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How we can prioritize sustainability in rebuilding tourism

Tourists wear protective face masks as they take a gondola ride near Rialto bridge following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Venice, Italy, September 9, 2020.

Image: REUTERS/Guglielmo Mangiapane

Maksim Soshkin
Research and Analysis Specialist, World Economic Forum
Isobel Fenton
Platform Curator, Aviation and Aerospace, World Economic Forum LLC
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This article is part of: Race to Zero Dialogues
  • COVID-19 has upended the travel and tourism industry.
  • But there's a way to build back better and reshape how we travel.
  • Conscientious and sustainable tourism practices can help local populations and the environment.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the global importance of the travel and tourism industry economically, as well as its interconnectedness with other industries. Border restrictions, lockdowns and social distancing have impacted everyone in the industry, from small tour operators to multinational hotel chains and major airlines.

According to the latest World Travel & Tourism Council, COVID-19 will impact, in a baseline scenario, an estimated 121.1 million jobs, and more than $3.4 trillion in GDP could be lost in 2020. The longer-term damage to the livelihoods of those in the industry remains to be seen.

But while the negative repercussions of the crisis are uncountable, there have been some side effects that can be harnessed for positive change in the future. The World Economic Forum’s recent Rebuilding Travel and Tourism panel, at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit, explored the intersection of consumer consciousness, technology acceleration and destination management - and found solutions that have the potential to reshape the way we market, manage and plan our travel.


Travelers are becoming more impact-conscious

The COVID crisis has made the travel and tourism industry, like many others, ask: "Should we keep doing things the way we did before?" The answer is, "Of course not," but too often the prospect of achieving real change feels impossible to tackle. We must seize this moment where individual collective action can reach a critical mass to enable structural change.

Adventure Scientists' Gregg Treinish reached this realization himself a number of years ago when he reflected on his travels’ purpose and practice. “I started to feel extremely selfish, like going to these places for my own benefit without thinking about the local people that were there, without thinking about the environment I was travelling through and how to do something positive for those areas,” he said.

He extrapolated that there must be others like him, keen adventurers who, given the simple tools and ways, will choose to make a difference. He formed Adventure Scientists, a nonprofit that equips individuals that have outdoor skills with the tools to collect scientific data from nature during their travels.

Now, COVID-19 has given travellers a forced time-out. Promisingly, more people are stopping to reflect like Gregg on their travel patterns and, most importantly, their impact. People are asking themselves questions they haven’t before: Will I be a tourist or a visitor? How can I travel in a way that has a positive impact?

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They’re also expecting answers from the industry. For example, "How many of my tourist dollars will stay in the local economy?"

To date, there have been two barriers to the mainstream conscious traveller: the first was the inquisitiveness to ask those questions and the second was to easily find answers. Measuring claims of sustainable practices and comparing different options while not being taken in by greenwashing was a tall order for travellers to determine for themselves.

The good news is that some of the foundations have now been laid. In navigating travel amid the pandemic, with constantly changing restrictions, travellers have had a crash course in gaining new research skills. During COVID-19, this is taking the form primarily of navigating complex and dynamic border restrictions and assessing the virus risk with fact-based information.

The result has been a win for something other than price-first, as consumers currently think health-first. Now that many travellers have a new mindset and new skills, it’s up to the industry to connect people with accessible and clear information they need to make informed choices.

A woman wearing a protective face mask looks through a telescope as she visits the Eiffel Tower in Paris on its reopening day to the public following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, June 25, 2020.
A woman wearing a protective face mask looks through a telescope as she visits the Eiffel Tower in Paris on its reopening day to the public following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, June 25, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Tourists are looking for experiences in nature

COVID-19 may also serve to start a virtuous cycle that tackles one of tourism’s headline issues: overcrowding. Before the pandemic, tourists attracted tourists. Millions of travelers would seek out the must-sees in the most-popular must-go destinations at the peak must-visit months.

The pandemic has forced public awareness around personal health safety and the virtue of physical distancing. As such, the prospect of being shoulder to shoulder may not be palatable again. Now, consumers are avoiding crowded places and long-distance travel in favor of local and outdoor activities.

Ruzwana Bashir, CEO of, an online platform that connects people with travel experience, noted that local bookings on the platform have doubled, with outdoor activities like kayaking or renting bikes up by almost 400% over the summer. Similarly, people have found a new found love for national parks, with Yellowstone National Park in the US seeing its second-highest visitor numbers ever in August (only beaten by the 2017 eclipse).

