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Stronger, Greener and More Innovative: The Future of Tourism in the Americas

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Ministers from across the Americas have met to map a course for the sustainable growth of the region’s tourism sector, a lifeline for many millions and a key driver of economic growth. Though kept apart physically due to the extraordinary circumstances, the 65th meeting of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Regional Commission for the Americas saw Member States more united than ever in their determination to harness the power of tourism to recover from the economic and social impact of COVID-19 and drive future growth.

The second of the UNWTO Regional Commission meetings to be held virtually, the high-level discussions were opened by Chairman and Minister of Tourism for Jamaica, Edmund Bartlett. He was joined by UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili, and Ministers of Tourism for 22 Member States from across the Americas. The meeting was held as destinations across the region continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, as well as allowing Member States to share their responses to the shared challenge, discussions also focused on plans for sustainable recovery and future resilience, with an emphasis on the potential of digitization and new ideas and in boosting investment in green business models.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said: “The temporary suspension of tourism has had a significant impact on the Americas. This meeting showed the shared determination to grow back stronger and better once the conditions allow. Sustainability and innovation will be at the heart of tourism’s recovery, both in the Americas and in every other global region. The sector’s return to growth will be a lifeline for many millions of people across the Americas while also helping protect and promote the region’s many cultures and natural heritage.”

Strong Partnerships for Innovative and Sustainable Tourism

Reflecting the dynamic nature of tourism and the sector’s ability to adapt, the meeting featured the announcement of a joint collaboration between UNWTO and the Interamerican Development Bank (IDB) designed to promote digital transformation and positive change. The “Beyond Tourism Innovation Challenge”, will identify the best new ideas for the disruption of tourism, with a focus on sustainability and creating opportunities for all.

The meeting of the Commission for the Americas also saw a presentation of UNWTO’s joint project with the IFC (International Finance Corporation). The “Green Investments for Sustainable Tourism” initiative is designed to promote more investment in the greening of the sector, with a special emphasis on hospitality and on small-and-medium-sized businesses.

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Reframing tourism to address plastic pollution

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At the intersection of greater environmental awareness, stricter public health measures and the return of the tourism industry lies an enduring threat: plastic pollution.

Research shows that increased production and use of personal protective equipment in 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, significantly contributed to plastic pollution on beaches and elsewhere.

But it is not just the COVID-19 pandemic that is leading to an increase in plastic pollution. A new United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report, From Pollution to Solution: a global assessment of marine litter and plastic pollution, shows that plastic pollution has been increasing year on year, even before the pandemic.

There is currently between 75–199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, and in 2016 some 9–14 tons of waste entered the aquatic ecosystem. But by 2040, it is estimated that this will have almost tripled to 23–37 million tons per year. Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of all marine waste.

Changes to the traveller, government and institutional approaches are necessary to address the plastic crisis and protect human and environmental health.

Traveller choices

Experts say that reducing single-use plastic product consumption and adhering to public health and sanitary measures to protect from COVID-19 and other diseases is not mutually exclusive.

“During the pandemic, we have seen a misconception on reusable products, such as steel water bottles being less safe than single-use plastic water bottles,” says Helena Rey de Assis, UNEP Programme Manager. “This wrong perception has increased the use of single-use plastic products by consumers and affected government and tourism operators’ regulations. Single-use plastic items and packaging are not sanitization measures in themselves. The virus can survive on these, and they can be contaminated during their transport or handling.”

Rey de Assis says travellers on holiday can take steps to reduce the amount of waste they generate while saving costs. Bringing one’s own bags, water bottles and toiletries can decrease the burden on local waste and recycling infrastructure. It would also gradually reduce local economies’ dependency on single-use plastic products.

UNEP’s Clean Seas platform – the largest global coalition devoted to ending marine plastic pollution – has produced an interactive project entitled “What’s in your bathroom?” highlighting the prevalence of plastic in common personal care products. As many of these products are available in tourist accommodations, shifting to viable alternatives can help reduce the threat of plastic.

Government legislation

The impetus on reducing plastic pollution does not lie solely with individuals. Strong legislation has been shown to be an effective means to ban, reduce or phase out single-use plastic.

Bans can prompt the local tourism sector to innovate, provide visitors with environmentally friendly options, and educate consumers. In Kenya, the ban on single-use plastics has addressed its “plastic pollution catastrophe,” according to Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife.

“The ban has improved the state of Kenyan beaches and national parks with reduced visible plastic pollution,” says Balala. “Efforts should be global because even if we clean our country, we will always have plastics that are thrown from ships in high seas swept to our beaches. Therefore, I would like to make a worldwide appeal for people to reduce the use of single-use plastics, and eventually, abolish it altogether.”

Institutional incentives

Tourism operators, businesses and institutions can also take the initiative to voluntarily support the shift away from the industry’s reliance on plastic. Leading the way in voluntarily reducing plastic use can reap commercial benefits. Less litter, for example, can lead to more picturesque views and more visitors.

The Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI), co-led by UNEP, requires national and local governments, private companies and supporting organizations in the tourism sector to commit to reducing plastic pollution and shift towards circularity by 2025.

The online travel platform Booking.com is one of over 100 signatories to the GTPI committed to creating a circular economy of plastics. This commitment includes steps to eliminate single-use plastics while maintaining health protocols.

“While we agree that health and safety is of the utmost importance, we also saw that many of our partners were unaware of alternative, plastic-free ways to offer high levels of cleanliness and hygiene at their properties,” said Thomas Loughlin, Sustainable Supply Lead at Booking.com. “This is why we published our own set of guidelines, created in partnership with the GTPI. We wanted to make sure our partners had access to a broader range of credible, practical information, so they could make more informed decisions about how to tackle these challenges in a sustainable way.”

UNEP has partnered with Flipflopi, a circular economy movement based in East Africa, and Routes Adventure to release a short film entitled “Pieces of us,” set in the tourist destination of Lamu, Kenya. The film highlights the role that visitors have played in shifting the local economy towards a reliance on tourist-oriented products.

Following pandemic-enforced closures, travellers, governments, and institutions have a unique opportunity to reframe the tourism industry with sustainability at its heart. Now is the time to fight back against plastic pollution and ensure a cleaner, more resilient and more economically viable future.

UNEP

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Holiday Travel Cleared for Take Off, but COVID-19 Continues to Impact the Journey

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After more than a year and half of the pandemic, the holiday travel season will get a strong start with 3 in 10 of all trips Americans plan to take slated for Thanksgiving.

Over the course of the holiday travel season, two-thirds of travelers will fly and/or stay in paid lodging. Over half (58%) of travelers say they expect to spend about the same on travel as they did in 2019, and 1 in 5 will spend significantly more, driven by higher-income households.

Travelers continue to be concerned about COVID-19 and are embracing mitigation measures, saying they are more likely to book a flight if masking (64%) or vaccinations (58%) are required.

Workplace flexibility is giving holiday travel a boost, spurring 75% of travelers who plan to work during their trips to add extra days because of the ability to work remotely.

Why this matters

The holidays are a time to connect with family and friends, and this year a return to travel will make spirits bright for many. According to Deloitte’s inaugural report, “2021 Deloitte Holiday Travel Survey,” Americans plan to hit the roads and skies, as well as hotels and private rentals, to rekindle holiday traditions, but health and financial concerns still weigh on their minds. The report is based on a survey of 6,512 Americans fielded Sept. 9-23, and among those, 2,759 qualified as travelers, and a smaller subset of 1,501 travelers noted they would stay in paid lodging during the holiday season.

Travelers cautiously plan for holiday getaways

The survey uncovers plenty of reason to hope for leisure travel’s robust rebound, but due to ongoing health and financial concerns, some consumers plan to celebrate the holidays at home. For those not traveling, concern about the health of loved ones and waiting for the pandemic to end are the top reasons to stay home, beating out financial concerns.

The holiday travel season will kick off with a strong start with 3 in 10 of all trips Americans plan to take slated around Thanksgiving. Overall, 42% of Americans plan to travel between Thanksgiving and mid-January, taking an average of two trips during the season.

Older Americans are more cautious about the season: 36% of those over 55 years old plan to travel, compared to 45% of 18 to 34 year olds. Those 55 and older also are less likely to participate in travel activities and experiences. For example, 13% will attend a ticketed or public event, compared to 35% of those aged 18 to 34, and 27% will visit a major attraction, compared to 53% of those aged 18 to 34.

About twice as many travelers plan to road trip (70%) versus fly (37%), citing enjoyment (38%) and convenience (28%) as the top reasons, above health (12%).

More than one-third of holiday travelers (37%) will take a flight over the holidays. Domestic flyers are avoiding layovers; only 6% plan to take a domestic flight requiring a connection. Nearly 1 in 3 of those who will fly, plan to take an international flight.

While 60% will take trips involving a stay with friends or family, slightly fewer (54%) will stay at a hotel or private rental. Nearly a quarter plan to both stay in paid lodging and with friends and relatives across the season.

The pandemic continues to mint new private rental travelers: 43% of those staying in rentals over the holidays have tried this lodging type for the first time during the pandemic. Three in 4 new private renters expect to continue using rentals for at least half of their trips going forward.

Income divide deepens across the travel sector

Bifurcated spending on holiday leisure travel is making the experience merry for some, and bah-humbug for many others. Most travelers say they expect to spend about the same on travel as they did in 2019, and 1 in 5 will spend significantly more. However, a greater share of lower-income households will spend significantly less, and are almost three times as likely to cite financial reasons for staying home.

Higher-income Americans are almost twice as likely to travel this holiday season compared to lower-income Americans (53% versus 32%).

