“The Longer Term Continues to Look Bleak for Sustainable Tourism”

Text: Bulut BAGATIR

While everything has stalled on this period, how can the tourism sector, which has a significant employment rate, manage moving towards sustainable tourism? In the age of climate crisis where tourism adds up 8% of the total greenhouse gas emissions, what needs to be done in order to have the future of tourism with a fundamental vision of sustainability as the new normal?

In the short-term the most positive thing it can do is make short-distance and domestic travel satisfying and enjoyable for customers so that they want to carry on doing it into the future and not go on long flights. Sustainable tourism is not about cutting the amount of trips that people take, its about trying to encourage people not to travel so far or so fast! Try local foods and walks, reconnect with family, learn about heritage, all these things are part of sustainable tourism and can continue to help employ people in tourism and hospitality and in the supply chain of the sector.

The problem is that there are too many politicians and businesses that work against more sustainable visions of tourism. They tend to see success in terms of number of visitors rathern than the overall costs and benefits of each visitor. I have always found it simply bizarre that you have destinations that work on visitor numbers rather than good business sense and apply ROI (Return on Investment) measures, i.e. what is the real expense of having tourists here? What would be the best mix of tourists fort he most positive ROI? Because if you ask those kinds of questions and factor in environmental and social considerations, as well as economic returns to ommunities, you often get quite a different picture from what many destinations have now.

Unfortunately it requires leadership to achieve though. It doesn’t come from most politicians and it is certainly not coming from the UNWTO or the WTTC who inherently have a focus on growth, maybe a “softer” form of growth at times, but that is still what they they are attached too. Unless they give up “growthism” and really look out for environmental, economic and social well-being in a wider sense then the so-called new normal is not going to be much different from the old-normal, in fact it may even be worse. For example, the investments from government and business as a result of the pandemic economic crisis will look us into economic and environmental trajectories fort he next 20-30 years. Do they look green? Generally no. Not enough airlines and tourism businesses that are receiving government assistance have green clauses attached, there;s not enough attention to renewable energy and there’s not enough attention to public transport, and green housing and infrastructure. So will there may be some short-term enforced positives the longer term continues to look bleak for sustainable tourism.

Although it is said and hoped that people will establish stronger relations with nature and they will make their vacation options accordingly to that, (since the borders are closed, it is kind of a necessity) do you think that such a trend is realistic? Taking into consideration of climate change, in long term which factors will make people give up from a tourism concept, which  aims at consuming, in the large hotels?

I would love to give you an optimistic answer here but I can’t really, and its not just because of the pandemic. More and more people are living in urban areas that are poorly designed with too few parks and areas in which there is contact with natüre. Therefore they don’t have sufficient contact with natüre in their Daily lives – which is actually much more important than their tourist life!! There’s lots of talk about people transforming themselves as a result of the pandemic or of tourism transforming itself to embrace natüre more. I think it’s a lovely idea and although some people will be able to do it, for the majority it will be too hard. People have to live. They have somewhere to live and family, it is not therefore easy to change ways during an economic crisis. Is it really that easy to say go back to the family village and live on a small holding so that you have closer contact with natüre? İt can be done but it is difficult and there are things that have to be given up as well.

I think only a small number of people will change their travel plans to be closer with nature, in the long term the majörity of people will carry on as normal or copy what they see as being the latest travel ideal. In the short-term there will obviously be more domestic tourism, for some it will be time to visit family or return to areas their family is from or perhaps to see a part of their own country. But I am not sure if it will last at all and, while it may produce less emissions, which is clearly a good thing, it will mean that overcrowding by international visitors will just be replaced by overcrowding by domestic ones.

In the long term it is going to take something really substantial to give up medium and long-haul travel. Probably not climate change itself but more likely the real costs of emissions that we need to be charging to reduce the impacta of climate change. But I can’t see this happening anytime soon, too many people think that their travel doesn’t make a difference and there’s too many governments that won’t try and regultion or change more for the impacts. Besides, longer-distance travel is still seen as a personal positive and it will require massive social change for that to shift and I cannot imagine it in my lifetime because that’s the way consumer society has gone.

There are discussions that the pandemic will strengthen nationalism in the long term, and cause border rules to be more strict than usual. What could be the consequences of these kind of assumptions on sustainable tourism?

Yes, there is a lot of very ugly nationalism around, although that often tends to be more a result of leaders than many ordinary people. We will still live in a globalized world though. There is so much trade and tourism that is internationalized and cannot be easily replaced, even in economic terms. Unless you are in a country that can completely control the Internet and the satellite television channels it is very hard to stop the flow of ideas across borders. Nationalism tends to be the backstop of poor leaders, as if you have to play the nationalism card and blame someone else then clearly there is a problem! Unfortunately, however, we have a number of poor leaders at the moment! But these things do tend to go in swings and roundabouts and after a while the pandemic will likely become part of the general background of disease that countries have to contend with. This will be especially so for countries that have a substantial tourism industry.

All that said improvements in border biosecurity isn’t such a bad thing – which is different from straight nationalism which I find abhorrent. However, being more aware of tourism’s role as a carrier of disease and invasive species is a good thing for the environment, and not just for tourism but also for other economic sectors, and especially agriculture. But that is quite different from the more ugly forms of nationalism and border control by which countries deliberate seek to make it harder for individuals with a particular nationality, ethnicity, beliefs or religion to visit as tourists.

Even though it is not compatible with the nature of sustainable tourism, there are some socioeconomical views such as it is more suitable for middle and upper classes. What can be done in order to change this view and make everyone involved in ecotourism?

I would answer this in two ways. As it was originally conceived in the 1980s ecotourism was focused on the idea of scarcity rent. That is you limit the number of people who can go to a location because of the environmental impact of large numbers, and you charge those who can go more. I think that is where the idea of it being more suitable for the upper classes came from. Essentially, it was about charging in real terms for what a site could sustain and returning the proceeds back to the host community. Unfortunately, ecotourism has moved a long way away from that to something that has almost become meaningless, because ecotourism must mean that you pay the real cost of your trip in terms of its impact on the environment.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that people should not have contact with nature. They should. Local communities should have free or low-cost access to sites, and especially schools. It is the outsiders we should be charging more! In urban areas there needs to be more attention given to the availability of parks and even small areas of green space for everyone rather than converting them into shopping malls for the wealthy. Nature parks near urban areas can be well designed to provide people contact with nature and in some places parks can provide ecotourism experiences for large numbers of people but the key thing needs to be what can a site (or species) handle before it gets degraded or harmed. We need to realise that there are limits on just how many people a site can cope with. We cannot all go to that site – for the sake of nature. A real ecotourist is therefore someone who is aware of their own effects on the environment and – at times – will deliberately decide not to go somewhere for the sake of the environment. As humans we need to learn to appreciate vicariously, i.e. just being happy in knowing somewhere or something exists but then leave it alone and watch it on a documentary!

What can sustainable tourism brands and destinations do to share their journey with travelers more effectively?

Many of them are promoting their brands quite well. Although they are hindered I think by the fact that there are so many green and eco-labels out there and that some brands use sustainability as a form of greenwashing. The problem isn’t perhaps marketing per se, it is the fact that in too many countries marketing – and the use of certain words – is not sufficiently regulated to make it difficult for some businesses and destinations to simply tell lies. In addition, the problem in sustainable tourism isn’t the good brands, it’s the bad ones. In many case those of us who are concerned for sustainability are engaged in counter-marketing, because there are too many businesses and destinations – and their governments – who do not care for sustainability, their focus is just on getting the numbers through. And there lies the major problem.