World Tourism Day occurs this week, with the theme for 2017 being “Sustainable Tourism – a tool for development”. According to the UNWTO’s official site for the event, “World Tourism Day 2017 presents a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the contribution of sustainable tourism to development among public and private sector decision-makers and the international community, while mobilizing all stakeholders to work together in making tourism a catalyst for positive change.”
This is the 27th World Tourism Day. Almost every single annual event, from the first one in 1980 which focussed on “Tourism’s contribution to the preservation of cultural heritage and to peace and mutual understanding”, through 1993’s “Tourism development and environmental protection: towards a lasting harmony” to 2015’s “1 Billion Tourists 1 Billion Opportunities” have focussed on raising awareness of the industry’s potential.
Working my way the list of past WTD celebrations, only four – 2013’s “Tourism and Water: Protecting our Common Future”, 2008’s “Tourism: Responding to the Challenge of Climate Change”, 2000’s “Technology and nature: two challenges for tourism at the dawn of the twenty-first century” and 1983’s “Travel and holidays are a right but also a responsibility for all” – have framed the focus as an acknowledgement of the challenges the industry also faces.
While 2017 may be presented officially as the UN’s International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, it is also the year that challenges around tourism’s negative impacts hit mainstream news. So called ‘overtourism’ focuses on an increase in people – too many of us bottlenecking at one time into the places most promoted by the industry. It hits the news because it is a lot easier to see, feel, photograph or communicate than increased carbon emissions in our atmosphere, or plastic microparticles in our oceans, or the destruction of biodiversity through species loss happening at a rate between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than the natural extinction rate. The thing is though, overtourism/overcrowding is just another symptom – as Anna Pollock’s excellent piece on the issue last week explores – of an economic system (and a global tourism industry) designed on a premise of infinite growth.
Because 2017 wasn’t just about overtourism. Other symptoms are becoming more visible too. It’s been so hot of occasion this year that planes have been unable to take off from runways. We’ve seen hurricanes decimate Caribbean islands whose economies were 60% or more reliant on international tourism. The lack of water in Cape Town’ dams has got so dire that authorities are seeking to reassure the sector with articles such as “Water-scarce CT will not turn tourists away”.
According to a 2015 paper by Stefan Gossling and Paul Peeters, unless tourism radically changes its way of operating it will double its energy and land use within 25 years and double its water use in 45 years. All this growth is set to take place during a period where the world is supposed to be radically reducing its resource use to meet the terms of the Paris Climate Accord. It is why earlier this year a collection of NGOs, civil society groups and representatives of academia launched The Berlin Declaration on Transforming Tourism, stating: “As tourism experts and practitioners, we are concerned that the current dominant tourism model is not able to support the necessary transformation of our world envisaged by the 2030 Agenda. On the contrary, in too many cases it is exploiting people, harming communities, violating human rights and degrading the environment. Transforming our world is not possible without transforming tourism.”
I do believe tourism has great potential. But if we are to realise that potential, then our focus, especially around these official events, should not be on promotion of so called ‘sustainable tourism’ as if this is something that we have achieved. It should be on looking honestly at the problems caused by our current way of operating, and asking how best we address them. Only then might we be able to develop our sector so that it becomes truly sustainable in the years to come.