Despite World Responsible Tourism Day being by necessity virtual in 2020, its speakers ensured it focussed on the key issues of our time for tourism, with the recurring themes throughout the day being recovery, resilience and regeneration.
“The question for all of us is what do we mean about sustainability or responsible development,” said Sir Tim Smit, Co-Founder of the Eden Project in this year’s Keynote speech. “Where do we see the future of our leisure businesses going?
To what degree are we being dishonest with ourselves when we know we need root and a branch change rather than just making sure that we tell tourists not to wash their towels so frequently and that our food will be much better locally sourced.
Smit explored how sustainability is “rather a worthy concept” that fails to capture the imagination.
He felt that regeneration was a far more engaging concept, and that it was going to revolutionise tourism, citing experiences he has had across the world in the field of regenerative agriculture, and how tourism of the future will involve taking people on restorative trips to farms that are truly regenerative, and this reconnecting them back to nature.
“Leisure can be the opportunity to be in nature or feeling your body acting as nature would intend, in surroundings that remind you of how good it is to live on this fragile little planet of ours,” he said.
“Our influence could be so much bigger than any other business, because people when they go on holiday and they stay with us and they eat with us and they pause to relax, they are in a different midzone. So if they go to a place they admire and they and their family are having a good time and they see that that place stands for certain values, those values will rub off on them.”
He concluded with a challenge to the tourism industry: “Are you going to continue being less bad, or are you going to dare to start with the foundation of your business being about doing good.”
Smit’s focus on the potential of the industry to engage people was also addressed by JoAnna Haugen, Storyteller at Rooted, a solutions platform focussed on social impact, sustainable tourism and storytelling. “Humans are storytelling animals,” said Haugen, “it’s a powerful way to connect with someone else.”
Echoing Smit, she explained that people who work in tourism are “bogged down with the jargon of sustainability”.
She argued that the industry needed to stop focussing on this side of sustainability, and engage with the content “that makes something real.”
She shared a story of an Icelandic guide who would take guests to a glacier, and while they were the admiring the beauty he would show them a photo his father had taken many years ago when standing in the same place, and this would make clear to them where the glacier once had been, compared to where it was now.
“Tourism enables us to experience the climate emergency,” said Haugen, “which has far more impact than sharing facts.”
Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, also addressed the theme of the climate emergency, as he shared how his experiences running a company during the COVID crisis had made him reflect.
“In a crisis we need to make things incredibly simple and focussed,” said Francis. “It’s true of Covid, but it also tells us how we need to respond to the bigger future crises of biodiversity loss and climate change.”
Francis challenged the notion of Covid as a leveller that affects everyone.
“We are not all in it together,” he said. “I have seen people in tourism destinations without the safety net suffer most.”
He said that in the face of such overwhelming crises, the need was to focus.
“As we look forward we need to simplify the complexity of tourism down to three or four big items,” he said, “the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, inequality, and inclusiveness.”
Francis said that he’d recently been looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, and that none of the 17 are achievable if we don’t tackle the climate emergency.
“Climate change will create enormous strains including migration issues, which we will be unable to isolate ourselves from,” he said. “It is the gorilla in the room. “
His advice was equally simple: we need to do much more to protect and restore natural areas, which tourism can play a major role in financing.
Gustavo Segura Sancho, Minister of Tourism for Costa Rica also explored the role of tourism in both nature protection and supporting social progress. He explained that although right now is a unique challenge, the year has seen more collaboration between the private and public sector than ever before.
“Tourism is perceived in our country as a tool for social progress,” he said.
“The development of tourism and nature conservation have gone hand in hand, benefiting local communities at the same time.”
Having first made clear that his country took great effort to avoid overtourism or uncontrolled growth in numbers, he explained in 2018 the country had measured the impact of tourism across all 84 counties in Costa Rica, and those that were more visited by tourists were those that enjoyed better standards of living.
“What’s come into view these last few months is that social, environmental and economic issues lie at the heart of what people are going through at the moment,” said Garry Wilson, CEO, of the recently launched easyJet holidays.
“The focus on community and communities has never been stronger, because this is how people are feeling this. We are all being affected as communities, and when we look over the seas and at different countries we see how those communities are coping.
I think that approach to tourism and how we behave in tourism as a community and in communities will be key when we come out of this.”
He also addressed tour operators’ responsibility to act on climate change.
“We need to think about when we are taking people on holiday, what are the impacts we are making negatively, and what can we do to make sure that the net impacts we make are positive,” he said.
“What is our approach to the hotels and the energy they use, the way they employ their staff, where they are sourcing their food, the way they are using their water.
These things are going to be so vital, and we need to be able to answer our customers and say this is our policy, this is what we are doing, this is how we are working with the private sector and government in order to ensure we all play our part.
The time of going into look at a tour operators’ programme and going here’s the main programme and here’s the little programme with the green flag where we make an impact. That’s gone.”
Several of the day’s speakers shared examples of what their own companies were doing to make a positive impact.
“The hospitality industry is extremely well placed to make a difference and help, said Wolfgang Neumann, Chair of the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance.
“It’s more than just employment, we can make an impact on society at large.” He explained that the alliance plans to develop collaborations and use its collective force to be a voice for best practice and provide tools to help and inspire the industry to move from talk to action.
Charlotte Weibe, Group Sustainability Director at Tui, said the company sees four main focuses for its efforts on sustainability.
“One, we need to support our customers in making sustainable choices,” she said.
“Two, we need to upskill and reskill our employees so they can drive the transformation towards sustainable business models. Three, we need to put more effort into measurement. And, four, we need to connect sustainability to our business model.”
She shared news of the company’s plans to launch an open access sustainability academy – a place for people to learn more about sustainability. She explained that the idea is to first start with their own employees, then to their partners, and eventually for everyone in the industry.
Clare Jenkinson, Head of Sustainability at ABTA, introduced the association’s new report “Tourism for good – A Roadmap for rebuilding travel and tourism”.
Jenkinson said the report did three things – it reflects on the value of tourism that COVID has thrown into stark relief; it looks at the challenges the industry is facing; and it sets out a roadmap for sustainable tourism, combining recommending government policies and best practice examples from across the industry.
Rob Holmes, founder of sustainable tourism content marketing agency and specialists GLP films, screened some clips from films his company has made during COVID as part of the company’s #TourismStrong campaign.
Having made 20 films so far, from Ecuador and Costa Rica to Thailand, all are centred around a central theme the films highlighted inspirational stories of tourism operators showing remarkable resilience and finding the capacity to give back to their communities throughout the crisis. “We all got to work together,” said Holmes, “Reaching out to others is vital.”
The day also saw a unique edition of the annual World Responsible Tourism Awards, which this year were all focussed on recognising companies and organisations for how they had responded to the COVID crisis.
Several winners were recognised as either Highly Commended or Commended in the categories of Business Support, Meaningful Connections, Domestic Tourism, Community Support, Fund Raising, Innovation, Neighbours & Employees, or Wildlife.