When we pack our bags and explore new and captivating corners of the planet, do we ever take the time to consider our impact on local communities and the global ecosystem? More often than not tourism fails to contribute to a positive planetary outcome. However, this doesn’t mean that all tourism is bad. If done in a wholesome way, travelling can contribute to development, empower local communities and even aid conservation efforts. What is more, the Covid crisis has made us hit the pause button grinding flights to a halt and bringing the industry to its knees. Professor Kelly Bricker, vice-Chair of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), Professor and Department Chair at the University of Utah, walks us through the central pillars of sustainable tourism and how the Covid crisis can help us reconnect with nature and reconsider the ways in which we travel.
What makes tourism sustainable and circular?
Sustainable tourism is a journey. When we talk about sustainable tourism, we are basically considering four different pillars. Firstly, how a given destination or business is managed, which includes the kind of administrative plan and oversight in place for implementing sustainable practices. Secondly, we look at the economic and social viability of a business or destination, meaning that there are systems in place to address fairness, social equity and inclusion, and economic development that actually benefits the local system. Thirdly, we look at the cultural side or cultural application, which considers the nature of the destination, enhancing and protecting its cultural attributes, demonstrating respect, and playing a role in its preservation. Not only do we really focus on decent work and equal opportunities at the societal level, but also local purchasing and creating systems that enhance the vitality of the economic system in that area. And then, of course, addressing environmental aspects such as preserving ecosystems or enhancing ecosystems through sustainability, conservation and ensuring that there's adequate water and energy supply. Overall, we try to find a way to address climate change and the most significant environmental impacts that we're facing. This can include anything from wildlife protection and wildlife interactions to ensuring that there are laws and regulations in place concerning wildlife harvesting and trade and making sure that there is no mistreatment of animals. These are the central pillars of how we see sustainable tourism contributing to a positive planetary outcome rather than tourism having a negative impact.
How sustainable is tourism today?
I would say a lot of work has to be done globally. I think the current pandemic has put a pause on travel to many destinations that were definitely being impacted negatively by too much tourism.
Up until now I don't believe we have had the wherewithal, with the exception of some destinations, to really explore the infrastructure and ability to host tourism in a sustainable way. While we have made significant improvements on establishing protected areas, we need half of the planet to be under some level of conservation and we need additional investment in areas that help rural communities and others to find a sustainable balance for tourism development. Unless protections and a sense of capacity are in place, when we reopen the tourism wedge, we will be overrun with more and more people traveling unsustainably. In this regard, the pandemic has actually helped. Although the tourism industry is absolutely devastated right now, the pandemic has made us hit the pause button on an unsustainable model.
We can’t avoid addressing the impacts of the pandemic. What changes will Covid-19 bring to the tourism industry?
How are we going to reopen places like Venice? Are we going to revert to the way we used to do things? It's not until you have a pandemic or some other significant global crisis that people really take the time to consider these questions.
It's definitely going to put some out of business. But I also think it's going to bring structural change. In some ways, I equate it to what happened with 9/11 here in the United States. The way we travelled changed after 9/11. Security issues altered the way we experience travel and how we moved through airports. Covid-19 is having a similar impact, with different practices put in place that focus on sanitary conditions, social distancing and capacity. I don't think these measures will go away anytime soon.
In order for people to enjoy travelling they have to feel like all possible measures have been adopted to ensure their safety. This is turning into a race to enact practices that minimize the spread of disease. We're already seeing guidelines being put in place for adventure travel, hotel and Airbnb bookings, as well as air travel. These strategies must ensure that travelers feel like they can venture out into the world again.
What main trends in sustainable tourism will continue to flourish in the aftermath of the pandemic?
There has been a trend towards destination level concern for sustainability. Something that has changed significantly over the last five years is consideration for a systematic approach to sustainability, whether it's applied to a protected area and its adjacent communities or a destination like a city or town. We are starting to consider the collective impact of travel and tourism on a more regional scale, and therefore more broadly than just looking at a single unit business or hotel. This trend towards a collective approach will continue, and the Global Sustainable Tourism Council's destination criteria is a notable tool that is getting picked up by places like Greece and the Azores, or Dubrovnik in Croatia and Jackson Hole in the United States.
Another trend is a growing middle class (certainly prior to Covid-19). This has led to more and more people travelling and experiencing the world. Post-pandemic, this will continue. Even during the economic crisis of 2008, we saw travel continue to grow at a 3-5% growth rate per annum. Travel and tourism will definitely not go away although I do hope that tourism changes.
With regards to new trends post pandemic a major one is going to concern the issues of safety and security. If a destination has safety and security issues, one of the first industries to suffer economically is travel and tourism. Knowing that we're likely to see other pandemics in the future, people are taking a significant look at crisis management, pandemic management and how to recover and be more resilient. My hope is that this creates a pause and a time to reflect and reconsider how we prepare for crises in the future.
Do people consider environmental sustainability when deciding where and how to travel?
