BANGKOK, 9 March 2018: Not a day goes by without the word sustainable rolling off the lips of a tourism leader keen to be seen as trending.
The UNWTO secretary did just that in his message at the opening of ITB Berlin on Wednesday. But he failed to tell us how we can live out sustainable practices on a daily basis.
He just assumed that the ethereal entity known as the “tourism industry” miraculously achieves sustainability even if the millions of people who live off tourism make no changes to their lifestyle or business commitments.
He was probably joined by hundreds of other speakers preaching the gospel of sustainable tourism during ITB’s packed conference programme that runs its course on the sidelines of the world’s largest travel show.
But even as the UNWTO chief urged the tourism industry to contribute to sustainable development on a global scale, the ‘overtourism’ malaise quietly crept past him right under his nose.
Overtourism is what we reap in tourism when we talk about being sustainable in theoretical terms, while failing to practice it on a daily basis.
How many times have we heard sustainability preached without a single, simple, practical “must-do today takeaway? That’s because the speakers haven’t the faintest intentions of rocking the tourism boat, or addressing the root cause of the problem – an industry’s insatiable greed. it always ends in ‘overtourism’ and how on earth do we turn the clock back to reclaim safe, sustainable tourism? Just what do we do with the millions of tourists who end up on our shores? Do we discourage them, over charge them in the hope they will go elsewhere? No one is addressing the obvious. Overtourism and all of its ills are here today.
The UNWTO secretary-general, Zurab Pololikashvili, talked of the goals set out by the UN, but as he spoke, other conferences at ITB were bemoaning the epidemic ‘overtourism’ that has caused a backlash in communities and is now a major threat.
He stressed how tourism, not only needs to consolidate current growth rates, but also “grow better”.
What exactly does he mean by “consolidate” or “grow better?”
Just like “sustainability” do the words and popular phrases have real meaning for the people who make tourism tick?”
The assumption is that tourism must grow, expand and accumulate territory and natural assets. It takes over beaches from communities, but pays no rent to restore or ensure the communities, who own the assets, can also enjoy them.
It’s assumed that tourism can take over national parks, flood them with visitors. Yet, the simple rule that every tourist, who spends time there, should also carry their garbage with them out of the park gates is largely ignored.
Some destinations introduce a travel tax presumably to tackle the negative impacts of ‘overtourism’. There is no transparency on how the tax is spent.
When governments talk about spreading the benefits of tourism to secondary destinations, we heave a sigh of relief. We mistakenly believe this is “sustainable tourism” in action. But moving tourists to pristine new venues is fool hardy when we don’t have the foggiest idea how to prevent abuse, social ills and pollution at our leading destinations.
We are repeating the same process over and over again leaving behind destinations that are polluted and damaged. Boracay in the Philippines is an example of what happens when “sustainable tourism” stays in the classroom, or on the Powerpoint presentation at a seminar, while failing to deliver practical takeaways for community stakeholders.
So next time you are invited to “say a few words” stop and think what do you really mean by “sustainable” and what are the practical takeaways that we need to adopt. Right now, it’s a trending term for classroom use only. To take it beyond the classroom will be costly, cutting profits, curtailing tourism and who is going to vote for that? Until we do, sustainable tourism remains a fad or at best the passion of a minority.