When the United Nations designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development (#IY2017) I started to think about all the opportunities out there to celebrate, educate and mobilize efforts leading to more sustainable tourism! After all, having worked with tourism development programs in several countries in Latin America, I knew for a fact how difficult it is to characterize and achieve sustainable tourism. In fact, even the definition of tourism itself is difficult! Think about it: what is tourism for you? It is certainly easy to visualize it, but it is hard to define it because there are so many aspects and components involved. While we can always start thinking of tourism just in terms of leisure travel or being on a holiday or vacation, there is so much more involved, and tourism can be used to describe the people who engage in travel, the industry that enables people to travel, the technologies that enable information dissemination, but also the economic, social and environmental context of destinations that influence how people behave and react in places. These difficulties present serious challenges for our understanding of the positive and the negative impacts of tourism on destinations, peoples and places, and consequently it impacts our understanding of sustainability in tourism as well.
So, instead of digressing into these very complex explanations about what tourism really means, and whether sustainable tourism is even possible – at least for now, let me start by presenting three basic positive facts about tourism that motivate me to keep focused on addressing the sector`s sustainability challenges:
- Tourism is an industry that has the potential to promote and support environmental protection and conservation. A healthy, beautiful, and well managed natural area is a valuable asset for tourism. In fact, nature itself is one of the tourism sector`s main attraction. Its protection and conservation will ensure that the social and economic benefits that result from tourism keep flowing, but also that biological diversity is maintained, and natural resources are preserved. While, evidently, tourism can also present serious risks to the viability of nature-based attractions, for example, through immense volumes of traffic, pollution, and natural resources consumption (e.g., water, energy), there has been so much progress made to reducing the sector`s environmental and social footprint that tourism today is most likely seen as a driver rather than a threat to sustainability. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), for example, since 2004 (COP7), has established a series of regulations and guidelines for sustainable tourism development, which have resulted in significant opportunities to addressing the many impacts of tourism in biodiversity, particularly in developing countries where the largest and most critical biodiverse environments still remain. Other global initiatives have since propelled the use of innovations and good practices to support low-carbon tourism planning (10YFP/UNWTO). The design of policy, tools and indicators for sustainable tourism development (United Nations World Tourism Organization – UNWTO), the use of standards and certification for tourism businesses and destinations (the Global Sustainable Tourism Council – GSTC), a sustainable tourism toolkit to enhance conservation in protected areas and world heritage sites (International Union for Conservation of Nature – IUCN), are other examples of policies and programs that support making tourism more sustainable, but also the environment more resilient.
- Tourism is an industry in full growth mode that can produce substantial social and economic returns. According to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, global international tourist arrivals grew by 4.0% to September of 2016, if compared to the same period a year before (this represents about 956 million international tourists worldwide). In the Americas, the growth has been stronger with 4.4% growth, led by very strong growth in Chile (29%), Argentina (27%), Cuba (12%), and Canada (11%). Several studies point to the unequivocal positive relationship between tourism growth and economic expansion. Travel and tourism, for example, employ more people than many other sectors (WTTC, 2015). With a total impact of 9.4% of world employment, travel and tourism is one of the leading job creators in the world (over 277 million jobs in 2014, WTTC, 2015). For every one dollar spent on travel and tourism, 3.2 dollars are generated in GDP across the entire economy – one of the highest ratios of any economic sector! On the other hand, tourism has also the potential to break social barriers and promote social inclusion, as, in many instances, it creates opportunities for women and youth to participate in the labor market and/or to benefit from the productivity associated with tourism (e.g., culture, gastronomy, arts and crafts).
- Tourism is an industry that can drive public recognition, awareness and action about climate change. Tourism is one of the most vulnerable sectors to climate change. Tourists, perhaps more than anybody else, can more vividly experience the impacts of climate change. When they visit a beach that is being destroyed by erosion, dive into a bleached coral reef, or no longer see the flagship species that motivated their travel, for example, they understand the imminent risks posed by climate change. And, so do the local population who no longer get the economic benefits and prospects of tourism development. This process, however, can and are leading countries to develop adaptation policies and programs that will lead to more resilient destinations.
Coincidently with the UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, in 2017, the IDB will conduct an internal update of its Tourism Sector Framework (TSF). For the next three years, this new framework will guide the Bank`s operational, dialogue, and knowledge generation activities with the countries it works with in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) Region and will introduce specific recommendations to addressing new — and not so new challenges of the sector. For example, the Bank will foster better understanding of the challenges to promoting the equitable generation and distribution of economic benefits of tourism activities, the protection and enhancement of the natural and cultural capital that provides the basis for tourism activity, and the adaptation and mitigation measures to counter the risks of climate change impacts in the Region.
What can we do to celebrate together? In 2017 use the hashtag #IY2017 to post pictures of your travels and tourism experiences, which, in your view, are promoting sustainable tourism in the following five key areas:
(1) inclusive and sustainable economic growth;
(2) social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction;
(3)resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change;
(4) cultural values, diversity and heritage;
(5) mutual understanding, peace, and security.
What a fantastic opportunity to support the United Nations to promote sustainable tourism in Latin America and the Caribbean.
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