Sustainability is the ambition; Responsible Tourism is about what we do as producers, consumers and destination governments to realise the aspiration. Too often, “sustainable” is used only in the abstract sense and is inoperative. Responsibility requires that we say what we are doing to make tourism better and transparent about what we achieve. Responsible Tourism is about using tourism to make better places to live in and better places to visit. Responsible Tourism is not a product- all forms of tourism can be more, or less, responsible
Overtourism is the opposite, a consequence of a failure to manage tourism sustainably. Overtourism describes destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably. Often both visitors and guests experience the deterioration concurrently.
It is only the actions of tourism businesses in originating markets and destinations, travellers and holidaymakers and destination management organisations, including local governments that can make tourism more sustainable. Mere relabelling, policymaking and marketing will not make tourism better or more sustainable. Sustainable is challenging to define, and it very often used as little more than a “feel good” word. Responsible is a heavier word, carrying with it a strong assumption that those claiming it are carrying the burden.
Responsibility may be imposed by law or moral tradition, but it may also be willingly assumed. When seeing an issue, we take responsibility and do what we can about it. Responsibility is a burden that can be imposed or voluntarily taken. In either case, the outcome can be defined, measured, reported and credited to a particular organisation or individual. Failure, too, can be identified and blame apportioned.
Twenty years ago, in the Cape Town Declaration, we recognised that “transparent and auditable reporting of progress towards achieving responsible tourism targets and benchmarking is essential to the integrity and credibility of our work, to the ability of all stakeholders to assess progress, and to enable consumers to exercise effective choice.”
Responsible Tourism emphasises what individuals and groups do to address those sustainability issues that arise in particular places, addressing local priorities, transparently reporting what is being done to address the local priorities. When individuals, businesses or governments assert that they are engaging in Responsible Tourism, ask them for the specifics. Ask:
- What are they taking responsibility for?
- How are they taking responsibility, what are they doing and how much are they doing? and
- What have they achieved?
The outcomes and impacts are the evidence we need to judge whether responsibility is being effectively taken. Too rarely is the evidence published, only evidence can counter greenwashing.
Presently certification schemes are opaque and process-driven; certificates fail to offer anything meaningful to the traveller or holidaymaker. The consumer can’t discover anything about the business’s performance on the issue(s) that matter to them, whether employment conditions, water use or carbon emissions. Water consumption matters in areas where the water supply is stressed; it does not matter everywhere. Certification needs to evolve, recognising local priorities and reporting achievement rather than effort. Local authorities representing communities need to determine the priorities, the certifiers need to audit what is reported.
Certification needs to be more meaningful if it is to achieve more traction with consumers: “Certification Plus” Certification needs to evolve with hotels and operators publishing their operational performance. The certifiers can audit that performance and sign off on the evidence, thereby taking real responsibility for their certificates and providing meaningful information to consumers.
In January 2021 the UN Secretary-General reported that extreme weather and climate-related hazards have killed more than 410,000 people in the past decade, the vast majority in low and lower-middle-income countries.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reminds us,” A goal without a plan is just a wish.” In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that “limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Specifically, “Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.” That is not going to be achieved. The problem is that greenhouse gases are ‘locked in’, they last for a very long time. There is no quick or painless fix. The first thing we need to do is to stop the situation from getting worse.
A Perfect Storm?
Covid-19 and some “variants of concern” will be part of the new normal. Travel will continue to be subject to restrictions in source markets and destinations until vaccination and effective treatment significantly reduce both risk and fear. Trust has become a significant issue. The virus is spread from human to human, and the travel and tourism industry moves people domestically and internationally. Lockdowns and quarantines will be with us until the virus is brought under control. The pandemic has dramatically impacted our sector, but it has also resulted in large scale unemployment and reduced incomes for many in destinations and in the source markets, domestically and internationally. As UNWTO and WTTC have established, travel and tourism was 11% of global consumption when the pandemic struck, even if the proportion of global consumption does not fall, arrivals and spend will.
Euromonitor’s view is that with “travel and tourism in dire straits, the urgency to innovate, digitalise and embrace sustainability is even more critical, reinforced by the demands of activist investors.” They point out that the travel industry is falling behind other industries in addressing the SDGs. However, in Euromonitor’s business survey, “42% of the travel industry stated that they would roll back or cancel developing sustainable products and services due to Covid-19. Euromonitor’s Consumer Lifestyles survey in January 2021 found that 66% of consumers globally want to impact the environment positively through their daily actions.
There has been a great deal of talk about bouncing back better, about regenerative tourism, about prioritising value over volume, and about a step-change. However, businesses are carrying higher levels of debt, and they are hungry for business. How much capacity has been reduced is not yet clear. Still, there are seats and beds to fill, competition with lower volumes may drive down prices and reduce the ability to take responsibility for making tourism better.
We need to adapt as well as mitigate
We have procrastinated for half a century, failed to apply the precautionary principle and many continue to hope or believe that a magical painless solution will emerge. Earth is finite, limitless growth is not possible. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) reported on 27 May 2021 that there is about a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level in at least one of the next five years – and these odds are increasing with time. WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas said, “Increasing temperatures mean more melting ice, higher sea levels, more heatwaves and other extreme weather, and greater impacts on food security, health, the environment and sustainable development.” more
The “European Union has recognised that it now needs to adapt to Climate Change” setting out the pathway to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change. While the EU does everything within its power to mitigate climate change, domestically and internationally, we must also get ready to face its unavoidable consequences. From deadly heatwaves and devastating droughts to decimated forests and coastlines eroded by rising sea levels, climate change is already taking its toll in Europe and worldwide.”
