FULL HOUSE: Travellers tend to arrive in increasing numbers and flock to the same locations, resulting in issues such as overcrowding and growing dissatisfaction from local residents. Picture: Reuters
Tourism creates jobs - lots of them. In fact, one person in every 10 is employed in tourism-related jobs. When it is well managed, tourism provides an incredible economic boost to host communities. For these reasons, almost every country in the world wishes to expand its tourism sector and increase the number of tourism arrivals.

An increasing number of travellers are significantly more likely to visit destinations and make purchases from travel companies based on their sustainable practices.

Many destinations have strategies and plans in place to use tourism to help alleviate poverty and conserve their natural and cultural heritage, for example, through the creation and management of national parks and monuments. Yet nearly 50 percent of world heritage sites, which are recognised by Unesco for their outstanding universal value, do not have tourism management plans in place to prevent the negative impacts of tourism.

If expanding tourism results in more jobs and greater economic opportunity, why are an increasing number of destinations around the world proposing or implementing measures to limit or restrict it?

Destinations like Cinque Terre, Zion National Park and Machu Picchu are limiting the annual number of visitors. Amsterdam, Barcelona and the Seychelles are curtailing large-scale development.

Bhutan and Venice charge visitor taxes and fees, while places like Koh Tachai in the Similan National Park are prohibiting visitation altogether.

Why aren’t more destinations focusing on yield per visitor rather than the number of international arrivals? Why aren’t more businesses that are dependent on tourism investing in the destinations they serve and the assets upon which their businesses depend? And why isn’t the industry at large actively addressing these issues?

Global tourism is expected to continue to grow as a larger number of aspiring travellers become more prosperous and their disposable income increases. It is anticipated that the sector will outperform the global economy in the course of the next decade, increasing by an estimated 4% on average annually in the next 10 years. It’s not surprising that most destinations want a bigger piece of this pie and have strategies in place to attract more visitors and visitor expenditures. Taxpayers’ money is spent on attracting visitors and emphasis is placed on volume rather than the value each visitor represents to the local economy.

The net result is that the places served by ministries of tourism, destination marketing organisations and convention and visitors’ bureaux are often victims of their own success.

Travellers tend to arrive in increasing numbers and flock to the same locations, resulting in issues such as overcrowding, increased stress on public services and infrastructure, cultural homogenisation and growing dissatisfaction from local residents. Ad hoc development, local capacity constraints and leakage are issues as well.

The latter is the most frequently cited issue: although tourism can be a great form of wealth distribution, often as little as 5-10% of the money tourists spend remains in the destinations they visit.

These issues must be addressed to fully realise the benefits of tourism through an inclusive approach and collaboration between the public and private sectors and host communities.

The travel industry and governments need to acknowledge that the narrow focus on increasing numbers is a problem and creates issues and negative effects that diminish the quality (and value) of the experience for travellers and visitors alike.

One could argue that tourism cannot be sustainable, that sustainability is impossible. Negative effects on the environment are inherent to the industry, such as the emission of greenhouse gases and waste generation, that are currently difficult, if not impossible, to avoid.

Tourism can also contribute to water and energy shortages, degradation of water supplies and ecosystem degradation, owing to ad hoc development and weak or poorly enforced environmental regulations. From clear cutting and destruction of mangroves to excavations and construction, land use changes associated with tourism result in the creation of artificial landscapes and infrastructure.

This visually degrades the scenic value of natural landscapes and results in a change in the environment, because of factors like erosion, pollution and artificial boundaries. This, in turn, can result in more erosion and increased flooding and storm damage, as well as a negative impact on wildlife migration and breeding patterns.

The tourism sector attracts increased investment in airports, airlines, railways, ports, hotels and tourist attractions, particularly to metropolitan areas, cultural and natural heritage sites, and other attractive locations and landscapes. This can be good for short-term economic development, but bad for residents when tourism development is poorly executed. Historically, local and indigenous people are displaced or forced to relocate when new national parks or heritage sites are established. Prime real estate is sold to developers and local access can be restricted or lost altogether.

Though jobs are created for local people, they are usually entry level and low paying with limited opportunities for upward mobility.

Sustainable tourism is on track to go mainstream because it can combat the negative effects of tourism and improve lives, protect places and provide visitors with authentic experiences. But the sustainable tourism movement is as fragmented as the industry itself.

Today’s pursuit of sustainable tourism is replete with small organisations and individual consultants, often battling for small-scale and underfunded projects, and scraps of success. Most players in the space have just one or two staff on the payroll and the largest NGOs have fewer than 25 staff. Emphasis in the public and private sector is placed on planning and reporting rather than changing organisational or operational practices, and follow-through on sustainability initiatives is limited because of “resource constraints”. This results in a great deal of competition for the limited resources available and little meaningful collaboration.

No single organisation is achieving success at scale and, despite good intentions, the cumulative impact is significantly smaller than what is necessary and achievable.

The term sustainable tourism means different things to different people in the industry. But like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than organisation-wide commitments, strategies, and actions.

This is surprising given that the business case for sustainability and corporate responsibility in tourism is growing stronger year-on-year. In fact, the UN declared 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.

Tourism is featured in three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and all 17 goals can be advanced through sustainable tourism development.

This has resulted in an increased adoption of practices that improve environmental performance and social well-being. These practices lead to significant savings, goodwill among employees and customers, improved employee motivation and retention, and enhanced brand reputation. - WEF