As the world slowly emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, many people’s thoughts have turned to holidays. How many of us feel for a break? But what sort of break?
Months of lockdowns and isolation, not to mention deaths of loved ones and a new-found respect for healthcare workers, have triggered serious reflection on the ways in which the world has been functioning.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the tourism sector. A healthy tourism industry is essential for the global economy, culture and environment, but in the past, it has also done harm.
“This pandemic sent a warning that we need to change the way we live, travel and see the world. We have an opportunity to build back greener and opt for low-carbon measures that protect nature and biodiversity while maintaining the economic benefits that the multi-million dollar tourism industry brings to local communities around the world,” said Mark Radka, Chief, Energy and Climate Branch of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).
The stakes are high. In 2019, the sector accounted for – directly and indirectly – some 330 million jobs worldwide, equivalent to one in 10 jobs globally, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). Related sectors such as hospitality, hotels and food service industries, employed an additional 144 million workers in both developed and developing countries. Failure to recover could reduce global GDP by 1.5 to 2.8 per cent.
In some Small Island Developing States, tourism accounts for 30 per cent of export revenues (UNWTO). Small businesses, responsible for 80 per cent of the industry, are particularly vulnerable, as well as women, who make up 54 per cent of the tourism workforce, according to studies by ILO and the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Moving to sustainable tourism
UNEP is at the forefront of efforts to mainstream policies which transform the industry and address the triple planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.
At a recent online conference, Transforming Tourism for a resilient and sustainable post-COVID world, UNEP experts laid out a six-point plan moving from over tourism to sustainable tourism by building more resilient communities and businesses through innovation, digitalization, circularity, sustainable finance, sustainability and partnerships.
“Financial stimulus and recovery packages for COVID-19 are a once in a lifetime opportunity – not a dollar can be lost or wasted while transforming the tourism sector towards a future which is as ‘pandemic and climate-proof’ as possible,” said Radka.
The pandemic’s impact on tourism has been significant. Dwindling tourist numbers in protected areas have threatened the species and communities that live there. Deforestation and poaching have risen in many parts of the world. COVID-19 also led to an increase in single-use plastic products and packaging by the hotel and tourism industry.
“Reducing the use of plastic items and packaging can actually reduce cross-contamination touch points,” said Helena Rey, Tourism Programme Officer from UNEP. “Through cleaning and sanitization procedures, the tourism industry can bring in re-use models that can increase traceability and reduce the risk of contamination. This would also ensure that tourism reduces the burden on local waste management systems and protects local ecosystems.”
UNEP is raising awareness of these issues through global campaigns and partnerships, including the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and the Clean Seas campaign. These efforts call on citizens, governments, and industry to take action to reduce plastic pollution. In particular, the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative enables businesses, governments, and other tourism stakeholders to lead by example in the shift towards greater circularity in the use of plastics.
Transforming value chains
Tourism is responsible for 1/10th of greenhouse emissions worldwide. UNEP is working with its partners to reduce emissions created by hotel operations, food consumption and events. The work is supported by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.
The Transforming Tourism Value Chains project focuses on environmental issues like cutting food waste, improving the sourcing of products and services, and improving the efficiency of air conditioners, in four countries in which tourism occupies a major role in the national economy: the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Mauritius and St Lucia.
Jake Kheel, vice president of Grupo Punta Cana, a private sector partner in the Dominican Republic, says this makes good business sense as holidaymakers, particularly the younger generation, want to be assured they are bringing value to the places they visit.
“People want to know their leisure time is not affecting local communities and eco-systems. Handled correctly, tourism can bring great benefits, create jobs, increase revenue for people who need schools and health services. It has to be self-sufficient,” he said.
The pandemic has also advanced digitalisation, innovation and the integration of new technologies into tourism. Virtual journeys, electronic menus, touchless check ins, digital consumption behaviours are on the rise. Since the COVID-19 outbreak this year, the online ticketing rates at scenic sites nationwide in China have risen to around 40% from less than 20% in 2019, signalling a rapid uptake in digitalization.