Travel, enjoy, respect: United Nations on the importance of sustainable tourism

We talked to UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai about responsible travel and the role we all can play in building a better, more sustainable future through tourism

The United Nations 70th General Assembly has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

The United Nations 70th General Assembly has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

Category Tips & tricks

Date 14th March 2017

The United Nations 70th General Assembly has designated 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Facilitated by The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the United Nations Specialized Agency for Tourism, the year will seek to increase awareness among governments, companies and tourists of the role they play in making tourism a catalyst for positive change.

The #IY2017 will promote tourism’s role in the following five key areas:

  1. Inclusive and sustainable economic growth
  2. Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction
  3. Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change
  4. Cultural values, diversity and heritage
  5. Mutual understanding, peace and security

At momondo, we have a vision of a world where our differences are a source of inspiration and development, not intolerance and prejudice. Our purpose is to give courage and to encourage each one of us to stay curious and be open-minded, so we can all enjoy a better, more diversified world. We live and breathe our purpose, and so we were happy to sit down and discuss the meaning and importance of sustainable tourism with UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.

What characterizes the tourism sector today?

In the last decades, the tourism sector has demonstrated to have a strong power to induce economic development and job creation among others. Representing 10% of world’s GDP, 7% of global trade and 1 in 11 jobs tourism is today a main socio-economic sector. At the same time with over 1.2 billion people travelling across borders in one single year, tourism has also become a force for intercultural dialogue, social inclusion, peace and reconciliation and sustainable development.

This has been reflected in the declaration by the United Nations General Assembly of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and the inclusion of tourism as part of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals that world leaders agreed upon late 2015 to guide us through 2030.

At the same, time we have seen the sector diversifying in terms of new destinations and source markets, the growing impact of technology and the changing patterns of consumer needs among which I would highlight the quest for authenticity and experiences.

Can you name and explain some of the challenges the industry is facing?

For UNWTO there are basically three major areas that bring challenges and opportunities:

Technologies and their application to the sector

Technologies represent a tremendous potential for the sector in terms of operations, management and knowledge. We should aim at building “smart destinations” where technology becomes a facilitator of more sustainable and competitive tourism sector.

Safe, secure and seamless travel

We need to have strategies that advance the integration of tourism into safety and security structures while promoting travel facilitation and seamless travel mechanism such as e-visas.

Sustainable tourism and the contribution of the sector to the Sustainable Development Agenda

in 1950 there were 25 million international tourists, in 2016 we surpassed 1.2 billion, and by 2030 we will reach 1.8 billion according to UNWTO forecast. With growth comes responsibility and the whole sector needs to embrace sustainable practices including travelers themselves.

With growth comes responsibility
With growth comes responsibility

2017 has been chosen as International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Why now?

The designation by the UN General Assembly of 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development comes at a very relevant moment. Due to its growth and cross-cutting nature, tourism has become a powerful force in advancing sustainable development in its three pillars – economic, social and environmental.

This value has been recognized, as mentioned, by the inclusion of tourism as one of the sectors that can contribute to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The Year in itself is a unique opportunity to promote this message and engage all stakeholders in advancing an effective change in policies and business practices that can translate into a more sustainable tourism sector.

Eco-tourists in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam
Eco-tourists in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam

How are responsible travel and sustainable development related?

Well, there will be no tourism sector in the future if it is not based on principles of sustainability, such as environmental protection, cultural preservation and respect for local communities. Tourism can bring immense benefits if managed in the appropriate manner, such as increasing awareness about eco-friendly practices, promoting decent jobs with gender-balanced focus and inducing economic development involving local communities, for instance.

However, if the tourism community, including the traveler, does not commit to those principles, the impact of the sector can have a negative effect, thus responsible travel is essential to ensure we all work towards a more sustainable future.

What is responsible travel?

Responsible travel is one that respects the environment, the culture and the local communities and promotes socio-economic benefits for all. Navigating the mighty Mekong River in a slow boat. Savoring the authentic cuisine of a street vendor in Morocco. Reflecting on life’s mysteries amid the ancient burial grounds of Angkor.

The diversity of our world unites us and gives us the chance to explore, engage and experience the best that local culture and communities have to offer. We will all be better people if we honor people and planet in our travelling.

The diversity of our world unites us and gives us the chance to explore, engage and experience the best that local culture and communities have to offer
The diversity of our world unites us and gives us the chance to explore, engage and experience the best that local culture and communities have to offer

One could argue, that the social, economic and environmental impact of tourism should lead us to travel less. Why are travel and tourism important?

Travel and tourism create jobs (especially for women and youth), gives people opportunities to build a better life, generates resources for cultural and environmental protection, helps revive rural and urban areas, brings people closer together and makes us better people.

In 1950, only 25 million people were travelling internationally. Today, tourism has become not only part of our culture, an expression of the genuine human curiosity to discover the world, but also a right in itself.

Tourism will continue increasing as it did in the last years. According to UNWTO forecast as mentioned we will reach 1.8 billion people travelling across the world in 2030. This is a reality that cannot be changed, but we can work to capitalize to the maximum its benefits while minimizing possible negative impacts.  There is no bad growth, only growth which is badly managed. The International Year is all about this.

According to the UN, travel contributes to the strengthening of world peace. Can you explain this?

This can be a very simple and obvious concept but with an immense repercussion. By travelling we do not only acquire knowledge about the cultural background of a certain destination. We also incorporate a new thinking and a new sensitivity about the issues, concerns and challenges of the outer world.

Following this approach, tourism has contributed to intercultural dialogue and has helped nations in reconciliation processes. This is one of the pillars that require much attention as the benefits are quite needed in many contexts.

Buy local products when you travel - for example at this street market in Bolivia
Buy local products when you travel – for example at this street market in Bolivia

What do you hope to accomplish throughout the Year?

We have high expectations that literally evolve every day because of the commitment of all parties involved in the International Year. I believe that UNWTO and all parties would be satisfied if we increase awareness of those involved and not involved in the tourism sector, if we can improve the position of the tourism sector at the core of the development agenda, and if we bring a deeper understanding of the dimensions and immense benefits of tourism to all societies.

At the end of the Year, we should have governments, companies and tourists more aware of the role they can play in building a better future through tourism.

Can you, as an independent traveler, really make a difference?

Sure. Simple actions can have great repercussions. For instance, protecting the heritage that we visit, buying local products, not supporting actions that lead to human rights infringement are attitudes that should be assumed by travelers. Imagine one action multiplied by billions of tourists and the impact that can have.

Join the movement to Open Our World and make sure to read UNWTOs tips for a responsible traveller

Originally published

14th March 2017