Editor's note: this post is an excerpt from our Travel Trends Report 2018, which you can access now.
Nicole Kow interviews Wouter Geerts, Senior Travel Analyst at Euromonitor International on the future of sustainable travel, and how this impacts the tour and activities industry.
NK: How do we engage and educate businesses in developing economies about the importance of sustainable tourism given that most of them are struggling to make ends meet?
WG: This is very tricky, especially when companies, individuals and governments in developed countries are not always contributing to a sustainable growth of the tourism industry. Especially for the tourism industry, however, there are very strong incentives to be more sustainable, most notably because much of the tourism industry is reliant on the natural and cultural ecosystems which unsustainable behaviour is destroying.
Providing an understanding that a long-term strategy which puts the natural and cultural environment at the core of the tourism offering is key here, and that without this there is no future income from tourism. Easier said than done though!
How do we engage the tours and activities sector? I noticed that a majority of conversations about sustainable tourism deal with DMOs, hospitality and airlines... but what about the on-the-ground tour guide that's introducing a city or bringing guests on a scenic hike up Trolltunga? Why are they not being engaged and, more importantly, what can they do to play their part?
The majority of discussions include DMOs, hospitality and airlines because these tend to be 1) the greatest polluters, 2) the largest companies, and 3) those wielding the most power. But the tours and activities sector has a key role to play.
The problem is that they tend to be hyper local, and extremely fragmented. One bad apple can do serious damage to a local site, even when all other tour operators are following a sustainability code of conduct. I think they are being engaged, it is just not at the global level. Local tourism boards and legislators are working hard to include local tour operators in sustainable development discourse.
Finally, do you agree with Mr Taleb Rifai, Former Secretary-General of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), when he said that "sustainable is not a zero-sum game", that it’s a win-win situation? After reading too many articles about over-tourism, I'm beginning to think that Mr Rifai might be a little too optimistic. I'd like to hear your thoughts about it.
I agree with Mr Rifai to a great extent, but have to admit that the win-win situation of sustainable development is unlikely to go far enough. There are many ways that tourism companies can improve their practices, which would result in more sustainable behaviour, while at the same time decreasing costs and increasing revenues. It is unhealthy to think, however, that if everyone in the industry would become a little more efficient, all problems would be solved and the negative impacts of the tourism industry would disappear.
The industry will always prefer voluntary commitments over legislation, and so the win-win scenario is a popular one, but in some cases legislation might be needed. I think the case of over-tourism shows that, with the number of people travelling growing strongly, some boundaries need to be drawn. While some destinations are able to market themselves as more sustainable (and expensive) destinations which would benefit their economy while at the same time reducing the actual number of visitors, not every destination can do this. Some tough decisions might need to be made to keep destinations sustainable.