Sustainable Development

6 years to the Global Goals – here's how tourism can help get us there

A view from the benches on a summer day at Park Güell in Barcelona, Spain: Inclusive governance and community engagement in tourism planning and management can aid sustainable development goals.

Inclusive governance and community engagement in tourism planning and management can aid sustainable development goals. Image: Unsplash/D Jonez

Zurab Pololikashvili
Secretary-General, World Tourism Organization (UNWTO)
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  • Tourism is a significant economic force that has returned close to pre-pandemic figures, with 1.3 billion international travellers and tourism exports valued at approximately $1.6 trillion in 2023.
  • The tourism sector must adopt sustainable practices in response to climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
  • Inclusive governance and community engagement in tourism planning and management are key to ensuring the sector’s support to local identity, rights and well-being.

With mounting challenges to our societies – conflict, geopolitical tension, climate change and rising inequality – we should look to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their promise of a shared blueprint for peace, prosperity, people and planet by 2030. However, as UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres reminds us, “that promise is in peril” with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic having stalled three decades of steady progress.

Tourism can help deliver a better future, and with less than six years to go, it must unleash its full power to achieve this.

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Tourism’s economic boon

International tourists reached 89% of pre-pandemic levels in 2023. Around 1.3 billion tourists travelled internationally, with total tourism exports of $1.7 trillion, about 96% in real terms of the pre-pandemic value. Preliminary estimates indicate that tourism's direct gross domestic product (GDP) reached $3.3 trillion, the same as 2019, as per our World Tourism Barometer.

Yet, persisting inflation, high interest rates, volatile oil prices and disruptions to trade could impact the pace of recovery. Uncertainty derived from ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Israel-Hamas conflict and growing tensions in the Middle East, alongside other mounting geopolitical tensions, may also weigh on traveller confidence.

Results from the World Economic Forum’s latest Travel & Tourism Development Index reflect the impact of some of these challenges on the sector’s recovery and travel and tourism’s potential to address many of the world’s growing environmental, social and economic problems.

Therefore, as the sector returns, it remains our responsibility to ensure that this is a sustainable, inclusive and resilient recovery.

The climate imperative

Climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss are making extreme weather events increasingly challenging for destinations and communities worldwide. The tourism sector is simultaneously highly vulnerable to climate change and a contributor to harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

Accelerating climate action in tourism is critical for the sector’s and host communities’ resilience. We are taking responsibility but more needs to be done to reduce plastics, curb food waste, protect and restore biodiversity, and reduce emissions as the demand for travel grows.

The framework proposed by the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism is catalyzing the development and implementation of climate action plans, guided by and aligned to five pathways (measure, decarbonize, regenerate, collaborate and finance). It’s a clear plan to enable the transition towards low carbon and regenerative tourism operations for resilience. Over 850 signatories from 90 countries are involved in innovating solutions, creating resources and connecting across supply chains, destinations and communities.

Leaving no-one behind

Tourism can be a powerful tool to fight inequality, within and between countries but only so long as we also address diversity, equity and inclusion in the sector, provide decent jobs and ensure respect for host communities and shared benefits.

One good example of tourism’s potential to progress shared prosperity is Rwanda’s Tourism Revenue Sharing Programme. Initiated in 2005 and revised in 2022, it aligns conservation efforts with community development. The programme designates a portion of National Parks revenues to ensure that local communities benefit directly from conservation and tourism activities. Initially set at 5%, the share of total revenue now stands at 10%.

New tools, jobs and values

Technology, ease of travel and the pandemic have all accelerated changes in how we work. Again, as we progress, we have a duty to ensure we are leaving nobody behind. Education and skills are vital to progressing equality, growth and opportunities for all, making them a cornerstone of the SDGs. However, tourism businesses face a labour shortage to cope with travel demand. We must make tourism more attractive to young people so they see it as a valued career path.

We also need to support micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), which make up around 80% of all tourism businesses worldwide and up to 98% in some Group of 20 (G20) economies. While each country’s challenges are different, digitization, market access, marketing and skill gaps are key areas we should address with targeted policies for MSMEs and entrepreneurship.

Measuring impact

Sustainable tourism is only possible if we can properly measure the sector’s impact and progress in three dimensions: economic, social and environmental.

Last March, the UN adopted a new global standard to measure the sustainability of tourism (MST) – economic, social and environmental. Developed under the leadership of UN Tourism and endorsed by all 193 UN member states, the MST statistical framework provides the common language (agreed definitions, tables and indicators) for producing harmonized data on key economic, social and environmental aspects of tourism.

Countries and other stakeholders now have the foundation to produce trustworthy, comparable data for steering the sector towards its full potential. And indeed, over 30 countries and subnational regions have already implemented the flexible MST framework, focusing on the data most relevant to their sustainability efforts.

Centring community wellbeing

Increasingly, communities worldwide demand a tourism sector that respects their identity, rights and wellbeing.

Transforming the sector requires rethinking governance as more holistic with a whole-government approach, multi-level coordination between national and local policies and strong public-private-community partnerships. Listening and engaging residents in tourism planning and management is at the core of the sector’s future.

Take Barcelona as an example. Here, e tourism represents 14% of the city’s GDP. The Tourism and City Council was created in 2016 and relies on citizen participation to advise the municipal government on tourism public policies. This initiative demonstrates the advancement of tourism governance from classic public-private collaboration to public-private-community. Therefore, issues around the visitor economy become those for official city consideration.

Delivering on tourism’s potential

We urgently need to grow investment in tourism. The data is encouraging: the UN Conference on Trade and Development World Investment Report 2023 shows that global foreign direct investment across all sectors, tourism included, reached approximately $1.37 trillion that year, marking a modest increase of 3% from 2022.

At the same time, we need to ensure this investment is targeted where it will make the most significant and most positive impact by building greater resilience and accelerating the shift towards greater sustainability.

The significant benefits tourism can offer our economies and societies, as well as the challenges obstructing us from fully delivering on this potential, are now more widely recognized than ever.

Tourism is firmly on the agenda of the UN, G20 and Group of Seven nations and the Forum. Delivering on this potential, however, will require political commitment and significant investment. But given what is at stake and the potential benefits to be gained, it should be seen as a huge opportunity rather than a daunting challenge.

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