By now we have all seen the discussions online about rethinking the future and moving towards a ‘new normal’. How can our world become fairer, more sustainable, slower? What do we want the world to look like after COVID-19? The tourism sector is no exception to this where issues such as overtourism and pollution are often mentioned. Can we do things differently and develop sustainable tourism now that we have hit the reset button? And who are involved with this?
Many touristic destinations have been hit hard by COVID-19. Amongst them European cities whose economies heavily rely on tourist numbers like Amsterdam or Barcelona, but also smaller destinations all over the world where tourism is the prime economic sector. Images of empty cities that are otherwise overcrowded, circulated the internet. The tourism industry is at a low point, people are losing their jobs, entrepreneurs are missing their income and IATA (International Air Transport Association) expects that air travel will only recover fully by 2030. At the same time, local residents are happy because the city is ‘theirs again’ and skies are cleaner than ever due to the lack of daily (air) travel. How can we balance this in the future? How to maintain a livable city or town while also being able to enjoy the (economic) benefits of tourism?
Now that borders are slowly re-opening, flights are taking off again and tourist accommodations are opening up, it seems like everything might go back to the ‘old normal’ just like that. But some destinations that have been dealing with negative consequences of tourism have been using this moment to reflect upon tourism as it was and are rethinking ways to develop tourism in the future. For example, ski resort Ischgl in the Austrian Alps, also called the ‘Austrian Ibiza’ is considering ditching the party tourist and focus on quality tourism from now on. Milan wants to prioritize cycling within the city over any other form of transportation to improve air quality and Barcelona and Venice are both using this down-time in tourism to evaluate how to move towards more sustainable forms of tourism. Meanwhile, Amsterdam has embraced the Doughnut (Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth) as the model for urban recovery based on sustainability, of which tourism forms an important aspect.
Who is responsible?
There thus seem to be different strategies to move travel and tourism into a more sustainable ‘normal’. But it seems that mostly governments are held responsible for doing so. While this is of great importance, there are many more stakeholders involved in this process. As the issues that arise with tourism are multifaceted so are the solutions. Sustainable tourism does not only encompass environmental issues, it also addresses problems that have to do with touristification, gentrification, and displacement of locals and facilities. If we want more sustainable tourism, it requires collaboration amongst different stakeholders, a collective effort. It is not just the government that needs to take action, not only the industry that is responsible. We all need to change if we want to have a different and more sustainable tourism future. This includes travellers and even residents. In short, it means we need to change our mindset and let go of the ideal of a profit-driven society and tourism sector. Only then we can think of more sustainable (tourism) futures. Let’s have a look at the different roles for each party below.
For the government, the role of the progressive leader is best suited. Prioritizing citizen welfare and environmental sustainability over income tourism brings, requires bold decisions that are not easily made. However, they are necessary for a more sustainable future and it is the government that can set an example in this which provide the guidelines for entrepreneurs, the industry, and tourist themselves. One example of such leadership is the French government who defined sustainable conditions for Air France to receive government support. Another one, already before COVID-19, is the city of Barcelona with mayor Ada Colau joining the Make the Shift movement in order to prevent housing speculation and preserve the right to housing in the city, which includes strict regulations for Airbnb as well.
There’s already a discussion going on about the role of DMO’s. Is their role still limited to marketing a destination, or should they engage with destination management somehow? As marketing mostly leads to more tourists, DMO’s should think about what they are marketing and how. Which specific destinations or attractions are highlighted? Are sustainable and/or local initiatives prioritised? How can the destination be aligned with responsible and sustainable travelling? The DMO’s role in that sense is supporting the local policies by promoting the ‘right’ initiatives, collaborating with the local community, and influencing tourist behaviour by consciously evaluating which part of the destination to market and how.
For the tourism industry, there is much room to innovate and adapt to the changing demands of (responsible) travellers. Sustainable and local options can be provided as alternatives to big international chains and tour operators. Local people can be hired for jobs in tourism and fair wages should be paid. Collaboration with local partners is key in this. Some great examples of innovators in the tourism industry that are already working to a great extent with the local community are Fairbnb (a fair alternative to Airbnb that gives back to the community) and Spotted by Locals (an app that shows you only local recommendations and highlights lesser-known destinations). A player that recently entered the field is the Dutch initiative Beterboeken, which aims to destruct the power of Booking.com and support local accommodations with a fair booking system.
During the COVID-19 crisis, I have seen an increased appreciation for the local and sustainable. People wanting to support local entrepreneurs in their neighbourhood, choosing ecological and locally sourced food more often, taking more time for self-care and relaxation, enjoying the slower pace of life. These are things we can continue to do once we will start travelling again. Going to a local café instead of a Starbucks or McDonalds, booking a small-scale accommodation, choosing a personal and local Airbnb instead of one that belongs to international housing speculators. We can travel less often, but take more time. Choose ground travel over air travel and allow ourselves to take time to enjoy and relax at a slower pace.
We are all in this together
There are thus plenty of options to do better for all of us, no matter what role we have. At the same time, money is pumped into the tourism industry to make sure it survives and the status quo can be maintained, even though we are facing severe issues from climate change and overtourism in some destinations. The question arises, can we actually change? And do we want to give up economic gains for other values? Or when this is all over, will we indeed go running back to how it once was? Let’s hope this time is indeed a moment for reflection, not only for the government of cities, not only for the industry, but also for DMO’s, for travellers, for all of us. We share this responsibility. Let’s make this change together.