Sustainable Tourism: Rethinking the Future

Tourism also relates to wider notions of transport and logistics, corporate services and many more purposes for which people engage with forms of travel.
Sustainable Tourism: Rethinking the Future
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I want you to think about tourism. What comes to your mind? I am guessing you are now thinking of your last holiday. Hopefully you have some nice and happy memories. But that is not what I want to discuss with you now. Tourism is in fact much more than you probably just thought of.

It is interwoven into many other sectors and domains; from hospitality and leisure to media and technology, as well as for instance domains of psychology, geography, ecology and economy. Tourism also relates to wider notions of transport and logistics, corporate services and many more purposes for which people engage with forms of travel. Tourism is hence undeniably part of many other sectors, but it is not a traditional “sector” by itself.

Tourism typically consists of three crucial components. These components address tourism in terms of an activity that is both spatial and temporal. As an activity, tourism is typically considered to be of a voluntary nature. Typically for leisure purposes, but you may also think of other purposes, such as business travel, or other important personal travel for the sake of, for instance, better care. Tourism is then typically a spatial activity, since it requires people to go to places that are outside their usual living environment. This movement also implies a return to one’s usual living environment once the activity has ended. And this brings us to temporality. Tourism is typically an activity that lasts for longer than one night, but it remains temporary. These three components may raise further questions still. For instance, can we think of political migrations as a form of tourism? It may be temporal, spatial, but can we truly argue that it is also voluntary? And does a migrant have the opportunity to return to their usual living environment? It is hard to give an absolute answer here, but what is certain, is that such blurry boundaries are worth debating further. So once again, why and how to study tourism? Why? Because tourism has grown to become one of the largest economic forces in the world today and has tremendous effects on peoples’ livelihoods in terms of jobs, income and many more things. It has become such a powerful economic force that it is capable to drastically change our social and natural environments on this planet.

Tourism has become a normal part of our everyday lives, especially for people in the West. But this hasn’t always been the case. Up until the 19th century, before the start of the industrial revolution, tourism was very different to what it is today. With the rise of the early European empires, boats became a new method of transportation. It’s hard to imagine now, how for centuries, wind, gravity and pure animal and manpower were the only means of transport. How green and environmentally friendly, right?

Imagine what role this played in how people were able to travel! Let’s go way back in time. Did you know that people in the classical world were already actively travelling? Well, at least some of them were. We know that travel was part of ancient Greek life. This is what the world looked like according to Herodotus, some two and a half thousand years ago travel was mostly related to wars, however. By the time the Romans came on the scene, wealthy people living in the cities liked to periodically escape to coastal and countryside resorts and villas.

In medieval times, travel remained both arduous and an elitist activity. During this period, people typically travelled for warfare, education or pilgrimage purposes. Travel for the purposes of leisure and learning experienced a revival and expansion during the Renaissance. The exposure to the different cultures, be it via numerous explorations or colonization efforts, became a crucial element for the development of travel in centuries to follow. It was during the Renaissance, and later the enlightenment, that a key phase of European leisure and tourism development emerged.

Can we imagine a future of tourism without access to oil? That means no more air-travel as we know it, nor any other fast means of travel dependent on oil. We may find this scenario bizarre if we consider how transportation means have become an essential part of our daily lives and incredibly efficient energy-wise and cheap in comparison to, for instance, 50 years ago. Advancements in technology have, without a doubt, led to an explosive growth of flows of people and goods. While some people are becoming concerned with the environmental impacts of travel behavior globally, we should not forget the sheer economic size of this industry. For instance, every day there are more than 100.000 planes carrying almost 19 billion US dollars worth of goods and another 4 billion US dollars worth of air tickets. If we stick to travel and tourism purposes only, and look at people, who travel for a destination with the idea of staying at least one night, then these movements are accounted for as International Tourist Arrivals. These numbers grow rapidly every year, as you can see here.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization: by 2012, 1 billion people travelled to places for tourism purposes. That is almost 3 million people a day that stay at their destinations overnight! In 2016, this number already increased by roughly 20 percent. This number is expected to increase by another 50% the year 2030. But note that we are talking about international travel only here, meaning that these numbers become far greaterif we also include domestic forms of travel. Today more and more people have the luxury to travel. See the intensity of flights here, as people tend to make use of flights every day across the globe. Where travel used to be an elitist activity, over time it has become accessible to growing middle classes from the Global West to increasingly also to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We have become a lot faster in making decisions on where to spend our next holidays and we have also become a lot faster in actually getting there. Flying to the other side of the world has never been so easy. If I decide to fly to, let's say….Sydney, Australia, ok, what do I do next? I go online, I type in Amsterdam with Sydney as my destination. Within a minute I learn that if I pack tonight and leave tomorrow morning ,it will take me not more than 24 hours until I stand in front of the Opera House. Actually, if we compare this to, for instance, the year 1939, if we wanted to travel from London to Sydney, then this would have taken you about 10 days by plane!

