Rebuilding Tourism: Key Elements to Prioritise Sustainability
We must prioritise sustainability in rebuilding the tourism industry.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the global importance of the travel and tourism industry and its interconnectedness with other industries. Border restrictions, lockdowns, and social distancing have impacted everyone in the industry, from small tour operators to multinational hotel chains and major airlines. The year 2020 was the worst on record for international travel due to the global pandemic.
While the negative repercussions of the crisis are uncountable, there have been some side effects that can be harnessed for positive change in the future. We have been provided with an opportunity to rethink how tourism is delivered and to enhance sustainability, inclusivity, and resilience.
As the World Economic Forum’s Rebuilding Travel and Tourism explored the intersection of consumer consciousness, technology acceleration, and destination management, the panel at the Sustainable Development Impact Summit found solutions for reshaping the way we market, manage, and plan our travel.
The lesson is this:
We must address the challenges that we faced before the pandemic, while embracing traveller preferences, as we rebuild.
Lessons and Actions in Rebuilding Tourism
These combined recommendations from the World Economic Forum and One Planet Network invite governments to integrate into the COVID-19 recovery plans for tourism to build back better. It also encourages tourism businesses to revisit operational processes along the following to enhance competitiveness. At the same time, NGOs, International Organisations, academia, and civil society can assist by sharing their knowledge, tools, and supporting the development of best practices.
Here are key elements for rebuilding tourism sustainably for people, the planet, and prosperity:
- Travellers’ impact-conscious behaviour
- Tourists’ changed desire
- Public health
- Social inclusion
- Conserving biodiversity
- Governance and finance
- Digital solutions
- Climate action
1. Travellers’ impact-conscious behaviour
One question that the COVID crisis has brought to the table is, "Should we keep doing things the way we did before?"
The answer is, "Of course not!"
But too often the prospect of achieving real change feels impossible to tackle. However, we must seize this moment where individual collective action can reach a critical mass to enable structural change.
The pandemic gave travellers a forced time-out, allowing them to reflect on their travel patterns and, most importantly, their impact. People are asking themselves questions they haven’t before: Will I be a tourist or a visitor? How can I travel in a way that has a positive impact?
They’re also expecting answers from the industry. For example, "How many of my tourist dollars will stay in the local economy?"
In this regard, some of the foundations have been laid. In travelling amid the pandemic, with constantly changing restrictions, travellers have had a crash course in gaining new research skills. During COVID-19, this is primarily in navigating complex and dynamic border restrictions and assessing the virus risk with fact-based information.
The result has been a win for something other than price-first, as consumers currently think health-first. Now that many travellers have a new mindset and new skills, it’s up to the industry to connect people with accessible and clear information they need to make informed choices.
2. Tourists’ changed desire
COVID-19 may also serve to start a virtuous cycle that tackles one of tourism’s headline issues: overcrowding.
Before the pandemic, tourists attracted tourists. Millions of travellers would seek out the must-sees in the must-go destinations at the must-visit months.
The pandemic has forced public awareness around personal health safety and the virtue of physical distancing. Thus, the prospect of being shoulder to shoulder may not be palatable again. Now, consumers are avoiding crowded places and long-distance travel in favour of local and outdoor activities.
However, the trend toward more local and nature-based activities may be a double-edged sword. On one hand, increased interest in less densely packed local and nature-based activities could reduce overcrowding in urban areas. Further, this could spread more of the economic benefits created by travel and tourism to local communities. Shorter-distance trips may also, first, reduce emissions. Second, help many destinations reduce dependence on international tourists who have less interest in preserving the destination than residents.
On the other hand, increased interest in nature-focused trips could put additional strain on the already pressured environment. Therefore, the growing interest in outdoor activities must be leveraged into better stewardship of the very natural assets that generate tourism demand.
3. Prioritising Public Health
The pandemic has shown a strong connection between tourism and public health. The tourism sector has proven to be of assistance by putting its infrastructure, supply chains, and staff at the service of public health and humanitarian aid.
Creating long-lasting synergies between public health and tourism is an investment in preparedness concerning future crises and contributes to confidence and trust. Tailored guidance and protocols for tourism operations to resume timely and safely shall reflect the outcomes of collaboration between tourism stakeholders, the scientific community, and health authorities. Destinations shall send clear and consolidated messages to their source markets and adjust to their perceptions and needs to regain visitor confidence, given the importance and current sensitivities towards public health.
