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Sustainable Tourism: A Key to Global Solutions

By Dr. Reese Halter and Dr. Dave Randle

When most people think of tourism, they probably don't think about an industry that can contribute to global solutions for the difficult challenges facing the planet.

Tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world. According to the U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism visits grew from about 900 to 940 million visitors last year and the figure is projected to rise to 1.6 billion by the year 2020.

The UNWTO states that tourism is the largest industry in the world with an estimated 11.5 percent of the world GDP and employing about 12.5 percent of the world's work force.

Conducted properly, tourism can play a role in implementing global solutions for challenges such as climate change, poverty reduction, waste reduction, preserving eco-systems and moving the world to a more sustainable planet.
Unlike the fossil fuel industries that often resist serious efforts to address climate change, operators in the tourist industry understand that climate change left unmitigated threatens their business. For example, the Caribbean region is already being threatened by climate change:

  • predictions of increased frequency and intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes.

  • rising sea levels resulting in salt water intrusion to coastal habitat and fresh water supplies.

  • changing weather patterns and new drought cycles that threaten food production.

  • disruptions in rainfall patterns that threaten water supplies.

  • bleaching of the coral reefs that threaten vital tourist attractions.

  •  increases of diseases such as dengue fever due to warmer temperatures.

Unless these issues are mitigated, the quality of the tourist experience is likely to decrease and the visitors will be less likely to come to the region.

Given that vacations require disposable income, tourists often come from more wealthy countries. If tourist accommodations are surrounded by depressing poverty, high crime or security issues, or constant concerns of catching infectious disease, they will be become places tourists avoid.

Tour operators also have an strong interest in alleviating poverty. Poverty in touristed areas has the potential to:

  • driving away business.

  • increased crime risks.

  • increased spread of infectious disease.

  • destruction of the environment.

  • low quality of skills and services.

Tourists are also increasingly discriminating visitors. They want authentic local arts and crafts and opportunities to experience the local culture. If abject poverty keeps local artists from improving skills or the culture either to depressing or unsafe to explore, then the tourist destination or service suffers as a result.

Tourism destinations and resorts have an interest in keeping their natural areas clean and pristine. Fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, diving, snorkeling, swimming, boating, or walking on the beach are all experiences where pollution can quickly turn a positive activity sour.

In contrast, natural areas that are kept clean and pristine are likely to be well reviewed and popular destinations.

Where possible natural areas shouldn't just be maintained but actually enhanced to insure the continued quality of the tourism experience. As a result, those in the hospitality industry have a vested interest in conservation, biodiversity, and sustainable fisheries that other industries may not care as much about.

It is encouraging to note that a growing movement in support of sustainable tourism has been developing the past few years. Progress is evident in the tourist industry, as well as at the government level.

For example, Walt Disney Company (which includes Walt Disney World Resort, the most visited tourist destination in the world,) has taken strong leadership on sustainable tourism.

Disney's corporate goals include:

  • Reduce zero net direct greenhouse emissions 50% from the 2006 baseline by 2012 and then subsequently become a net zero greenhouse gas emission company.

  • Reduce electricity consumption by 10% from 2006 baseline levels by 2012.

  • Decrease waste sent to landfills by 50% from 2006 baseline levels by 2013 and then work to send zero waste to landfills.

  • Have a net positive impact on ecosystems and continue to increase its grants from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund.

Imagine the impact if the entire tourist industry would follow Walt Disney Company's lead. While politicians argue about the feasibility of modest carbon reductions, Disney is reducing carbon emissions 50% in a short six years. They are making these reductions in a way that also is enhancing net profits.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is a global leader in promoting sustainable tourism. What began as a collaborative effort of the U.N. World Tourism Organization, the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), the Rainforest Alliance, and the U.N. Foundation, has now expanded to include over 200 members from around the globe. The GSTC represents a diverse membership including U.N. agencies, leading travel companies, hotels, country tourism boards and tour operators.

The GSTC has recently released a new global standard for sustainable tourism the "Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria" The criteria requires members of the tourist industry who want to be certified to meet standards include:

  • Demonstrate effective sustainable management. This includes making sure that long range planning is in place to continue to operate more sustainably.

  • Maximize social and economic benefits to the local community and minimize community impacts. This includes providing a living wage to people working in the tourist industry as well as providing economic benefits to the larger community where tourists visit.

  • Maximize benefits to cultural heritage and minimize negative impacts. This includes protection of indigenous people's rights as well as preserving sacred and cultural sites of the past.

  • Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts. This includes addressing the critical issues of carbon emissions, water, waste management, biodiversity, and protection of ecosystems.

If implemented on a large scale throughout the tourist industry, the GSTC criteria will go a long way to address the issues of climate change, alleviation of poverty, waste reduction, conservation of water, and biodiversity, cultural heritage, and protection and enhancement of ecosystems. Educational Institutions are also beginning to address the issues of sustainable Tourism as well as model sustainability on their campus.

The University of South Florida recently launched a new Sustainable Tourism Concentration as part of their M.A. in Global Sustainability program. The program includes education on implementing the new GSTC criteria. Working together, the tourist industry, the leadership of the GSTC, and educational institutions can begin to implement models for sustainability that others may follow.

Sustainable tourism can lead the way in demonstrating how to break the fossil fuel addiction, model good water conservation and waste management, and place a higher value on protecting biodiversity and ecosystems. It can also reduce costs and increase net revenues of the business, created economic development for the community, and is projected to create 69 million new jobs in the next decade.

Each traveler can assist in sustainable tourism by choosing resorts and destinations that practice sustainable tourism as evidenced by being certified by a GSTC recognized sustainable tourism certification program.

Sustainable tourism is indeed a key to many global solutions and may be one of the most hopeful strategies for the global transition to sustainability.

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SLDI - Sustainable Land Development Initiative is a stakeholder social media association now positioned to help transform the industry that creates the very infrastructure of our civilization. SLDI is dedicated to delivering sustainable land development technology and knowledge resources to promote and enable fully integrated sustainable land development worldwide.

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