2022 & the Critical Decade
In 2022 we reach twenty years of the Responsible Tourism movement. It is essential to look back at what has been achieved and to redouble our efforts. In 2015 the UN General Assembly adopted Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which recognised “that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions, including extreme poverty, is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for sustainable development.” Pledging that “no one will be left behind,” the ambition is “to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path.” Building on the Millennium Development Goals’ success, the Sustainable Development Goals indicate a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 169 targets and 232 unique indicators in the SDG Tracker. A free, open-access publication to enable people to hold their governments accountable for achieving the agreed goals. The SDG Tracker reports at the nation-state level. For tourism, this is only relevant for the smallest states. Local authorities manage destinations: local governments and national park authorities.
No business or destination can or should expect to address the whole agenda of sustainability. To deliver progress, we must focus our efforts. Identify the local issues that matter and consider what tourism businesses and tourists can contribute to tackling those issues. Tackle those local issues which matter and where you can make a difference.
Long lists of sustainability issues are often drawn up from greenhouse gas emissions to vernacular architecture, from child protection to plastic waste. Not all issues matter everywhere. There are many issues ranging from plastic waste and potable water to the conservation of heritage buildings. These issues occur worldwide, but they do not arise everywhere, and the extent of the challenge ranges in local importance from critical to “of no importance”. We live in a diverse world. The scarcity of potable water is a significant problem in many places, but it is not a problem everywhere.
Three issues have a global impact. Two of them pose an existential threat to us, and many other species, one of them is defining a new geological period.
- Greenhouse gas emissions and climate change;
- Biodiversity loss and zoonotic diseases;
- Plastic waste, much of which enters watercourses, creating gyros of garbage in the oceans where it degrades and enters the food chain of many species, including ours.
Greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss are widely regarded as existential threats for our species. Many scientists argue that we are facing a Sixth Extinction driven by our exploitation of our finite Earth and that the key geological marker of the Anthropocene will be plastic. As with Covid-19, climate change and biodiversity loss are “tragedy of the commons” issues. The benefits I enjoy from activities that result in climate change and biodiversity loss are greater, generally much greater, than the negative consequences I experience. The benefits come to the individual person or business. The negative impacts are shared by everyone so that individually it makes sense to continue to exploit and pollute the global commons. In most, but not all countries, governments imposed lockdowns to tackle Covid-19 for the “common good”, recognising that the pandemic, without restrictions on individual freedoms, could kill many more and that health services might be overwhelmed. In many societies, there have been protests against common good regulations on mask-wearing and social distancing.
We are now in the critical decade for action on greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. Covid-19 is likely, as with influenza, to be a virus we learn to live with and manage. The longer we delay taking action on the existential threats, the more expensive it will be. Some have been able to isolate themselves from the immediate danger of Covid-19, but all have been affected by its impact on society and our individual freedoms.
The experience of Covid-19 has revealed the growing inequality between rich and poor, between those with secure and insecure employment, between those on zero-hours contracts and those on salaries who can work from home, between societies that can afford to furlough workers and provide grants and loans to businesses and those, the majority, which cannot. Inequality has been thrown into stark relief. We have not all been impacted equally by this pandemic as we are not by climate change and biodiversity loss, but we are all impacted.
The UN’s Secretary-General has written in a policy brief on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism of the crisis as “... an unprecedented opportunity to transform the relationship of tourism with nature, climate and the economy. … To ensure a fair distribution of its benefits and to advance the transition towards a carbon-neutral and resilient tourism economy.
There is debate about whether we shall “Build Back Better” post-Covid. Many have understood that there is an opportunity to “reset” the travel and tourism sector. It remains to be seen how many destinations will take the opportunity and whether governments will step in to ensure that the “tragedy of the commons” does not preclude those willing to make the necessary changes from doing so. Reducing carbon emissions for some parts of the sector is expensive, and change will not occur if taking responsibility puts the responsible businesses out of business.
Whether we will, as a sector, build back better will be determined by what we collectively do and whether governments will act to ensure that the laggards, those unwilling to change, are prevented from undermining those who are.
At WTM, London, in November 2021, we shall be debating the Platform for Change and launching it for 2022, the 20th anniversary year of Responsible Tourism, when we shall look back to see what progress has been made. As we see every year in the Awards, many businesses, organisations and destinations have developed proven solutions to most issues. We need to tackle three challenges if we are as a sector to make more rapid progress at scale.
- More businesses and destinations need to take responsibility to reduce negative impacts and increase the positive ones – it is action that counts
- Businesses and destinations need to say what they are taking responsibility for and what they are doing. They need to report the outcomes and impacts of their efforts to differentiate themselves from the laggards and greenwashers.
- At the destination level, local authorities need to work with businesses and natural and cultural heritage managers to use tourism rather than be used by it
At WTM, London in 2020, we asked, “Can we make tourism better?“ We concluded that we could. We have many solutions tried and tested by businesses and destinations around the world. We need to share those solutions, and more of us need to adopt them. We need to make tourism better, more quickly. Much more quickly. There is no one solution, and priorities vary from destination to destination. We need a sector response and partnerships between tourists, businesses, communities and their governments if we are going to make tourism better.
The future will be what we make it.
We plan to work with businesses, local authorities, conservation organisations and communities to prepare a Platform for Change to be discussed at WTM London in November 2021. And in 2022 to challenge the industry to adopt the tried and tested solutions that have been developed over the last 20 years.