Tourists arriving at a hotel

Tourists arriving at a hotel on Ibiza.

07-10-2021Archives

If you are a tourist, here are some questions for you. Do you view companies more favourably if they do the following - Ensure community benefits from their presence?; Buy seasonal produce?; Promote cultural attractions?; Buy products that benefit local artisans?; Respect the culture of local employees?

These were among some questions posed in a 2016 survey that was then cited in a 2017 World Economic Forum paper entitled ‘The growth paradox: Can tourism ever be sustainable?’ In order, these questions gained 89%, 88%, 88%, 87%, and 89% support from those surveyed. So, would you count yourselves among these elevated percentages? If you would not, then why not? The questions, on the face of it, are ones to which 100% support would be given. Why would, for example, anyone query ensuring community benefits?

If you ask the question, then you will get the answer. And if the question concerns the seemingly indisputable, then you will get overwhelming agreement. However, agreement in the hypothetical scenario of a questionnaire doesn’t necessarily mean that it is put into practice. Or does it?

The number of forums, conferences, presentations dedicated to sustainable tourism is that overwhelming that one has to wonder how sustainable these events can be. Does sustainability fatigue and overload not creep in? It would seem not, as they are ubiquitous and show little sign of disappearing into a vast black hole of shop-talking. This is because they are not merely talking shop, as the tourism industry, politicians, NGOs and international organisations insist they are not. They are the future, even if - as the World Economic Forum noted four years ago - there is a paradox. And to its paradox concerning growth (that of an ever advancing global tourism industry), I would add another - the paradox of answering a question in a way that could be expected and actually meaning and practising it.

Reading through the 2017 paper, it was as if I was hearing the latest utterances from the Balearic government or the Council of Mallorca. The paper could have been lifted and translated in order to be reproduced every time that the tourism sustainability issue crops up - which is regularly.

The author, Brian Mullis, might be said to have been guiding statements made in Majorca. For instance - “The travel industry and governments need to acknowledge that the narrow focus on increasing numbers is a problem and creates negative effects that diminish the quality (and value) of the experience for travellers and visitors alike.” On top of which, there is the experience of the locals - “Large-scale tourism is beginning to attract public opposition, and tensions between residents and visitors are growing in many over-loved destinations”. Over-loved? Wherever might he have had in mind?

Mr. Mullis made a pertinent point when saying that “the term sustainable tourism means different things to different people in the industry”. “But like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts.” And also perhaps meaningless because of the volume of discussion, including that of the World Economic Forum. But the paper was an excellent summation of a situation, now said to have been advanced by Covid and heightened traveller sensitivities.

In order to be meaningful, all agents need to be operating in a virtuous circle of support to the end of achieving sustainability. This circle includes the circular economy, which has been propelled to the top of the Balearic productive model agenda and embraces the tourism sector. As an example, the Council of Majorca has its project for hotel waste to be transformed into cultivation compound, used by farmers to grow produce that is sold to the hotels, which then repeat the circle.

So, everyone, all the agents need to be moving in the same direction. And these agents most certainly include you, who are, after all, the consumers of this sustainability and are, moreover, responsible tourists demanding - inter alia - the purchase of seasonal products and the promotion of cultural attractions.

For you as tourists, “sustainability is something that is being increasingly sought”. You want to know “the carbon footprint, what airlines and hotels are doing for the environment”. You are asking about “plastics, the type of energy; if there are solar panels”. All of this is “something that hotels, airlines and tour operators have to communicate” because you are increasingly ecological. Don’t take my word for this, as this is a slight paraphrase of what Steve Heapy of Jet2 said at a forum last week.

You will no doubt see yourselves in what Mr. Heapy has explained. But here comes the paradox for sustainability. Or really the question for sustainability, as it is one - I daresay - with which Mr. Heapy will need to grapple as much as you will. During the same forum, the director of the Turespaña office in Berlin, Arturo Ortiz, observed that “the customer increasingly accepts higher prices so that it is sustainable”. A commitment to sustainability is win-win. “Demand wants it and is willing to pay for it.”
How sustainable are you?

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