Furthermore, we now observe a lot of new destinations popping up. This is necessary if you consider growing demands for new places to visit, but also: where are we going to put 2 billion international travelers in the future? Where are these people going to stay overnight? Who is going to host them? Well, as you might imagine, these developments require even wider flows than tourists alone. Think also of all those people working in the travel industry. More beds have to be made up, more meals have to be prepared, and more massages are to be given. Currently, it is actually 1 in 10 jobs in the world that is in the tourism industry. This ratio will keep getting smaller if means of travel keep growing. How can this growth be managed? What effects will this have on the use of natural resources? The question then remains, how are we going to tackle these and other tourism-related processes? Will the end of the oil age force us to stay home for our holidays? Will increased environmental awareness lead to higher transportation costs, or is tourism going to become an elite activity once again?

What will the future of tourism look like? Preparations are underway for the first human expeditions to Mars. Google Glasses tell you where to go and show you background information on every destination you visit. Virtual reality enables people to enjoy tourism from their couch. These are just some technological examples that will definitely have an impact on how tourism continues to develop in the future. And as such tourism may become more accessible, affordable, easier and comfortable. But to what extent are these solutions contributing to societal and environmental issues in tourism? How sustainable will the future of tourism become?

I will suggest how you can make sense of different solutions in terms of sustainability. To support this purpose, I will make use of a so-called...ladder of sustainable development approaches. This model allows you to question or rethink different sustainable development solutions in terms of their impacts. Let’s look at this ladder and start from the very bottom. Here we find very weak interventions that are generally designed by means of technocratic and or marketocratic logics. In other words; these are cases of new developments that are similar to business, as usual, that are focused on profit maximization, and show a strong trust in technological solutions. Such developments focus on quantifiable solutions but take very little notion of wider societal and environmental complexities.

Bio-fuels is an interesting example, as it says here:“if demand for aviation continues to grow, which is highly probable, bio-fuels could not offer a long-term solution as increasing quantities of land would be required for suitable crop cultivation”. A next step on the ladder is approaches that recognise that the growth of tourism is limited. Such measures can still be interpreted as weak ones. Economic growth remains crucial, yet environmental concerns become integrated gradually in calculating the limits of economic growth. Examples you can think of are: eco-labeling, carbon credits or voluntary emission targets .In a way, this is a positive trend, yet we have to keep reflecting whether such solutions are not used to sustain business as usual. For instance, can eco-labels be used as a means to sell more trips? No!A third step then on the ladder is different. These are measures that still allow for growth, yet this growth needs to be protective of its environment. These solutions are more challenging to achieve, yet interpreted here as strong measures. Economic growth remains important but is given second priority. Think of tourism interventions that become more regulated on a large scale and which become sensitive to issues concerning poverty or biodiversity conservation.

And finally, if we aim to climb up to the top of this ladder ,we come across ideal approaches for sustainable tourism development. These approaches are rather eco-centered and require a radical change from our status quo. But what does this mean? Well, we could, first of all, put us, humans, aside from the centre of designing tourism interventions. We would have to work towards a better quality of life. Not just for the privileged tourists, but also for others. That includes both humans and other living beings. We would also have to question the ways in which tourism is organized by capitalism today. Could we organize tourism through less corporate influence, less economic leakages, and with respect of local natural resources, biodiversity? Could we develop possibilities for people to enjoy tourism closer to one’s home? Why continue traveling to faraway places? And why on earth should we ever go to Mars? Just think about it. So maybe time to slow down? Have less growth? Use more imaginary forms of travel or appreciation of things that are close to us? Maybe, I am not saying that any solution is better than the other. What really matters is that change is necessary. I cannot imagine that tourism will continue to expand as it has been doing for the past 50 years. The environmental and societal implications are simply just too heavy to handle. Maybe technology will solve some of the problems, maybe not. So, let’s keep being critical of this and continue to make strong cases that will possibly crowd source sufficient followers to actually do something about the current status quo of tourism.

Shabir Ahmad is a UPSC Aspirant from Raiyar Doodhpathri.

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