As the world continues its recovery from COVID-19, tourism, one of the industries hardest hit by the pandemic, has the opportunity to set itself on a greener, more sustainable path. It is a question of revival, but also survival: the industry’s continued viability as borders re-open depends on it becoming more green.
Earlier this month, UNEP’s Emissions Gap Report 2021 warned that, despite renewed climate pledges from countries, the world may still see a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century.
The tourism industry has already been feeling the impact of global warming.
Rising temperatures increase the risk of natural disasters, putting tourist sites in danger. More frequent forest fires, floods, rising sea levels, food insecurity, coastal erosion, loss of ecosystems such as coral reefs and disruption to cultural and natural heritage sites all impact the long-term sustainability of the tourism industry.
On 9 November 2021, at the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow (COP26), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) launched ‘A Net Zero Roadmap for Travel and Tourism’ – an ambitious plan for the tourism industry to reach net zero by 2050.
“Climate action needs a dramatic step-up if we are to have a shot at limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C,” said Inger Andersen, the Executive Director of UNEP. “The travel and tourism sector has a big stake in decarbonization because a destroyed planet serves no one’s purpose.”
The tourism sector has widespread economic impact. In 2019 it was estimated it accounted for 10.4 per cent of global GDP and one in 10 jobs. Its revival and longevity will be critical to ensure its continued contribution to livelihoods and economies – but only if it can be made sustainable.
The new roadmap sets targets and benchmarks for the travel industry and offers practical recommendations for businesses on how they can achieve their net-zero targets.
For instance, moving away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources could greatly reduce tourism-related emissions. Hotels could bring in measures to improve energy efficiency, while new ones can be built using sustainable design practices. Airlines can improve existing aircraft technology by retrofitting and reducing weight, which increases fuel efficiency and lowers emissions. The cruise industry can reduce emissions by upgrading existing ships (through HVAC and lighting upgrades) and designing new ships to maximise energy efficiency.
The Roadmap follows the November 4 launch of The Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, which aims to rebalance the relationship between nature and tourism. The Declaration was developed through the collaboration of UNEP, The World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), Tourism Declares a Climate Emergency, The Travel Foundation and VisitScotland.
Less than one week after the declaration’s launch, more than 300 signatories committed to sharing their action plans within 12 months of signing up and releasing reports publicly tracking progress. Signatories include Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, Skyscanner, Accor, Iberostar Group, European Tourism Association, among others. They represent different stages of the tourism value chain, reflecting how environmental concerns are a priority for the sector. Euronews news agency has also pledged to prioritise editorial coverage of organisations that have signed the declaration across all its TV and digital platforms until the end of 2021.
Actions have been suggested to signatories to decarbonise the sector as part of a broader climate action plan.
“The tourism sector has less than 10 years to accelerate the transition to low-carbon and circular business solutions,” said Andersen, “to create new opportunities in energy generation and halve transport emissions by 2030, and to integrate nature-based solutions into their operations.”
Transitioning from the current pathway to net-zero emissions will require significant investment and innovation by tourism stakeholders. To support that transition, UNEP has also launched the Making the Business Case for Climate Smart Investments: Guidelines for the Tourism Sector, which address challenges the private sector faces in financing climate mitigation actions in the tourism sector. The guidelines recommend adopting low-emissions technologies and tourist behaviour change to allow companies to optimize their resource use, reduce their operation costs, and increase their efficiency while improving their environmental performance and tackling climate change.
As part of the global drive towards sustainable tourism, in 2020, UNEP, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative released Recommendations for the Tourism Sector to Continue Taking Action on Plastic Pollution During COVID-19 Recovery. The landmark effort unites the tourism sector behind a common vision to address the root causes of plastic pollution.
Coronavirus pandemic could cost global tourism $2 trillion this year
The coronavirus pandemic will likely cost the global tourism sector $2 trillion in lost revenue in 2021, the UN’s tourism body said Monday, calling the sector’s recovery “fragile” and “slow.”
Despite recent improvements, the report warned that demand for travel could be further affected by “uneven vaccination rates around the world and new COVID-19 strains which had prompted new travel restrictions in some countries.