Spending intent also varies widely. Compared to 2019, 26% of lower-income travelers plan to spend less on holiday travel, compared to 30% of higher-income travelers who plan to spend significantly more. Approximately half (48%) of higher-income travelers will spend more than $5,000 on their longest trip, while half (50%) of lower-income travelers will spend less than $1,000.

While 43% of travelers will take one trip over the holiday season, 1 in 3 higher-income travelers will travel three or more times, compared to 1 in 5 lower- and middle-income travelers who travel with the same frequency.

Furthermore, higher-income travelers are more likely to stay in paid lodging (63% versus 43% for lower-income travelers), and nearly twice as likely to fly (48% versus 26% for lower-income travelers).

The frequency of travelers driving their own car for holiday travel is nearly equal across income levels (56% for lower-income travelers, 58% for middle-income travelers, and 55% for higher-income travelers).

Travelers embrace COVID-19 requirements

Lingering health concerns continue to impact when and how Americans travel for the holiday season. In selecting a destination, travelers are considering their vaccination status, local COVID-19 restrictions, and ability to avoid crowds.

Most travelers embrace COVID-19 transmission mitigation measures. Nearly two-thirds (64%) are more likely to book a flight if masking is required, and 58% say the same for proof of vaccination.

A full two-thirds of high-income travelers say vaccine requirements make them more inclined to fly. However, 16% of travelers say a vaccine requirement would make them less likely to fly; 10% say the same for masking.

Vaccination status of those in the travel party and the destination’s COVID-19 restrictions are the two top factors in determining where to travel this season.

With many trips spurred by visits to friends and family, 42% will head to cities for the holidays. Beaches (22%) and the great outdoors (16%) are other top travel destinations which offer the ability to unwind and avoid crowds.

Travelers under 55 years old are 4.5 times more likely to travel with children, and the vaccination status of children will affect their holiday plans. One in 10 Americans under 55 years old cite their unvaccinated children as a reason to stay home, and one in seven cite is as a reason not to stay in paid lodging.

The gift of remote work boosts holiday travel

Ongoing workplace flexibility and remote work continues to provide a boon to the travel sector, with working travelers taking more trips, increasing their budgets and extending their stays.

  • While most will completely disconnect, 4 in 10 travelers will work for at least part of their trip this holiday season.
  • Working vacationers are taking twice as many trips this holiday season as those planning to disconnect on their getaways.
  • Three-quarters of travelers (75%) who plan to work during their trip are adding at least one day to their stay as a result. And, more than half (57%) will add three or more days to their longest leisure trip because they have the ability to work remotely.
  • Working vacationers are more than two times as likely to increase the budget for their leisure trips as compared to 2019. Company work from home policies were cited as a key driver of increased trip budgets.

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Putting Women’s Empowerment Centre Stage in Tourism’s Recovery

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The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has launched the ‘Centre Stage’ project, with the support of German Federal Ministry for Economic Development (BMZ), Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH and UN Women.

Over the course of one year, from November 2021 – November 2022, the project will support the tourism sector in placing women’s empowerment and gender equality at the heart of recovery plans following the COVID-19 pandemic. The project will be piloted in four participating Member States in collaboration with the National Tourism Administrations of Jordan (MOTA), Costa Rica (ICT), the Dominican Republic (MITUR) and Mexico (SECTUR).

The impact of COVID-19 on women in tourism

Women make up more than half of the tourism workforce at a global level (54%), according to the Global Report on Women in Tourism, Second Edition. However, women are often concentrated in low-skilled or informal work and have fewer opportunities for education and career development. As a result, women in the sector have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with less access to social protections and a reduced capacity to absorb the economic shock caused by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the tourism sector has historically provided women with opportunities for empowerment, offering many a livelihood and source of autonomy. For this reason, UNWTO has identified the recovery phase of the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to address the gender inequality in the sector.

Concrete measures towards gender equality

Under the ‘Centre Stage’ project, the participating National Tourism Administrations and tourism businesses will implement a one-year action plan containing a series of concrete measures designed to increase opportunities for women’s empowerment. They will be supported by local NGOs, professional organizations and be accompanied by UNWTO through a series of virtual and in-person training opportunities.

The measures included in the Action Plans span the 6 areas of work considered key for gender equality and women’s empowerment in tourism: Employment; Entrepreneurship; Education and training; Leadership, policy and decision making; Community and civil society; Measurement for better policies. The measures have been targeted to the needs identified in the four pilot countries and look to address the specific challenges women face in each.

A total of 10 tourism businesses and 4 NGOs/community organizations will join the participating National Tourism Administrations to implement the measures. UNWTO recently organized two informative webinars for participants from Jordan as well as Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

The activities of ‘Centre Stage’ will get underway in November 2021 and include training sessions with a gender focus, personalized guidance aiming to improve working conditions for women in the sector and producing data on the effects of the pandemic on female employment in tourism.

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