Where is sustainability in travel & tourism headed?

What is sustainable tourism? How sustainable is travel and tourism? I’m asked these questions constantly in my leadership role at Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). To the first, our view at GSTC is that “sustainability is a journey”, requiring constant improvement and reflecting dynamic conditions, an imperative to continually strive toward greater sustainability and not a set end point.

What is sustainable tourism? How sustainable is travel and tourism? I’m asked these questions constantly in my leadership role at Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). To the first, our view at GSTC is that “sustainability is a journey”, requiring constant improvement and reflecting dynamic conditions, an imperative to continually strive toward greater sustainability and not a set end point.

Randy Durband

That answer is almost as varied as travel and tourism, which can be viewed as an enormous sector with multiple subsectors or a cluster of sectors. That is to say, it is diverse and enormous. There are star performers in sustainability, while others seem to neglect even trying to operate sustainably. Aviation is currently far from sustainable with its explosive growth in the era of discount carriers and its continued reliance on fossil fuels.

However, everything on the ground is moving toward greater sustainability, albeit at vastly differing paces and approaches. Land transport is converting to electric and hybrid vehicles, and most hotels are making some improvements. Both sectors, however, are moving too slowly, and could – and should – be doing much more. That’s on the environmental side of sustainability.

The economic sustainability of travel and tourism is generally strong. The social and cultural aspects of sustainability are, like the environmental side, marked with greatly mixed reviews. Socially, we see citizens protest or show annoyance in over-crowded urban tourism destinations.

A positive on the social side is that travel and tourism is a tremendous generator of jobs based on all the service requirements that cannot be automated or done by a robot. Tourism is the one sector where human contact is essential, which travel companies should keep in mind when contemplating ways to replace human workers.

Culturally, tourism usually appreciates and even celebrates diversity. Some may scoff at locals temporarily donning traditional attire to display cultural dance and music, but when else might those displays be made if not for visitors? In our increasingly urbanised world, with its globalised sameness of brands and activities, tourism’s cross-cultural exchanges help us maintain some degree of diversity.

Where are we headed? Here’s where I hope and think we’re headed. First, hotels, transport providers both public and private, and all product and service providers will increasingly feel compelled to operate more environmentally sustainably. There is so much pressure to do so – cost reduction, reputation, regulation compliance, avoidance of risking greater regulation and risk management.

Secondly, we simply must embrace the authentic, the unique, the participatory, the adventure-oriented, the exploration, in delivering and promoting travel products and destinations. That can and should leverage ever-improving technologies to enhance the visitor experience, but it all adds up to an imperative to preserve, celebrate and sustain unique experiences and cultures. If travel and tourism doesn’t do that, why should travellers leave home?

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