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Leon Kaye headshot

If Global Tourism is to Become Sustainable, It Must Break Free from Its Silo

By Leon Kaye

Thanks to cheaper and more efficient air travel, not to mention the growth of the middle class in emerging economies, more people are traveling abroad than ever before. This boom will not stop anytime soon. As Jamaica’s Minister of Tourism, Edmund Bartlett, noted earlier this week at the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Conference on Jobs and Sustainable Growth noted earlier this week, over 1.2 billion overseas trips were taken last year. That number could surge to as much as 1.8 billion trips by 2030.

Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the UNWTO, minced no words in giving his assessment to the 1,500 delegates assembled in Montego Bay, Jamaica yesterday. “We could end up with 1.8 billion opportunities, or 1.8 billion disasters,” he said, “so it’s all up to us. How we manage this impressive growth is in our hands.”

The challenge, however, is to manage this growth efficiently and sustainably, without wreaking havoc on local communities and the environment – while staying focused on the international community’s goal to limit climate change to 1.5°C this century. “Growth and sustainability, progress and sustainability, should go hand in hand,” said Secretary-General Rifai, “not either - or, but a win-win equation.”

Global tourism is a driver of many things: economic development, jobs and of course, its fair share of social ills and environmental degradation. Rifai noted that 10 percent of the world’s citizens have jobs with some connection to the global travel sector, which comprises 10.2 percent of the world economy.

Yet as Secretary Bartlett noted while introducing Rifai yesterday, only one percent of the world’s financial resources are available to the tourism industry – even though it is a $7.6 trillion global juggernaut. Despite the role tourism has in opening up economies and building opportunities to earn stable income, leaders in finance, business, government and the nonprofit sector overlook this sector’s importance.

Furthermore, if the travel sector can become a force for sustainable development, that responsibility lies in the hands of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which according to Secretary Bartlett, is the driver behind 80 percent of this industry. These smaller firms, from building contractors to food service companies to tour operators, often know the lay of the land and are in the best position to ensure that travel can grow without being destructive. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests these firms are not able to access credit, and are outmatched by the larger worldwide travel brands and building contractors that have access to finance, government officials and business partners to get their projects completed.

Secretary-General Rifai inferred that this trend cannot continue if the travel industry can become more inclusive and responsible. A massive shift in mindset is needed, and that includes the travelers themselves. “What we have to work on,” Rifai said, “is that visitors cannot live in bubbles.”

In other words, the all-inclusive resort model, common here in Jamaica and across the Caribbean, needs a complete rethink. “We cannot continue to have modern day plantations, as in exclusive resorts,” the Secretary-General added.

Sure, such a shift in how travelers view the places they visit is required, and changing that mindset will require courage and conviction, as Secretary-General Rifai remarked in concluding his address yesterday.

But the time has also come for tourism to burst out of its silo.

Many countries, including Jamaica, have a dedicated ministry focused on travel and tourism. At a first glance, it seems impressive that this industry has a cabinet-level position in many national governments. But as several speakers and attendees at this conference have noted, many nations overlook the impact that tourism has on their economies – the heady macroeconomic numbers are not resonating with government officials.

Ministries of foreign affairs often view tourism in the context of consular services; finance ministries seek ways to diversify their economies without finding ways to promote tourism, often an important employer; other ministries such as health or environmental affairs only take a look at tourism when a disease outbreak or natural disaster sideswipes their nation. Developing a sustainable and resilient tourism infrastructure for the long term needs careful proactive planning – too often, the approach to the travel sector has been reactive.

If tourism will continue to grow – especially in the Caribbean, where travel generates as much as 40 percent of local GDP – government agencies will not only have to work closer together, but actively involve the private sector and NGOs as well. A building contractor can provide the transport infrastructure or wastewater treatment plant that a local government cannot build or support; NGOs often have a good lay of the land and understand the sensitivities of local citizens so that they are not immediately displaced by massive resorts or a new airport. As the saying goes, the left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing.

“Together with other forces of globalization, travel and tourism is making the new world smaller, more connected and more informed, and therefore, more involved, more concerned and a more caring world, and a better world indeed,” said Secretary-General Rifai as he wrapped up yesterday’s speech.

If that is indeed true, governments have to stop minimizing the role tourism has in strengthening its economies – while ensuring that too few players take up too many resources and leave local citizens behind.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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