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The U.N. Tackles Sustainable Tourism, Sort Of


By Kate Drew

The word travel is enticing — the word tourist, not so much, and tourism, even less so. But, put the word sustainable in front of tourism, and it becomes something fine. It becomes traveling with the intent to make a positive impact somewhere. And that sounds better. Taking a tour of a small village in Peru that connects visitors with local women making handmade crafts warms the heart far more than gorging on the buffet at an all-inclusive resort.

In three of their 169 targets, the United Nations' proposed Sustainable Development Goals address sustainable tourism — behind which is a strategic yet little discussed effort to promote development from within a given locale. Although the General Assembly has in the past recognized the value of sustainable tourism as a tool to eradicate poverty, this is the first time specific objectives have been attached to it.

The Sustainable Development Goals build on an earlier set that was agreed upon by the U.N. in 2000 with the aim of setting an agenda for development across the world. The targets that relate to sustainable tourism pinpoint job creation, promotion of local culture, evaluation of the impact of sustainable tourism and improvement in the effective use of marine resources. All of them allude to an approach to sustainable tourism that builds on the traditional one.

A typical indicator of tourism’s impact on development has been the service industry — but this leaves a lot out. The new targets include using natural resources and other economic sectors as indicators of success. They are designed to help governments implement better strategies that boost their economies through tourism.

Helena Rey, program officer at the United Nations Environment Program, said that if countries start implementing policies and strategies for sustainable tourism, they could then achieve or contribute to their own development. "Tourism can be a tool for development,” Rey said. “For some countries, tourism is the main source of income. And it should be taken seriously.”

World Travel and Tourism Council data shows that global contribution from travel and tourism to the world’s GDP was $7.6 billion, or 9.8 percent of the total, in 2014. It is expected to rise by 3.7 percent in 2015.

“It’s not the first time that tourism has been recognized by the General Assembly—but it’s the first time that specific indicators and targets have been requested,” Rey said. “This is really a turning point in how countries will look at their tourism development.”

That may be, but not everyone thinks the path the targets point to is the right one. Marie-Danielle Samuel, co-founder of Yachay Wasi, a Peruvian-focused NGO, said that indigenous peoples and local communities are largely left out of the document — which hinders attempts to properly define sustainable tourism. In a recent statement, she argued for the U.N. to incorporate the Commission on Sustainable Development’s 1999 definition, which stated that “if more indigenous ownership could be developed, the perception of tourism as a foreign-dominated sector would be reduced.”

The targets are workable, of course, but they don’t acknowledge what sustainable itself means, Samuel said. In her statement, she called the document “an un-realistic catch-all for all the ills of modern world.”

It’s not surprising that the U.N.’s attempt to narrow in on tourism is still too broad for critics. The entire set of Sustainable Development Goals has drawn criticism from media outlets for being too diffuse and bloated. “Moses brought ten commandments down from Mount Sinai. If only the U.N.’s proposed list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were as concise,” mocked the Economist in March.

For sustainable tourism, the inclusion of these targets is just a start. There is a roadmap in place, but it is clear that there is more work to be done. “The biggest challenge from now on,” Rey said, “is going to be implementation.”

Countries will need to measure the effectiveness of their strategies, and will need guidelines to do so — which the U.N. is in the process of addressing. But this is yet another process that will take time. Indicators to help governments monitor their progress in meeting the targets have not been agreed upon yet, said Faye Leone, content editor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, adding that formal recommendations are slated for proposal in November.

Drawing a line from the U.N. to individual governments, and then finally to the tourism sector is difficult. And even drawn, the path isn’t always clear. Tourists, even those with admirable intentions, often end up benefitting foreign entities, as opposed to local or indigenous communities—this is called leakage. Their money is funneled in and then right back out, when locals do not have control over their own sites and attractions. In promoting sustainable tourism, there needs to be emphasis on the benefit to local communities, explained Samuel.

“Some of the profits should go to those communities — officially,” she said. “That should be something that the U.N. pushes.”

Image credit: Flickr/Tony

Kate Drew is an M.A. candidate at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, where she is pursing a dual degree in Journalism and International Relations. She completed her undergraduate degree in Finance and International Business at Villanova University in 2010, and worked in the five years following as an Editorial Analyst at Value Line Publishing. Her research interests range from international economics to intelligence and security.

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