Visitors wearing masks leave after an eruption by the Old Faithful geyser on the reopening from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S. May 18, 2020. Picture taken May 18, 2020.
Visitors wearing masks leave after an eruption by the Old Faithful geyser on the reopening from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, U.S. May 18, 2020. Picture taken May 18, 2020. Image: via REUTERS

However, the trend toward more local and nature-based activities may be a double-edged sword. On one hand, increased interest in less densely packed local and nature-based activities could lead to reduced overcrowding in urban areas and spread more of the economic benefits created by travel and tourism to local and rural communities. Shorter-distance trips may also reduce emissions and help many destinations reduce dependence on international tourists who have less interest in preserving destination than residents.

On the other hand, increased interest in nature-focused trips could put additional strain on the already pressured environment. In the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2019, of the top 10 countries with the highest rank for natural resources, six did not even make it into the top 50 for environmental sustainability.

Image: World Economic Forum

It is therefore vital that the growing interest in outdoor activities is leveraged into better stewardship of the very natural assets that generate tourism demand.

Digital solutions are improving sustainability

The pace of travel and tourism service digitalization is being rapidly accelerated during the pandemic. Online platforms for services, marketing, payment and processes have risen in popularity as consumers avoid person-to-person contact. They have also become primary ways to provide and receive health safety standards and other pertinent information about a destination.

For instance, the Aruba Health App, developed by the Department of Public Health, helps travelers keep up-to-date on health information, including businesses that meet higher health-safety standards, as well as COVID-19 test results, explained Evelyna Christina Wever-Croes, Prime Minister of Aruba. Now that these direct channels have been opened between destinations or service providers and consumers, more relevant and targeted communications can be provided to facilitate more informed trip planning in the future.

Similarly, cell phone data has been instrumental in tracking the flow and density of people as well as contact tracing during the pandemic. For example, sharing live information about crowd levels or line-monitoring apps can help facilitate time-based dispersion at tourist hotspots, providing a win-win for both travelers and destinations.

The crisis has also led to the development of various public-private data-sharing initiatives that can lay the foundation for better access to information about sustainability and competitiveness. Examples of this include the World Trade Organization’s (UNWTO) Global Tourism Dashboard and the WTTC’s Recovery Dashboard.

Destinations are also seeing their information communications technology (ICT) readiness and capacity as an advantage to attracting a new breed of traveler. Recognizing the trend of remote working and its likelihood to continue to some degree post-crisis offers a diversification opportunity for highly tourism-dependent economies such as small island states like Aruba with 80% GDP historically from travel and tourism.

Extended working visas targeted at the digital nomad, such as Aruba’s One Happy Workation, will enable remote workers to enjoy working in vacation destinations, while the local economy can benefit from their contribution. Digital technology will also be necessary for providing more efficient and touchless solutions at airports and other public spaces.

In addition, automation, backed by touchless fingerprint and document scanning, face recognition and voice controls, will only grow in use in a post-pandemic world, further increasing the need for ICT readiness and prudent governance of privacy information.

A man wearing a face mask is seen in front of  the Great Pyramids of Giza after reopening for tourist visits, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt July 1, 2020.
A man wearing a face mask is seen in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza after reopening for tourist visits, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Cairo, Egypt July 1, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Long-term progress requires cooperation

One of the most long-lasting lessons from COVID-19 may be the need for multistakeholder collaboration in the travel and tourism industry. The scale and global nature of the current crisis have forced the industry's business organizations, public institutions and others to cooperate on the destination, national and international level. Moreover, coordination with nontraditional entities such as health agencies has become vital.

Examples of global efforts to coordinate action include the World Economic Forum’s COVID Action Platform, which includes industry multistakeholder projects such as CommonPass, an initiative that aims to develop a global, interoperable framework to safely restore cross-border travel to pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has already highlighted various roles of public-private committees and task forces in crisis response and recovery.

Nevertheless, as Martin Eurnekian, CEO of Corporación América, pointed out: “The industry, six months into this tragedy, doesn’t have a clear, consolidated approach.” This highlights the need for greater leadership and a common view of how to tackle the crisis.

The industry players must work together rethink all aspects, from marketing to managing visitor flows to spreading benefits to local communities to leveraging digitalization for sustainability efforts. Failure to do so will reduce the resiliency of the sector and leave it exposed to greater headwinds in the future. As Wever-Croes put it, the mandate now is not to build back, but to build forward.

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