This year, World Tourism Day will be commemorated on the 27 September, in Qatar.
The General Assembly of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) chose to celebrate the day by focusing on the theme of sustainable tourism.
The UNWTO aims to raise awareness of the significance of the industry as a means of fostering economic, political and social value, as well as of assisting countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targets set by the United Nations.
In particular, the UNWTO refers to sustainable tourism as:
Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.
As global discontent with mass tourism and its subsequent negative effects on local societies is growing rapidly, the concept of sustainable tourism is more important than ever.
Undoubtedly, tourism is an indispensable sector for many of the world’s economies; contributing to economic growth and generating jobs and overall prosperity.
According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, tourism outpaced the growth of the global economy, gaining by 3.3 percent against 2.5 percent in 2016.
The industry generated $7.6tn, contributing 10.2 percent to global GDP, with one in 10 workers worldwide being employed in tourism.
Besides the economic benefits, the movement of 1.2bn across borders signifies the huge potential travelling has in bringing people closer by exposing them to different cultures and giving them a glimpse of other people’s lives.
Yet, there are several cases in which the growing number of tourists combined with infrastructural incapacities and lack of know-how pose a risk for local societies, economies and ecosystems.
A prominent example, currently central to the talks against so-called over tourism is Venice.
The tourist boom that the city has been experiencing is viewed by many as harmful for the future of the city.
Mounting living costs, as well as the lack of economic diversification — given the high profitability in the tourist sector, at least for the short-run — have been driving native Venetians and in particular younger generations away from the city during the past decades.
Luxury resorts in South Asia and East Africa consume huge amounts of water, often 70 times more than the average local daily consumption; working together with local elites, they are able to secure access to such large water supplies.
Given the scarcity of water in many developing countries, the tourists’ use of fresh water further exacerbates the shortage that locals are faced with and is condemned as overly dangerous for environmental sustainability.
Another similar case can be found in the Caribbean.
The islands of the Caribbean Sea are among the most reliant countries on tourism in the world, with the industry contributing 14.9 percent to regional GDP in 2016.
Despite the high economic dependence of the Caribbean on tourism, the increasing number of visitors arriving in the region each year poses a risk to the ecological viability of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Excessive infrastructural developments, the increased number of tourist activities and the subsequent pollution, could have a negative environmental effect if not managed sustainably.
However, as Taleb Rifai, the Secretary General of the UNWTO wisely puts it:
Tourism growth is not the enemy; it’s how we manage it that counts.
As the industry is expected to continue to grow during the years to come, economic growth will be accompanied by challenges such as excessive water usage, waste management demands and the increase in air transportation.
Hence, it is essential that the international community should agree on a general set of sustainable tourism standards on which hotels, airlines, tour operators, public bodies and travellers should start working in line with.
To start, raising awareness of the necessity to preserve the natural, social and cultural characteristics of each destination among both the private sector and tourists is fundamental.
Information about the unique assets and challenges of each area can help tourists make informed decisions about their vacations, while allowing the private sector – especially smaller-scale firms – to adapt and invest in products and services based on the destination’s strengths.
Governments around the world can also play a fundamental role in promoting green tourism.
Whether by directly investing in public transportation and renewable energy, or by providing subsidies and preferential tax frameworks to the private sector, they can encourage research in green technology and promote eco-tourism.
Moreover, by taking into account the interests of different players, government bodies should set out clear development strategies in order to leverage a destination’s strengths, promote partnerships between small and larger players and ensure that the economic gains generated reach the local population.
From economic prosperity to increased cultural interaction, tourism has the potential to lead the way.
We should continue enjoying its fruits, but also be aware of the greater responsibilities that come along with a booming sector.
From the moment we recognise the challenges that lie ahead, promoting sustainable tourism should thus be the duty of all the stakeholders involved the travel industry; from the airlines and hotel companies to governments and the tourist itself.