4. Social inclusion
COVID-19 has sweeping consequences on tourism businesses, notably on small and medium enterprises. Many tourism jobs represent the main source of income for local communities. Hence, targeted support that caters for their needs should allow a more inclusive recovery.
Many tourism employers were also supporting their workers and helping the communities in which they operate. Targeted support beyond initial relief measures will be needed for small and medium enterprises to continue operating and to ensure that destinations maintain a diverse and attractive offer.
Capitalising on the new services that tourism businesses have been providing to destinations in times of crisis creates stronger ties with local communities, integrate local wisdom, and enhance local satisfaction with tourism. This can repurpose tourism as a supporter for the community.
5. Conserving biodiversity in rebuilding tourism
While the reduction of economic activity during COVID-19 has to some extent reduced the pressures on the environment, there are many destinations where the conservation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems, protected areas, and species largely depends on tourism revenue and operators. Supporting monitoring mechanisms that would regularly capture such contribution and the value of ecosystem services through tourism at the destination level would enable the tourism sector to capitalize on its conservation efforts.
Nature-based solutions have the potential to drive innovation in tourism towards sustainability and, besides mitigating the environmental impacts of tourism activity, result in better management of scarce natural resources.
The role of tourism to sustain conservation and fight illegal wildlife trade should therefore be acknowledged in recovery plans and support made available for conservation efforts by tourism stakeholders to continue. Tourism also contributes to the preservation of cultural and historical sites.
Supporting such conservation efforts can enable a greener recovery.
6. Governance and finance
The exchange of information across levels of government, the private sector, and internationally has been crucial for managing the pandemic.
Moving on, generating regular and timely data to support decision making towards sustainability in tourism is crucial for the recovery to be aligned with ambitions on resource efficiency, climate change, and biodiversity, as well as to ensure that the needs of host communities are well integrated into destination management.
Financing for the recovery of tourism should strive to balance the urgent support needed for business survival, job retention, and the restart of tourism operations with longer-term goals such as the protection of ecosystems and climate change which not only underpin the global economy but also offer opportunities for creating green and decent jobs.
7. Digital solutions
The pace of travel and tourism service digitalization rapidly accelerated during the pandemic. Online platforms for services, marketing, payment, and processes popularised as consumers avoid person-to-person contact. They have also become primary ways to provide health safety standards and other pertinent information about a destination.
In addition, automation, backed by touchless fingerprint and document scanning, face recognition, and voice controls, will only grow in use in a post-pandemic world, further increasing the need for ICT readiness.
The crisis has also led to the development of various public-private data-sharing initiatives that can lay the foundation for better access to information about sustainability and competitiveness.
Destinations are also leveraging their ICT capacity to attract a new breed of travellers. Recognising the trend of remote working and its likelihood to continue post-crisis offers a diversification opportunity for highly tourism-dependent economies.
8. Climate action
During the COVID-19 crisis, reduced emissions and improvements in air quality have been reported. Therefore, the need to transform tourism operations for climate action continues to be of utmost importance for the sector to remain in line with international goals.
Seamless solutions lie at the heart of travel recovery
One of the most long-lasting lessons from COVID-19 is the need for multistakeholder collaboration inside and outside the industry. The global scale of the current crisis has forced the industry's business organisations, public institutions, and others to cooperate on the destination, national, and international level. Moreover, coordination with nontraditional entities such as health agencies has become vital.
Tourism can be an engine of economic recovery provided we work collaboratively to adopt a common approach to a safe and secure reopening process – and conversations on this are already underway. This will be critical in coordinating the safe, seamless, and secure opening of international borders. And in a way that gives tourists the confidence to travel again.
We need to ensure processes and protocols are aligned globally. We should support countries with limited access to vaccinations to eliminate the threat of another resurgence. It is only when businesses and travellers have confidence in the systems that the sector will flourish again.
The industry players must work together to rethink all aspects, from marketing to managing visitor flows, to spreading benefits to local communities, and to leveraging digitalization for sustainability efforts. Failure to do so will reduce the resiliency of the sector and leave it exposed to greater headwinds in the future. The mandate now in rebuilding tourism is not to build back, but to build forward.