Fortunately for the tourism industry, the human impulse to explore and discover is as strong as ever. In 2018, the global travel and tourism industry grew 3.9% to contribute a record $8.8 trillion and 319 million jobs to the world economy that year. At the same time, the impacts of mass tourism on environments and local economies are complex, and sustainability has become a key concern for industry stakeholders as well as travellers. Imagining the future of global tourism leads us to ask: how can this booming industry remain sustainable?
Today, globally, the tourism trade equals or even surpasses that of traditional industries including oil exports, food products and automobiles, remaining the main income sources for many developing countries. The rate of expansion, and the pressures of finite resources and environments, makes sustainability a critical area of research and development for the industry.
In May, the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism hosted their first Investing in Tourism Sustainability Conference. With a flourishing tourism industry, Bulgaria is an appropriate setting for dialogue about sustainability efforts – since 2015, the country has seen a 31% increase in foreign tourist visits and a 34% increase in revenue from international tourism.
At this year’s conference hosted in Sunny Beach, international experts and thought-leaders came together to discuss the challenges being faced by destinations and companies in light of these growing figures, and discussed their visions for sustainable tourism models. Delegates spanning several relevant industries — including tour operators, airlines, hotel companies and policy-makers — reflected on efforts to nurture sustainability in tourism and travel. These were some of the key takeaways form this year’s conference:
The emergence of the ‘Mindful Traveller’
Increasingly tourists are aware of issues surrounding environmental sustainability; the carbon emissions of their travel, over-tourism of destinations and the use of single life plastics. No longer is worrying about these issues is the sole responsibility of the eco-warrior.
“We are now seeing the emergence of the ‘Mindful Traveller,” explains Susanna Saari, Senior Lecturer, Turku University of Applied Sciences. When planning their next trip away, forward thinking travellers now search for destinations which mirror their beliefs and values.
The pressure is now on the tourism industry to consider their practices, so they don’t lose the business of this emerging group. Rania Al-Mashat, Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, stresses the importance of considering the long-term environmental impacts of international travel, stating “It’s very important to not only think about the current generations benefitting, but also making sure than natural endowments stay over time.”
It’s not solely the responsibility of the traveller to worry about sustainability
Despite there being a clear emergence of the sustainably-driven ‘Mindful Traveller’, Saari argues that it not solely their responsibility to worry about the sustainability of their trip. “Tourists should have the freedom to travel, knowing that the industry is taking action to become more sustainable,” she argues.
Tour operators, hotels and destinations should also consider the burden of sustainability, so tourists can travel with confidence. To earn the trust of today’s travellers, tourism stakeholders need to prove their commitment to environmental and social issues, allowing people to travel with the assurance that their concerns about sustainability are reflected in their economic activity.
Tourists want to live like a local
Another key trend emerging is tourists’ desire to truly immerse themselves in the culture of their travel destination. The past 15 years have seen a decline in package holidays. With the rise in budget airlines and ease of booking accommodation online, tourists have more control to book outside of holidays offered by operators and venture off the ‘beaten path’. Increasingly, travellers want to be fully immersed in local culture.
In recent years there has been a rise of online accommodation booking platforms rooted in the concept of living within the local community. The growth of work-away retreats where people take up positions on farms and villas are a good example of how people are changing their travel habits. This is great news for rural locations, where tourism is not a traditional source of income. Encouraging travellers to these locations can mean a boost in economy in these rural areas.
However, this doesn’t mean that larger hotels should shy away from their responsibility of building relations between travellers and locals. Gerald Lawless, former President of the Jumeriah Group explained how this hotels group offers experiences designed to immerse themselves in local culture. “Our guests are offered the chance to visit local mosques, where they’re given a talk on the similarities between the Muslim faith and their own (often Christianity)”. The parallels are explored, and guests pushed to realise the similarities between their way of life and their hosts.
Sustainable tourism should support local economies
As booking travel and accommodation is becoming easier for the everyday traveller, the infrastructure helping to support this should also be involved in helping sustain and protect local economies.
“One option is that cruise liners give each guest a voucher to use in a local business when they call into port there, encouraging travellers to spend money on shore and in local businesses,” said Mr Rodrigues of The British Council.
“Tourism is a long-term gain. It has to be something that gives back to the country and allows the country to benefit and grow.” Supporting economies locally may be key to helping infrastructure in areas that are impacted by large tourist numbers to develop and strengthen, in turn providing better services for those visiting.
Countries find the need to be more accessible
Tourists today often want to visit more than one country on their trip. Accessibility between places is key to capturing these travellers. This poses a huge challenge to governments; how to make the process of travel easy, whilst ensuring regulations are solid enough to maintain security?
In the Black Sea Region, member states are working together to see how improving the visa processes can make travel between their countries easier for tourists. For example, they are hoping to introduce an online smart form to streamline the process.
Bulgaria’s Minister of Tourism Ms. Nikolina Angelkova stresses the importance of leaders across industries working together towards building sustainable models of tourism growth that maintain the national and local benefits:
“Tourism to me is a sector that promotes understanding, it promotes peace. It creates familiarity between people which is something we need very much. Sustainability is key, and this is just the beginning.”
This article was first published as a commercial feature on bbc.com and was created by BBC StoryWorks, Global News’s commercial content division, on behalf of Ministry of Tourism, Bulgaria.