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The future of tourism is sustainable and regenerative

To make tourism sustainable and even regenerative, travellers themselves must undergo a mindset shift — but that's not easy in a cost-of-living squeeze.

To make tourism sustainable and even regenerative, travellers themselves must undergo a mindset shift — but that's not easy in a cost-of-living squeeze. Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Naoko Tochibayashi
Communications Lead, Japan, World Economic Forum
Naoko Kutty
Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Japanese domestic tourism is recovering from the shock of the pandemic but international travel is lagging.
  • Travellers increasingly demand sustainable and affordable options — but those are hard to come by in a cost-of-living squeeze.
  • To make sustainable and regenerative tourism a reality, travellers themselves must undergo a mindset shift.

Since the significant easing of its pandemic border control measures last October, Japan has seen a steady return of foreign tourists.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), the number of visitors to Japan in July reached 2.32 million, recovering to about 80% of 2019 levels.

And Japanese people are travelling their own country more, too. According to the travel trend survey by Japan Travel Bureau(JTB), 72.5 million people in Japan traveled within their country during the summer vacation season in July and August — almost returning to pre-pandemic levels. International travel, meanwhile, was low: 1.2 million people, which is 40% of the 2019 figures.

Many people wished to travel abroad but were unable or unwilling to do so cited concerns about safety and health, the lengthy immigration procedures involved in international travel and the unfavourable exchange rates and high costs.

For the outbound recovery to gain momentum, a safe and economically enabling environment is essential.

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Overtourism: a challenge to sustainability

As the influx of tourists revitalizes local economies, a growing concern is emerging: the resurgence of overtourism, where popular destinations are flooded with an excessive number of visitors. In response, Prime Minister Kishida Fumio has announced plans to develop solutions this coming autumn to combat overtourism, addressing its negative impacts on local life, including congestion, traffic jams and litter.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, overtourism had started to plague certain Japanese tourist spots. As Japan's tourism industry and tourist destinations hit hard by the pandemic make strides toward recovery, it essential to view these challenges as opportunities for positive change and transform tourism into something more sustainable.

Hotels across Japan are accelerating their sustainability efforts. One noteworthy example is the Tokyo Station Hotel, located within the Tokyo Station building, which is designated as a National Important Cultural Property, is implementing the "CO₂ Zero STAY" programme to virtually eliminate CO₂ emissions generated during a stay by all rooms booked through the official website.

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This initiative, which uses the carbon offset system, calculates and visualizes the amount of CO₂ emissions generated by guest stays and invests the equivalent amount in emissions reduction activities, thereby reducing the emissions to virtually zero. All costs are covered by the hotel itself, meaning that guests contribute to expanding forest conservation efforts and supporting renewable energy simply by staying at the hotel.

Another player in the sustainable hospitality scene is Mori Trust Hotels & Resorts. They are taking steps to preserve tourism resources by introducing eco-friendly amenities like wooden and bamboo toothbrushes and hairbrushes, as well as razors and shower caps with reduced plastic content. They are also eliminating individual packaging for soaps and amenities while charging for these items. The company is currently reassessing the amenities used in their 18 hotels nationwide, which collectively use around 16 tons of plastic each year, and aims to cut down the plastic used in amenities by over 90% by 2024.

Traveller behaviour and tourism

As hotels and other players in the tourism industry move towards a more sustainable future, it is equally crucial that travellers, who are the main drivers of tourism, follow suit and change their attitudes and behaviours.

According to the Sustainable Travel Report 2023, which gathered insights from over 33,000 travellers across 35 countries and territories, 76% of global travellers — and 56% of Japanese travellers — express a desire to embrace more sustainable travel over the coming 12 months. On the other hand, 76% of global travellers and 75% of Japanese travellers say that the global energy crisis and rising costs are impacting their spending plans. This has led to travellers being more budget-conscious, with only 43% of global travellers and 22% of Japanese travellers willing to pay extra for certified sustainable travel experiences.

In light of this trend, offering discounts and financial incentives by tourism providers may motivate travellers to opt for sustainable travel options. Furthermore, providing more information and choices can also promote sustainable travel, since almost half of both global and Japanese travellers feel there are not enough sustainable travel options available to them.

Regenerative tourism: the future of tourism

"There's one thing we can do: actively choose sustainable hotels and resorts, and contribute to their economic impact. Guests are the key to creating a sustainable environment," says travel journalist Naoko Terada, highlighting a crucial step that we all must take.

To achieve sustainable tourism that considers environmental, social and economic impacts, it is essential to change the mindset of travellers, who must act responsibly in terms of their impact on local communities and the natural environment. The realization of a future in which regenerative tourism, a further evolution of sustainable tourism, becomes mainstream depends on changing the behaviour of both hosts and travellers.

In the World Economic Forum's Travel & Tourism Development Index 2021: Rebuilding for a Sustainable and Resilient Future, Japan took the top spot in the development index ranking.

Japan, a highly regarded tourist destination, is leading the way in the future of regenerative tourism — where the more tourists visit, the more the place changes for the better — which will have a significant impact on the transformation of the global tourism industry.

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Institutional update

World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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