourists going on foreign holidays each year. It sounds a lot, until you view it in the context of this being a planet of 7.5 billion people. What it means is there were 6.5 billion men, women and children who didn’t nip off for a weekend in Bruges, rent a villa in Tuscany, trek the Camino or see any other country than the one they live and work in for pleasure last year. That’s 86% of the world. Of course some forms of tourism are more luxurious than others. But before we argue the toss between backpacking and glamping, boutique and heritage, cheap flights and Lears, we need to check our collective privilege. Because it’s the 6.5 billion non-tourists who mostly provide our sustainable local food, clean our award-winning eco-lodges, feature in our idyllic snaps of peasant-in-paddy-fields-at-sunset – and more often than not are the ones most negatively affected by the environmental impacts our trips leave behind.

Tourism has to be regenerative

As mentioned in point one, it’s not about the labels. What matters is what we do. It is no longer enough just to aim to reduce tourism’s negative impacts, or even to remove them altogether. We have to make the world better, better for us, and for the 6.5 billion who weren’t lucky enough to go abroad last year. Whether we are working to re-wild denuded habitats, employ circular economy approaches to our supply chains, re-invigorate dwindling cultures, or to nurture an idea that being a human in this world has to be about more than just work – our luxury industry has to leave the world better than we found it. When we start from this premise, our business models become very different indeed.

Know when enough is enough

#Travel has always been driven by the desire to discover new places and explore where no one has gone before. Yet we have reached a point where there are very few of those places left, at the very same time as many of the places we love most have become so saturated with visitors that what lured us there first is being destroyed. It’s one thing to develop destination marketing and management strategies that seek to spread people into less visited areas. But we have also to acknowledge that such an approach must set limits to avoid creating a solution that simply expands the very negative impacts it was adopted to avoid. Otherwise we’re going to end up with all-inclusive resorts in the Antarctic and theme parks in the Galapagos. We need to leave some places alone.

Jeremy Smith is a writer and editor specialising in tourism communication. He works with responsible and sustainable travel businesses, and is co-author of Rough Guides' only guidebook dedicated to responsible tourism, Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to See the World.

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