During the current public health crisis, we have grown perhaps a little too familiar with our own four walls. COVID-19 and the widespread lockdown has forced upon us a period of reflection, removing the possibility of travel altogether in the interim. What with closed borders, cancelled flights and several ports having suspended their operations, we are increasingly looking for ways to get that holiday feeling from the comfort (or discomfort, as the case may be) of our homes.
When we consider the prospect of resuming travel, some of us may be all the more eager thanks to pent-up demand, while others may be tentative about braving the big wide world and the health risks inherent in travel in the aftermath of a pandemic. Certainly, different demographics may have different attitudes towards this. There may be one aspect, however, that old and young alike can get behind: the relaunch of the tourism industry giving us the unique opportunity to reset and rethink. When we do so, we'd be well advised to strive for sustainable tourism.
If we are mindful of our choices, this could prove to be the very moment when we consciously step away from the pitfalls of the past. Overtourism, which brings with it overcrowded and overexploited mainstream attractions, pollution, disturbed ecosystems and a depleted natural environment born purely of a lack of consideration and exaggerated orientation towards profit-making. Irresponsible waste accumulation and resource consumption. The disruption of local economies and insufficient respect for communities and human resources. The tourism industry is well overdue an overhaul.
These, it seems, are issues that were on the radar well before COVID-19 had such a far-reaching impact on our day-to-day lives. Certain trends towards sustainable tourism have been emerging that might now simply be turbo-boosted as we emerge from crisis. Many of these revolve around environmental concerns. Acceptance of greenwashing is waning as travelers grow savvier thanks to increased transparency. Waste reduction and efficient consumption are being incorporated into business strategy. Emission reductions are taking on a new dimension as the race towards carbon-negative commences. These are just a few of the ways in which sustainability is climbing the priority list as travel, tourism and hospitality (TTH) companies compete to keep their guests happy.
The environment, though, is but one side of a complex story. Given the nature and proliferation of the tourism industry, its impact is felt in various dimensions - the environmental dimension, yes - but also human, social and economic dimensions. It is for this reason that, as argued by Hospitality Insights, the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals are a good pointer for orientation. TTH businesses are in a position to contribute to sustainable tourism by defining good working conditions, ensuring safety and security, and fostering growth in local economies, while policies regarding holiday lets, for example, impact local housing markets - with Airbnb and its community-minded counterpart Fairbnb being a case in point.
How does one go about making such a far-reaching change? It just so happens we have already begun to make changes during lockdown, summoning our inner creativity and stepping up support for those in our neighborhoods who need it. As The Conversation succinctly points out:
"These responses challenge the atomized individualism that has gone hand in hand with the consumerism of travel and tourism. This public health crisis reminds us our well-being depends not on being consumers but on being part of a community."
Bigger hearts? Renewed focus on what it means to be human? There are also far more tangible consequences of the pandemic that could contribute to the sought-after notion of sustainable tourism, shielding the industry from some of the risks encountered during the pandemic and arming stakeholders in tourism, travel and transport with new tools and approaches. Take it from the international organization for public-private cooperation, the World Economic Forum-two tech- and data-oriented solutions in particular could take off:
1. Seamless travel
An extension of touchless travel, which in itself might include touchless document scanning and an increased reliance upon voice commands, this concept along with the prerequisite technologies will see our face and bodies become our passports. Options such as contactless fingerprinting, and iris and face recognition are expected to play a role in the realization of this health-minded and efficiency-oriented goal.
2. Decentralized identity
Against the backdrop of our increasingly digital identities, this concept implies that individuals themselves would be "in possession of and control their identity attributes, such as their date and place of birth and physical characteristics, but also travel history, health information and other data."
- Make optimal use of environmental resources, maintain ecological processes, and help conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
- Respect host communities, conserve their cultural heritage and values, and contribute to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
- · Ensure viable and long-term economic operations, providing fairly distributed socio-economic benefits and opportunities to stakeholders, contributing to poverty alleviation.
As is amply presented in Hospitality Insights' article entitled "Sustainable Tourism: A Long Road Ahead" and touched upon in a recent NBC article, achieving these goals will demand the involvement of us all: tourists making better decisions, considering the impact of their holiday choices, governments introducing sound policies, and TTH companies recognizing and acting upon their responsibility to change for the better in the interests of future generations.
Such idealistic endeavors may seem an unlikely focus in a growth- and revenue-oriented industry like tourism. However, the respective efforts need not be as altruistic as they appear at first glance. In fact, committing to sustainable tourism can benefit the industry itself just as much as third parties. Embracing sustainability and orienting your business decisions towards it will boost your brand appeal. Valuing your workforce and treating them accordingly increases the likelihood of them successfully contributing to a positive guest experience. Not to mention the gradual, long-term savings or returns you might see once any initial investments are accounted for.
We will need to shift our mindsets. We will need willpower. We will need the courage of our convictions to do away with the old and usher in the new. But if we are able to surmount this hurdle, if we appreciate the lesser known wonders of the world, if we redefine adventure to include volunteering in exotic but underprivileged locations, if we forego over-hyped offerings on a platter in favor of the tropical joys of nature conservation, for instance, we can be the change we want to see in the world. We can provide tourist satisfaction and meaningful encounters, while also ensuring future generations can experience the splendor the world has to offer as we have had the privilege to do.
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