We are seeing this creep into the industry at large. An indicator is the availability of information on environmental aspects when using major online booking systems. For example, on TripAdvisor there is an “environment” segment. When using Kayak.com to rent a car you are given the option of renting a hybrid or electric vehicle. We're starting to see the inventory for sustainable choices on the environment get more attention. Although it certainly isn’t a factor for everyone, we do hope that its role in tourism decision making continues to increase.
Is this increase in awareness also occurring with regards to social issues? Are people interested in knowing when local communities are being exploited by tourism?
Absolutely. There is definitely an increase in the level of awareness. As an academic I read more and more papers about impacts and strategies aimed at changing negative trends in tourism. Furthermore, various organizations are promoting products that are locally owned and operated. Like Awamaki in Peru, that supports local community members and women by running amazing operations that promote local craft work and tours. There is a lot more of that and these are great stories that people want to hear about and experience.
I also see college students showing an interest. They want to make the world a better place. As idealistic as that might sound, there is a genuine wave of interest in understanding the impact you have with the choices that you make, which is encouraging.
Things like flight shaming have become hot topics. Can a “shaming” approach lead to people travelling less and taking less long-haul flights?
We are a large university and we have a learning-abroad program which has gone off the charts. Almost every student that comes through the university is looking for a learning-abroad experience. I don’t think shaming is necessarily the solution, we have to look at how to do things better: if you decide to take a long-haul flight could you stay in that destination for a longer period of time rather than zipping across for a long weekend? It is important to look at your impact and measure it against your travel experience.
Travel is inherent in the psyche of a lot of people: the desire to explore and learn more about the world. Although flights are certainly a significant issue, we have to learn how to travel better. Managing our flights in a way that reduces their carbon footprint is one such arena. Certainly, technology and alternative mechanisms can play a role.
Are the average lengths of stay of travelers changing?
Vacation time from a North American perspective is short and we are probably some of the worst off for day-vacations. As a region that is a big contributor to international travel, this is a very interesting phenomenon, especially in relation to the US markets. On the other hand, there is a movement towards slow travel which means going to a place and learning about it, taking more time to explore the area that you land in. This is also possible due to the proliferation of alternative lodging opportunities, such as Airbnb or others, that are providing an opportunity to live within a community and get to know a community. That has certainly enhanced or maybe even enticed people to spend a little bit more time in a given place.
What changes will the pandemic bring in terms of types of tourism?
Adventure travel, by and large, is probably going to be one of the first sectors to start to come back and be a significant opener to travel and tourism. Adventure travelers tend to be a bit more brazen and feel like they can get out and explore before travelers on the other end of the spectrum.
Another thing that has happened is that local parks, protected areas and trails for hiking, even locally, have expanded. The number of people that are getting out after the lockdown is extraordinary. All of our national parks are now open to some extent, and people are making reservations in advance.
The outdoors is going to become a place of health and well-being. Across the US people feel like that's a healthy way to travel. Although this may increase pressure on our parks and protected areas, it is also an opportunity to highlight the value of these special places and mechanisms for traveling within them, a lot of which are low carbon, physically active and healthy choices.
Does this mean people are regaining a consciousness of nature?
There is a growing concern for mental health and wellbeing and a lot of healthcare professionals are recommending that we get out and take long walks. Nature has that quality and we need to take care of it for our own health and well-being as well. We are connected to the health of our environment, as we've seen over the first months of 2020. This is an incredible opportunity. At the same time, I would like to see our land and marine ecosystem managers, and those hosting these experiences, considering what they're doing to give back to conservation and ensure that these places are left intact for the next generations.
Are there some examples of sustainable tourism that are particularly compelling and provide a model for how we should do things in the future?
Very small tourism operations can facilitate an amazing experience for travelers whilst providing a substantial conservation benefit.
There is a project that I've been involved in for the last 20 years: Rivers Fiji. Back in 2000 Rivers Fiji created a lease for conservation with local communities along a river corridor bringing a whitewater rafting and kayaking program to a very rural area in the heart of Viti Laveaux in the Republic of Fiji. That conservation lease set aside 200 meters on either side of this unique river corridor and protects a wide array of endemic species. Every time a visitor goes down the river in a boat, money goes back to the local communities and therefore supports their livelihoods. It has been a terrifically successful model although it is currently in hibernation. But the corridor is still there and serves as an example of how communities and private business owners can work together to protect a unique river corridor in a country that doesn't have a lot of capacity for preserving these special places.
Another example is one I already mentioned: the women's cooperative in the highlands of Peru. The Awamaki organization has taken handicrafts as a financial basis and then helped women cooperatives train and learn about business operations and implement not only the traditional handicrafts that have been passed down, but take people on tours to these amazing communities in and around the Machu Picchu area. These women’s children can now attend school and they are able to support their families. They work on their own terms and create the crafts that are important to them and their culture. They hold the decision-making power. In this case as well the mechanism for positive change was tourism.
These two examples, show that cultural and environmental conservation can be achieved with small efforts that don’t require major change. What is necessary is a real focus on the communities themselves and their needs.
Learn more about sustainable tourism: download and read Renewable Matter #32
Photo: Peruvian women, Awamaki.org