Despite political polarization, fears of terrorism and economic volatility – or perhaps because of it, as people want to get away from it all if they can – global tourism is surging. The United Nation’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has estimated that tourism generated approximately $1.4 trillion last year – $4 billion a day. International travel has grown at a rate faster than global trade the past five years, and now represents 7 percent of global exports of goods and services. Those numbers are the result of over 1.2 billion international trips taken in 2016, almost a 4 percent increase from the previous year.
Tourism offers countries an opportunity to create new jobs and support economic growth. The challenge, however, is to accomplish this responsibly and sustainably, as tourism also exacts its impact on resource depletion, environmental degradation and climate change. And in too many cases, tourism surges while leaving many local citizens behind – or in the worst case, even depriving them of resources such as food and water. So how can global tourism actually spark sustainable development and inclusive growth?
That is the question posed this week at a UNWTO conference focused on jobs, inclusive growth and fostering partnerships in sustainable tourism. Interest in these challenges is keen, as other than the UN’s annual General Assembly, this is the largest event the intergovernmental organization has ever hosted. At least, that fact is according to Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, who opened the conference yesterday at a conference center on the shores of Montego Bay.
Minister Bartlett urged the 1,300 attendees to maximize their time this week so they can find ways to grow tourism worldwide without overlooking the economic, environmental and cultural needs of local communities. A focus on more responsible tourism is critical across the Caribbean region, home to the top 13 countries most economically dependent on tourism. “Although the Caribbean is open for business, it can’t continue to be business as usual in the Caribbean,” said Minister Bartlett.
The challenge is particularly acute here in Jamaica. According to Minister Bartlett, 106,000 Jamaican jobs are directly linked to tourism, with another 300,000 jobs dependent on the travel industry – or put another way, one in five workers across this country of 2.8 million people. Minister Bartlett had noted in a recent interview that it behooves the global community to find ways to ensure inclusive growth becomes part and parcel of the world’s growing tourism trade to “so that more of the creativity of the Jamaican people is reflected in the output of tourism and the development of the experiences that visitors pay for.”
While the global travel sector conjures images of top global hotel brands and airlines, Minister Bartlett pointed out that small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) benefit from this boom. “80 percent of global tourism is driven by SMEs, so a focus on them is crucial if we will truly build inclusive growth,” he said, “and when these SMEs enter new markets, they help provide more goods and services to local communities.”
The challenges facing this conference, reportedly attended by cabinet-level tourist officials from over 150 nations and hundreds of other travel industry stakeholder groups, are staggering. This sector needs to figure out how to accommodate the global rush of travelers when natural resources are already stretched thin. Many of these suddenly trendy destinations do not have the infrastructure to support water and waste management needs. Finally, there is the stubborn question if more tourism really can create decent paying jobs: The minimum wage in Jamaica, for example, was recently raised to $50 a week.
In addition, tourism officials need to figure out tourism’s fundamental problem: how can the sector become more sustainable when it caters to people who for the most part, whether they travel for business or pleasure, want to behave far differently than they do at home? When one isn’t paying the price (economically or environmentally), that person is most likely not concerned about recycling, water consumption or food waste – let alone knowing how that person who checked them into the resort or waited on them at the resort’s restaurant really live. In most industries, businesses have to evolve because of consumers’ demands – in other words, the dog is wagging the tail. But in the case of the tourism sector, the tail will have to wag the dog – without the dog noticing.
If global tourism officials can crack this nut, then this transformation of leveraging 1 billion tourists to create a more sustainable future will not be such a daunting task after all.
Image credit: Leon Kaye