By Laura Muñoz Tarrío
Travel and tourism were responsible for 8.1% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). Despite this, tourism is considered “an important source of foreign exchange and employment and is closely linked to the social, economic and environmental well-being of many countries, especially developing countries” by the UN.
The WTTC forecasts that by 2023 this sector will be contributing 9.5 trillion dollars (8.9 trillion euros) to the world economy, in addition to creating 320 million jobs. It is therefore essential that it evolves and adapts to both the new demands of travelers and the needs of the planet.
Sustainable tourism, a ticket to survival
The COVID-19 pandemic significantly affected tourism, due to lockdowns and border closures. However, as early as 2022, there were more than 960 million international tourist trips, which means that two-thirds (66%) of the figures reached before 2020 were recovered, according to UNWTO. In this regard, Javier Iglesias, Director of Operations at Opinno, explains that “the tourism sector will continue to experience strong growth, in line with the increase in population and economic resources, which implies that the externalities it generates will also do so, hence the urgency to act”. This number of travelers “raises challenges related to overcrowding, cultural appropriation and loss of authenticity,” explains the European Commission.
These negative effects of overtourism have led some local communities and heritage tourism experts to oppose this type of travel. For this reason, and with the aim of changing their perspective, this sector must place these groups at the center of decision-making processes, according to the European Commission. Iglesias adds that “tourism should not jeopardize local culture and authenticity, but rather improve the circumstances of the populations that receive travelers.
In this context, ecotourism or sustainable tourism, which “takes into account current and future economic, social and environmental impacts to meet the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities,” is presented as the best option for the survival of the sector. It seeks to align with the 2030 Agenda and “implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and fosters local culture and products”.
What initiatives have organizations and companies implemented?
Given that sustainable tourism must “satisfy the needs of the present generation without compromising the capacity of future generations,” as Carlos Calderón, coordinator of the Master’s Degree in Ecological and Sustainable Tourism Management at the Polytechnic University of Madrid (UPM), explains in El País, many companies are taking action to adapt to this new reality.
Booking, for example, already shows on its website certificates that identify eco-friendly places, so that users can take this factor into account when choosing their accommodation. For its part, the multinational Meliá opened the first carbon neutral hotel in Menorca in 2022. This has “biomass boilers, geothermal energy and heat recovery, photovoltaic energy, recovery of clean and gray water, as well as digital technologies to measure and control the water footprint and reduce energy and water consumption,” as reported by the Balearic media Última Hora.
On the other hand, companies such as Renfe focus on sustainability in transportation. Thus, this railway company has 80 % of electric trains that operate with renewable energy. It is also working on projects to convert liquefied natural gas into an alternative fuel for its trains.
Viajes El Corte Inglés is also working along these lines. The department store division focused on tourism has had a section dedicated to sustainable experiences since 2022, in addition to having partnered with the company South Pole to offer a digital solution that will allow its customers to measure the impact of their trips and offset their CO2 emissions, as reported by Europa Press.
On the other side of the world, in Saudi Arabia, the luxury tourism projects The Red Sea and AMAALA, promoted by Red Sea Global, are committed to regenerative tourism, i.e. tourism that not only does not harm the natural environment, but also contributes to increasing biodiversity.
Organizations should also promote this sustainable change of course by rewarding those who join in. For this reason, there are initiatives such as that of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, which gives awards to companies that maximize the benefits of their activities for the environment and minimize negative impacts. A similar action is led by the European Union with the award of the Ecolabel, which “shows clients and consumers which accommodations comply with the criteria required for sustainable tourism”, as National Geographic explains.
Ecotourism not only guarantees the survival of the different destinations by taking care of the environment and its biodiversity, but also cares about the prosperity of local communities, their needs and wishes. However, Iglesias stresses that “although there are already multiple initiatives that strive to offer sustainable alternatives, there is still a need for great innovation to raise awareness and empower tourists, so that they make better consumption decisions and are able to manage their ecological footprint”. So, this new way of enjoying nature and cultural heritage involves finding a balance between the tourist’s enjoyment and the conservation of the environment and its people, so that travel does not harm the planet.