In the past few days, the emergence of the Omicron variant has led dozens of countries to reinstate restrictions on arrivals, or to delay relaxation in COVID-19 travel and testing rules, leading to wide uncertainty for holiday season travellers worldwide.
Spikes in oil prices and the disruption of global supply chains have also had an effect. According to the latest UNWTO data, international tourist arrivals are expected to remain 70-75 per cent below 2019 levels in 2021, a similar decline as in 2020.
‘We cannot let our guard down’
Although a 58 per cent increase in tourist arrivals was registered in July-September of this year compared to the same period in 2020, this remained 64 per cent below 2019 levels, the UN body found.
In August and September, arrivals were at 63 per cent lower than 2019, which is the highest monthly result since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Between January and September 2021, worldwide international tourist arrivals stood at 20 per cent lower, compared to 2020, a clear improvement from the 54 per cent drop, over the first six months of the year.
“Data for the third quarter of 2021 is encouraging,” UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili said. “However, arrivals are still 76 per cent below pre-pandemic levels and results across the different global regions remain uneven.”
In light of the rising cases and the emergence of new variants, he added that “we cannot let our guard down and need to continue our efforts to ensure equal access to vaccinations, coordinate travel procedures, make use of digital vaccination certificates to facilitate mobility, and continue to support the sector.”
Despite the improvement seen in the third quarter of the year, the pace of recovery remains slow and uneven across world regions.
In some sub-regions, such as Southern and Mediterranean Europe, the Caribbean, North and Central America, arrivals actually rose above 2020 levels in the first nine months of 2021.
However, arrivals in Asia and the Pacific were down by as much as 95 per cent when compared with 2019, as many destinations remained closed to non-essential travel.
Africa and the Middle East recorded 74 per cent and 81 per cent drops respectively in the third quarter compared to 2019. Among the larger destinations, Croatia, Mexico and Turkey showed the strongest recovery in the period of July to September.
The Caribbean had the highest results of any of the subregions defined by the UNWTO, with arrivals up 55 per cent compared to 2020.
International tourist arrivals “rebounded” during the summer season in the Northern Hemisphere thanks to increased travel confidence, rapid vaccination and the easing of entry restrictions in many nations.
In Europe, the EU Digital Covid Certificate has helped facilitate free movement within the European Union, the report added.
New COVID-19 Surges Keep Travel Restrictions in Place
One out of five destinations continue to have their borders completely closed as new surges of COVID-19 impact the restart of international tourism. The latest research shows that still 98% of all destinations have some kind of travel restrictions in place.
According to the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report, 46 destinations (21% of all destinations worldwide) currently have their borders completely closed to tourists. Of these, 26 destinations have had their borders completely closed since at least the end of April 2020. A further 55 (25% of all global destinations) continue to have their borders partially closed to international tourism, and 112 destinations (52% of all destinations) require international tourists to present a PCR or antigen test upon arrival.
The research also shows how destinations are opening up to vaccinated international tourists: 85 destinations (39% of all destinations worldwide) have eased restrictions for fully vaccinated international tourists, while 20 destinations (9% of all destinations worldwide) have made a full COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for entering a destination for tourism purposes. However, just four destinations have so far lifted all COVID-19-related restrictions completely (Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic and Mexico).
UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili says: “The safe easing or lifting of restrictions on travel are essential for the restart of tourism and the return of the social and economic benefits the sector offers. The trend towards destinations taking evidence-based approaches to restrictions reflects the evolving nature of the pandemic will also help restore confidence in travel while helping keep both tourists and tourism workers safe.”
As in previous editions of the UNWTO Travel Restrictions Report research, this latest report shows that regional differences with regards to travel restrictions remain. Asia and the Pacific remains the region with the most restrictions in place, with 65% of all destinations completely closed. In comparison, Europe is the most open global region to international tourists (7% of borders completely closed), followed by Africa (9%), the Americas (10%) and the Middle East (15%).
The ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic further emphasises the importance of national authorities ensuring that immigration procedures and requirements are provided in a timely, reliable and consistent manner across all information systems and platforms, to maintain confidence and trust and to further facilitate international mobility.
Reframing tourism to address plastic pollution
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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