Davos Agenda

Are we finally turning the tide towards sustainable tourism?

If the epitome of sustainable tourism is to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs, a long road lies ahead.

If the epitome of sustainable tourism is to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs, a long road lies ahead. Image: Photo by Joseph M. Cheer

Jacqueline Gifford
Editor-in-Chief, Travel and Leisure
Joseph Martin Cheer
Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Heritage, Western Sydney University
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Davos Agenda

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  • Tourism significantly contributes to national and local economies but can also negatively impact the environment, and finding an equilibrium is key.
  • Tourism must become more sustainable to support the planet's health and secure the livelihoods of communities who rely on it.
  • While much work needs to be done, initiatives are emerging to show that making inroads toward sustainable tourism is possible but will require enormous global effort to make it happen at scale.

As the observed effects of climate change intensify, the chorus asking how a more sustainable tourism future can be achieved has amplified, and rightly so.

Contentions regarding the sustainability credentials of tourism have heightened and links between popular destinations and crises have become ever more noticeable. Summer wildfires this year in Hawaii, Italy and Greece illustrate a sector prone to external and internal shocks. Yet, it remains a sector that is critical to supporting the livelihoods of many.

Throw into the mix the sector’s carbon intensity, the tendency for tourist demand to overwhelm local well-being, the environmental effects of inappropriate tourism developments and, on the flip side, its vital economic contributions, the urgency to optimise its potential to destination communities and minimize its shortcomings is pressing.

What then are salient issues that might lead to more sustainable tourism futures and the desire for a more benign tourism sector?

The tourism-conservation nexus

Tourism and conservation are natural allies, yet questions remain about whether they hinder or help conservation efforts. Wildlife tourism is projected to be a $300 billion global business by 2032 as the desire of travellers to get closer to nature grows.

The Great Barrier Reef, for example, a major tourist drawcard, contributes $4.8 billion to Australia’s economy and supports 64,000 jobs. After multiple mass coral bleaching events exacerbated by climate change, its placement on the UNESCO endangered list is called for. On the upside, however, there are signs that citizen science is helping tourists contribute to conservation efforts.

In Rwanda, high-priced education programmes targeted at tourists have underwritten mountain gorilla conservation efforts. As the population of these animals have increased, it provides evidence of the potential for tourism to contribute in measurable ways to the conservation imperative.

Sustainable tourism messaging

With myriad appeals for tourists to act more responsibly, how can messaging be more impactful in driving behaviour change? Sustainable development is reinforced and the Sustainable Development Goals are prominent, but how can we strengthen the messaging?

The new normal was to have led to a heightened awareness of travelling responsibly. The 2023 Global Sustainability Research study noted that 43% of consumers would reject buying from companies that were not acting in socially or environmentally responsible ways. According to the 2022 Global Travel Trends Report, 78% of respondents desired to make positive impacts on the communities they visited.

The appetite to be more responsible is apparent. Closing the ‘intention-action’ gap remains a challenge, however. Alas, this challenge transcends tourism.

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Mitigating food waste

Food waste accounts for 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – three times as much as aviation industry emissions. And rotting food produces methane that is evidently more environmentally harmful than carbon dioxide.

Hotels produce a staggering 79,000 tons of food waste annually and the urgency to address this wonton wastage is pressing. Operational measures to reverse this trend are overdue and myriad approaches are called for, including resizing serving portions, rethinking kitchen management and staff training, devising innovative responses to repurposing leftovers, including donating to community organizations and insisting on optimising the use of the ‘whole’ ingredient.

Carnival Corporation, for example, has installed 'biodigesters' across 600 cruise ships to process organic waste. This has led to a reduction in food waste by more than 30% per person, with aggressive goals to reach 40% by 2025 and 50% by 2030. This signals that incremental change can happen.

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Workforce shortages

As the tourism recovery gains momentum and 2019 tourist visitation levels are realized, the challenge to secure a stable and well-trained workforce is a drag on the sustainability of sector enterprises. The post-COVID-19-pandemic exodus of workers and their reluctance to return adds further pressure to a sector desperate to return to growth.

In 2019, the sector was estimated to comprise of nearly 1 in 10 jobs globally and of these, women accounted for more than 50%. Additionally, many tourism jobs are filled by migrants and young people.

For a sector that is labour intensive, workforce shortages can be debilitating. Yet, just how the sector can convince people that employment and working conditions are attractive enough, remains a formidable constraint. Striving for decent work in the sector requires urgent consideration if the brain drain is to be stemmed.

Staff shortages experienced by airlines and accommodation providers have seen service standards decline and operating costs increase as cancellations or scaling back of services intensify financial pressures.

Where to for sustainable tourism?

The genesis of sustainable tourism is linked to the 1987 Brundtland Report, more commonly known as the Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. This report was a watershed that set the tone for the use of the term sustainable development, which, at its core, referenced the notion of intergenerational equity.

Intergenerational equity rests on ensuring that what is being done today, should not compromise the planet for future generations. The emergence of regenerative tourism is a timely throwback to the Brundtland report.

Notwithstanding, climate change and its effects equivocate that evidence of an increasingly compromised planet contradicts suggestions that sustainable development is underway.

The four issues highlighted are clearly not exhaustive and comprise a sliver of broader concerns. Nonetheless, their illustration attempts to highlight the complex and diverse nature of the imperative towards more sustainable tourism futures. Buy-in towards a global compact for sustainable tourism is desperately sought.

If the epitome of sustainable tourism is to leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs, a long road lies ahead. Whither sustainable tourism?

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Davos AgendaClimate and NatureTravel and Tourism
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