Tourism industry needs to reconsiders its business model.
With each passing day, the grave future of Earth becomes more stark. The disruption of COVID-19 has not been enough to shift the trajectory, nor has it prompted polluting sectors of the economy to reconsider the harms they inflict on the planet.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the global tourism sector. Before COVID-19, international aviation emissions - already a major contributor to global warming - were forecast to potentially triple between 2015 and 2050. Likewise, emissions from the cruise ship industry were also growing.
The pandemic itself can be traced back to humanity’s relentless damage to nature. And mass global tourism is emblematic of this voracious, growth-at-all-costs mentality.
Tourism brings many economic, social and cultural benefits. But it’s time the industry seriously reconsiders its business model, and overall purpose, in a post-pandemic world.
We can’t return to normal
The United Nations is among many voices urging the global tourism industry to address its many sustainability challenges in the wake of COVID-19.
The UN says it recognises tourism’s important role in providing incomes for millions of people. But in a recent policy brief, it said now is the time to “rethink how the sector impacts our natural resources and ecosystems”.
Unfortunately, there’s little evidence that global tourism is looking to transform. For example, the International Air Transport Association is clearly seeking to return to the “old normal”. Its resources guide to support airlines during the pandemic and beyond examines ways to restart the industry, but makes no mention of environmental sustainability.
Similarly, the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 100 Million Jobs Recovery Plan calls on nations to remove barriers to travel, saying traveller confidence is “critical to the sector’s survival and recovery”. Sustainability rates only a passing a mention.
“Given its environmental damage, tourism must seriously reconsider its purpose in a post-pandemic world..”
A job half done.
Pre-COVID-19, the global tourism and travel industry had begun to address some sustainability challenges.
For example, international aviation is seeking to improve global fuel efficiency by 2% each year until 2050. But this target is “aspirational” and even the International Civil Aviation Authority has conceded it was “unlikely to deliver the level of reduction necessary to stabilize and then reduce aviation’s absolute emissions contribution to climate change”.
Current technological constraints mean decarbonising aviation is challenging. An expected future increase in flight demand will only add to the problem. Globally, 7.8 billion passengers are expected to travel in 2036.
What’s more, tourism’s damage to the environment extends far beyond climate change. It adds to marine plastic pollution, degrades habitat and leads to a loss of wilderness and natural quiet. The industry’s resurgence must address these and other harms.
A vision for the future.
People travelling outside their normal context are open to new experiences and perspectives. In this way, tourism presents an opportunity to encourage a new connection with nature.
So what should the future of tourism look like? I and others are advocating for a more sustainable tourism sector that’s vastly different to what exists now. Travel should be closer to home, slower, and with a positive contribution at its core. In this model, all erosion of natural, cultural and social capital ceases.