Can tourism ever be sustainable? The industry represents a paradox: while tourist activities can cause environmental damage, tourism is an important provider of jobs and a key incentive to preserve pristine habitats. Global innovators are demonstrating how it can be done right
Mass tourism is a recent phenomenon. The number of global tourist arrivals in 1950 was just 25 million. In 2018, this figure had reached 1.4 billion. And as tourism has increased, so have aviation emissions, increasing almost sevenfold since 1950.
Tourism also has what one study calls a ‘paradoxical relationship’ with biodiversity. On the one hand, the United Nations Environment Programme has argued that biodiversity is a driver of tourism. On the other, the direct impacts of tourism (such as clearing habitats for holiday development or the physical disturbance of the environment by tourists) can be negative. In the words of a UN blog post: ‘tourism can damage or help conserve biodiversity – you decide’.
This context raises a question: what role will tourism play in a future impacted by climate change and biodiversity loss? Tourism certainly plays an important positive role in economic development. Around the world, one person in ten is employed in a tourism-related job. And this importance is enshrined in Target 8.9 within United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8, which calls for decent work and economic growth. So, although tourism—or at least tourism as it has been practiced to date—has environmental downsides, the industry does have the potential to play an important role in sustainable development – if economic, social, and environmental factors are considered together.
Innovators around the world are developing solutions that demonstrate how this potential could be realised. We take a look at some of the best and how they are helping to achieve the UN SDGs.
SDG 8: Decent work and economic growth
SDG 8 contains an explicit reference to sustainable tourism, highlighting it as a way to create jobs and place promote local cultures and products. Key to this target is the equitable participation of local communities. In India, NotOnMap has developed a platform that brings together urban and rural communities. Travellers are matched with local hosts in remote regions. The goal is to promote cultural exchange and employment opportunities for host communities.
For tourism to be truly beneficial and sustainable, stakeholders need to be able to assess whether economic benefits are actually being realised, and whether the cultural and environmental character of a place is being conserved. Flockeo is a platform that combines satellite and statistical data to provide users with information on environmental, social, and economic indicators for popular destinations.
SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy
As with all sectors of the economy, tourism must transition to clean and renewable sources of energy. And leading innovators in the sector are providing examples of how this can be achieved. For example, India’s Cochin International Airport is now producing more energy than it uses thanks to solar panels floating on a nearby golf course lake. In all, the airport has a production peak of 40 megawatts per day. Elsewhere, in Saudi Arabia, a luxury resort on the Red Sea coast will use 100 per cent renewable energy backed up by a one-gigawatt battery.
SDG 12: Responsible production and consumption
De-coupling economic growth from resource consumption is the focus of SDG 12. And, as an industry prone to overconsumption and waste, this is an important focus area for tourism. First, there is the immediate need to ensure waste is properly managed at popular destinations. Earlier this year, Project Hilldaari, one of the leading plastic waste management projects running across India, organised clean-up drives across four hill cities particularly impacted by tourist inflows.
Beyond immediate waste management, there is a need to develop circular practices across the industry. In 2021, Heathrow Airport piloted a recycling unit that transforms waste into items like new uniforms, furniture, and jet fuel. Elsewhere, Onmateria has designed a sustainable amenity kit that tackles the plastic waste problem in the hospitality industry, where millions of single-use items are thrown away each year.
SDG 13: Climate action
Tourism is responsible for roughly 8 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. And innovators are exploring several different avenues for tackling this problem. First, some are exploring how hospitality venues can be made more energy efficient. One exo-luxury hotel, for example, minimises energy use through ancient building techniques.
However, it is transportation that accounts for by far the biggest share of tourism’s emissions. Transport emissions can be tackled in several ways. Dutch startup Green Tickets has developed a website and app that allows users to rank transport options to their destination by travel time, price, and CO2 emissions. Another solution, one that has proved controversial, is carbon offsetting. Norwegian climate-tech company CHOOOSE has developed an API-driven climate tool that automatically calculates the carbon footprint of any consumer offering. The startup’s first customer was airline Norwegian Air.
Ultimately, ending aviation’s reliance on fossil fuels will be essential for truly sustainable tourism to be achieved. While we have already seen the world’s first commercial flight powered by plant-based sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), synthetic SAF is likely to be the most scalable solution over the long term. Johnson Matthey is one company working towards this, having developed an integrated process for producing SAF out of green hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
SDG 14 Life below water
As discussed above, tourism has a complex relationship with biodiversity. Because 80 per cent of all tourism takes place in coastal areas, SDG 14, which calls for efforts to preserve life below water, is particularly relevant for the industry. To effectively protect marine environments, we need to fully understand them. In the Maldives, a month-long mission will survey marine life from the surface to a depth of 1,000 metres. The project will focus on coral reefs, sharks, and rays, as all three are crucial to the survival of the country’s tourism industry.
Plastic pollution is a key issue impacting marine life with at least 14 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the ocean every year. The tourist industry is beginning to take measures to reduce its plastic footprint. For example, Venice recently unveiled an online map of water fountains to reduce the use of plastic bottles by tourists.
Words: Matthew Hempstead
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27th September 2022