The contradictions of ‘sustainable’ tourism in a post pandemic world
By David Salt
Tourism is riven by irony. It can empower local economies, support meaningful conservation efforts and enable people to learn more about other cultures while simultaneously encouraging them to reflect upon their own. At the same time, the act of travelling to distant locations creates greater strain on the already stressed Earth system, homogenizes and commodifies intangible culture and often places intolerable pressure on limited resources in poor regions.
Tourism can bring out the best in us and yet it frequently comes with a price that few of us want to acknowledge.
But why even talk about this in a time of global pandemic lockdown? No-one is actually travelling at the moment (far fewer people, anyway)!
Well, as Joni Mitchell says: “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone,” and now that global tourism has been effectively shut down most of us are yearning for our holiday escape.
As the hotel reservations dry up and jet contrails that once criss-crossed our international skies fade away, what is it we can say about tourism and its impacts (both good and bad)? And what will (or should) happen when we get passed the pandemic?
Last week the UN released a policy brief asking these very questions, and it makes some telling points. We might all say we want things to return to ‘normal’, but when it comes to tourism, we really need a new normal. The old ways of doing things are clearly unsustainable.
The loss of an economic powerhouse
Something that is becoming blindingly obvious as the corona lockdown grinds on is that tourism plays a massive role in our economy.
According to 2019 data, tourism generated 7% of global trade, employed one in ten people and provided livelihoods to millions of people in developed and developing countries. As borders closed due to the COVID lockdown, hotels shut and air travel dropped dramatically. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourist arrivals decreased by 56%, and $320 billion in exports from tourism were lost in the first five months of 2020. And most forecasts suggest worse is to come.
The UN is particularly concerned about the impact on small island developing states (in, for example, Palau, tourism generates almost 90% of its exports) and developing countries (in Africa, tourism represented 10% of all exports in 2019).
Tourism also provides a critical source of money for conservation, often in developing countries where there is little capacity for such work. For example, a 2015 United Nations World Tourism Organization survey determined that 14 African countries generate an estimated US$142 million in protected-area entrance fees alone. The shutdown of tourism activities has meant months of no income for many protected areas and the communities living around them.
The loss of tourism income further endangers protected and other conserved areas for biodiversity, where most wildlife tourism takes place. Without alternative opportunities, communities may turn to the over-exploitation of nature, either for their own consumption or to generate income. There has already been a rise in poaching and looting, partly due to the decreased presence of tourists and staff.
Cultural conservation is also taking a beating. Many cultural organizations have also seen their revenues plummet with the lockdown. During the crisis, 90% of countries fully or partially closed World Heritage sites, and around 85,000 museums were temporarily closed.
And yet the pandemic has also had an environmental upside with significantly fewer carbon emissions resulting from the downturn in tourism activity. The tourism sector has an incredibly high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. The growth of tourism over recent years has put achieving the targets of the Paris Agreement at risk. Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism has been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.
Return to normal
Taken together, this presents us with a bit of a conundrum. Everyone is pushing for a return to normal, an opening of our borders and the return of the stimulus provided by a growing economy. But that very return to business as usual would see an increase in the environmental decline that international tourism helps create. It’s the conundrum that modern life seems unable to solve, that our societal addiction to economic growth prevents us from engaging with the real costs of that growth.
Even the UN report on COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism seems blind to this contradiction. It points out all the advantages that modern tourism brings but, even though it acknowledges its high environmental footprint, it proposes that we ‘tranform’ tourism as we get past the pandemic by doing it exactly the way we did it before but be a bit more clever about it.
Okay, I’m sure the authors of this report would disagree with my summation. The report uses all the right words (resilience, competitiveness, innovation, green growth, digitalization and inclusiveness) but as far as I can see they are asking for all the benefits of mass tourism without acknowledging the costs of tourism when done as ‘business as usual’ (or the difficulty of reforming this business-as-usual approach).
The term ‘transform’ means different things to different people. To me it means a fundamental shift from the system you are a part of to something quite different. Transformation is not about a little change around the edges, and yet that is what I read in the UN report (noble though its aspirations are).
A new normal
If society was to really to engage with the sustainability of tourism in an uncertain future then maybe we should be talking about how we can protect the many environmental and cultural values of our top tourism destinations in a way that doesn’t involve travelling to see them.
How do we generate the resources required to steward our world heritage in a carbon constrained future? How might we enable access to these rich experiences in a meaningful and fair manner? How do we make tourism more than its current tradition of seeking the new, the pleasurable and the exciting? How do we cultivate this new tourism so that people in the developing world still receive the support they have come to depend upon from traditional tourism?
I believe most people would simply reject any notion of tourism that leaves behind the travel component, and people are hungering for their next hit of travel after this prolonged period of enforced homestay.
However, if we’re being honest, we should acknowledge that tourism is already under mounting pressure from a changing world, and that’s been happening long before COVID 19. Increasing areas of the world are falling out of bounds because of environmental collapse (think fire and storm for starters), political instability, lawlessness and disease.
Last chance to see
If you reject my thesis that tourism as we have known it has to profoundly change – to transform – then may I recommend this itinerary as your next grand tour: the snows of Kilimanjaro, the Great Barrier Reef and Tuvalu. Call it your ‘last-chance-to-see’ tour, and tell your grandchildren you were among the lucky few who used their tourist dollars to experience some of the world’s wonders before they were lost forever.
Maybe that’s the human condition – ‘that we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.’