The tourist industry faces up to its social responsibilities.
The travel sector faces the challenge of managing resources to guarantee its own survival
For years, the issue of social and environmental impact has taken a back seat in tourist sector policy-making, which has been dominated by the goals of profitability and growth. Only ten years ago, sustainability was not a real issue in the sector, but climate change and social factors have multiplied the pressures on the industry, especially in countries like Spain, whose tourism model makes extremely intensive use of natural resources. The problem becomes even more urgent when the pressure that tourism exerts on resources begins to create resentment against the industry amongst ordinary people.
The first point to be made is that working to ensure the sustainability of the travel industry is a process in which all affected parties should be involved, from governments, the resident population and hoteliers to tourists themselves. Until recently, local populations did usually not concern themselves with these matters, because the situation did not affect them directly. However, when they see tourism affecting the normal functioning of their community, they demand that the administration assert itself in a leadership role because it has the tools to do so.
We need to be aware of, and look closely at, models that are already being applied in other countries and destinations that have begun to take the first steps towards a more sustainable kind of tourism, as is the case with the Government of Bhutan, in the Himalayas, which has set itself the goal of ensuring that tourism should be “high value and low impact.” To achieve this, it demands that visitors pay in advance for their hotel (minimum three stars), transport, meals and a registered local guide, as well as a “development tax” of $65 a day. The minimum total cost is around $200 a day, and visitors who travel alone or as a couple must pay a supplement.
But of course, not everyone can do the same! There are business models — and even whole destinations — that are simply unsustainable and difficult to change. And what works for one destination may not be viable in another. Venice is not Barcelona, nor is Barcelona the Costa del Sol, or Amsterdam, or Machu Picchu. The answer may be very different in each case. In Machu Picchu it is easy to control who enters and who does not; on the Costa del Sol, this is not possible.
One thing is clear: making a destination sustainable is far from easy. But it is not impossible. And I would cite Costa Rica as a successful example. The country was exceptionally fortunate in having a strong middle class, political stability, an established network of national parks and proximity to the US market. And despite all this, it was decades before the concept took shape and was integrated into the education system and became what it is today.
According to data presented at the global summit of the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the sector is still expanding, and the number of international tourists is estimated to hit two billion by 2027. These dizzying numbers are great for the global economy, but what is being done to reduce their environmental impact?
Sustainability has always involved much more than just the environment. One of the key ideas is that tourism should contribute as much as possible to the local economy. Each plane and each ship that arrives in a country brings money, and the important thing is that a proportion of the capital that arrives in a country via tourism should stay in the region. If there is no capacity to retain it, or if none is developed, this money leaves again, and without it, it is impossible for the destination to achieve inclusive growth.
As representatives of the tourist industry we need to stand up in public and embrace the message of sustainability: 2017, for example, is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. However, we should also make it clear that the keystone of the whole system is still profitability. Growth and sustainability are not a zero-sum game. And it will take more than the promise of profitability to jolt the sector out of its dangerous inertia.
Tourism has become a big business based on operators externalising social and environmental costs. But companies don’t feel obliged to act responsibly because neither the legislation nor society as a whole demands it of them. So this is everyone’s business. It is easy to blame governments or politicians, but as citizens, we have to think about the value of the natural world and incorporate it into our holiday plans. And as business people, we have to be aware that a growing number of international studies show that investing in sustainability can be profitable, and that companies that do so end up reducing their production costs and spending less.