Globally, more people are travelling to more places than ever before. Our ability to connect with new people, explore new destinations and work across more borders is unprecedented.
The stats are clear: travel and tourism (T&T) contribute more than 10% to global GDP and generate one in every 10 jobs on the planet. In 2018, 1.4 billion international arrivals were recorded, two years ahead of forecast and reflecting 6% annual growth. These figures are expected to continue to increase at a robust pace in the coming years.
Yet this growth in travel and mobility is seriously testing, and in some cases compromising, the planet’s finite resources. Current tourism growth rates are unsustainable environmentally, and possibly economically and socially too. While Thailand has indefinitely closed the famous Maya Bay due to overtourism, many other places, from Amsterdam to Santorini, Mount Everest and Patagonia, struggle to develop and implement caps, protect local residents’ quality of life, and preserve nature.
Travelling contributes to a greater understanding of the world, as well as to business growth, trade and innovation. This is all fine and well so long as we have the natural resources to support it. But what happens when those resources are depleted for good and cannot be restored? Sustainability in T&T is broken, and it urgently needs to be fixed.
Consumers and the catch-22 of technology
One of the primary culprits of today’s sustainability crisis is consumerism. Little by little, around the world, we have become consumer-travellers, trapped in a consumer mindset, constantly barraged with consumer messages, in societies that often define our “personal contribution” in terms of GDP rather than civic participation or community. Indeed, the pervasiveness of consumerism is so comprehensive that we may not even realize it. We have come to assume “this is the way the world is”, or we’ve even been numbed by its vacuous appeal.
As consumer-travellers, we are making choices (“voting,” if you will) with our purchases. When travel was more difficult, there were typically fewer choices and customers had relatively less power. Today, the ease of travel provides numerous opportunities for travellers to vote: from which destinations to visit, how to travel, and what to purchase for and during their trip.
Unfortunately, digital technologies affect this power play, and in some cases are perpetuating the sustainability challenges faced. The Fourth Industrial Revolution has ushered in an era in which digital connectivity is an essential component of destination management. Yet futuristic technology has very real, even if unintended, human implications for T&T: from Instagramania for “been there, done that” locations to travel operators’ social media that (directly or indirectly) increases the degradation of places. This gets worse, not better, unless and until the full spectrum of T&T stakeholders take action. What might that look like?
From consumers to citizen-travellers and stewards
According to the dictionary, “to consume” means to do away with completely; to destroy; to spend wastefully; to squander; to eat or drink in great quantity; and to devour. When we think of ourselves as consumers, the implicit expectation is that destruction or squandering will ensue. This is unsustainable.
What if, instead, we thought of ourselves as citizens and stewards? As an “inhabitant of a city or town, with rights and responsibilities” (citizen) or as “one employed to a place to responsibly manage affairs” (steward)?
So long as travellers see themselves as separate from - and often, with no direct responsibility to - the places they visit, there is tension between their presence and the protection of natural resources. But T&T is inherently interdependent, and the sooner we integrate this concept into both thought and operations, the sooner we have a chance to course correct.
From destination marketing to management to stewardship
In recent years, there has been a gradual but marked shift away from simply marketing destinations towards actively managing them. The primary goal in doing so is to enhance the traveller experience. But if we look closely, too often this focuses on the consumer-traveller mindset. It’s time to upgrade our systemic thinking too, and to think in terms of digitally powered destination stewardship.
Interestingly, among the original definitions of stewardship are close links to T&T and sustainability: “the conducting, supervising, or managing of something, especially the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care (e.g. stewardship of natural resources)”. We could not ask for a more appropriate baseline. But what would destination stewardship look like in practice?
For active travellers, destination stewardship can take many forms, some more drastic than others. The most enlightened stewards may choose simply not to visit over-touristed places, and to travel less.
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Stewardship also means proactively taking responsibility for the environmental footprint of your travels. The Good Traveler initiative encourages travellers to carbon offset their flights. (Carbon footprint calculators are widely available.) Imagine if, in the not-too-distant future, traveller choices could redirect these offsetting investments into things such as research and production of sustainable aviation fuels?
Above all, it means that when you travel, you put yourself in the shoes of a local resident. You become a travel-citizen, with a civic responsibility to the places you visit. This can take many forms. Stay in less touristed locations and less touristed neighbourhoods within cities, and support wholly local businesses, helping to spread the economic benefits of travel and mitigate local pressures. Research local policies for short-term rentals and ensure you’re not unknowingly violating them. And of course, travelling in the off-season is helpful for both congestion and budgets.
Trends in the future of work offer additional stewardship opportunities, especially for digital nomads, remote workers and companies themselves. More and more people are seeking to live and work abroad for a period of time, and working locally - staying longer, living and contributing beyond tourism - is an astute way to steward.
Platforms such as Jobbatical facilitate such arrangements, typically for one year with flexibility, while Unsettled (which won the UNWTO’s 2018 Tourism Start-up award) offers place-based retreats from two weeks to one month. These workplace shifts also open up a new universe of opportunities for travel suppliers to rethink their services and best practices, and for destination managers to refresh their long-term vision, branding and strategy.
Today’s sustainability crisis in T&T is not new. But given the power of technology and ease of travel, it is potentially unprecedented in scope. Shifting our mindsets from being traveller-consumers to traveller-stewards, and our placemaking strategy from active destination management to proactive destination stewardship, are two ways to mitigate the problems faced.
Over time, effective destination stewardship will become a long-term competitive advantage. It will create thriving places people want to visit, and the natural resources in those places will be responsibly treated and protected as the precious, irreplaceable assets that they are.