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Sustaining tourism, the hard way

  • 14 March 2018

In the past decade the tourism debate has seen a shift beyond the recognition of the sector as the engine of growth and development and job opportunities. Global warming, depleting habitat cover for wildlife and other species, increasing population, excess exposure of destinations, have brought a raging debate on ‘Sustainability’ in tourism in the spotlight. No wonder UNWTO had declared 2017 as “The Year of Sustainable Tourism Development.”

Being a leading tourism stakeholder in the India Subcontinent, the recently concluded SATTE Conference put the focus on ‘Sustainability’ in order for the larger industry and stakeholders to understand the issue in a more coherent manner.

 

Tourism is one of the biggest engines of growth and development as well as job opportunities in most of the world; for some destinations and countries it’s more than others.’ The industry contributes about 10 per cent to the global GDP and about the same number in terms of employment. However, in the absence of Sustainability concerns, tourism can do more harm than good in the long run. Growing population, climate change, rampant industrialisation, emissions, deforestation, depleting glaciers, rising sea levels, fast depleting marine biodiversity, wildlife and water bodies, are all ringing alarm bells of Sustainability and more so in the tourism sector that earns out of environment, wildlife and biodiversity etc.

Growing population, increasing wealth and disposable income and billions of people undertaking air travel and through other transport system are today leaving behind huge environmental footprint much of which is irreversible and is taking its toll on destinations, right from ecologically sensitive areas that are tourism attractions to monuments. Add to that, the government apathy towards Sustainability and environmental concerns, poor policy implementation and absence of checks and balances have added considerably to the current woes. The concern is, and there is no debating that, that whether we would leave behind what we have inherited for our future generations. There are many who feel that we are already past the nature’s deadline!

The United Nation World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) has developed a comprehensive system, Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) that aims to build knowledge, and empower and inspire the tourism stakeholders to take necessary action in order to accelerate the process towards a more sustainable tourism sector by aligning policies, business operations and investments with SDGs by 2030. In summary, that effectively means finding answer to, “How to realise effective collaboration between stakeholders for sustainable tourism? How can we achieve the successful journey to 2030?” that was also the topic of panel discussion at the Silver Jubilee edition of SATTE in New Delhi recently.

The discussion brought together an eclectic mix of panellists in Neemrana Hotels’ Chairman Aman Nath, a crusader in his own right who salvages dilapidated monuments of national importance converting them into amazing hotels; renowned Tiger conservationist and popularly known as “The Tiger Man of India” Julian Mathews of the UK based TOFT (Travel Operators for Tigers) Tigers; Bo Keun Choi, Senior Officer, Regional Programme for Asia and the Pacific, UNWTO and Damcho Rinzin of Marketing and Promotion Division, Tourism Council of Bhutan. The session was moderated by one of tourism industry’s top sustainability crusaders in India, Mandip Singh Soin, Founder & Managing Director, Ibex Expeditions & Founder President of Ecotourism Society of India.

 

Big picture

The world population, currently around 7.6 billion, is estimated to be adding 83 million people every year, that is, one Germany, the 16th most populous country on earth. By 2030 it is estimated to reach 8.6 billion. Year 2017 witnessed an estimated 4 billion air travels worldwide. In India, a country of 1.32 billion people, an estimated 1.8 billion domestic travels took place. Globally, UNWTO estimates International tourist arrivals to have crossed 1.3 billion in 2017 recording its eight consecutive year of growth. By 2030 UNWTO estimates international tourist arrivals to reach 1.8 billion.

These are huge numbers and present a challenge that may be very difficult to surmount given the challenges the policy makers are faced with in terms of creating new employment opportunity and development for the country. And that brings us to the question of where are we headed in tourism sustainability, specifically in India that the panellists discussed and what should be our expectation sustainable tourism development.

UNWTO’s Choi says, “The aim of Sustainable tourism is to secure the continuous growth of the tourism industry without compromising the environmental, social and cultural viability of a tourist destination. That is, striking a balance between sustainable growth from the prospect of the tourism market and the SDGs in the side of environmental, social and cultural aspects.” Furthermore, he said that the role of public sector, the centre and regional governments, is very important. At the international level UNWTO has that kind of role about sharing information, knowledge and good practices.

Challenges

While setting the tone of the discussion, Soin opined, “I think the time for aspirational goals and aspirations are probably now behind us. We need to task ourselves to see how do we actually make sure that things on the ground happen in the right way because that is the biggest challenge and need of the hour. I personally think that unless you don’t have a carrot and stick approach, there are not too many good guys who will have the best of planet earth at heart. We are all driven by moolah.”

Drawing attention to government apathy, Nath said, “When we talk of carrot and stick, it’s not just for the private sector. I think the stick is very important for the government too. It is just that the private sector can’t beat the government because they are the ones who first don’t set the standards in time, then when there is huge mess, they make use of the mess to make money, when it gets much worse then they start to think about it. I think we have lost a lot of time and it’s not that we didn’t know about it.”

He also pointed that India has brilliant minds but they are never really involved in policy matters. “The people who lay the policy are not the ones who are entrepreneurs, they are not the ones who face difficulties. So I find that eventually you have to do everything yourself. You are reinventing the wheel in whichever way,” he rued.

Concurring with Nath, TOFT Tigers’ Mathews gave an interesting take highlighting poor policy implementation. He said, “The UNWTO put out a environmental sustainability index in 2015 and India in the index was at the very bottom. Interestingly enough, in the most recent Economist’s Sustainable Tourism Index, India is pretty much in the middle. Now to me that’s the difference between reality and the policies. The policies are there but none are applied, none are monitored. Guidelines are there but unless you put them into law, unless you have systems and organisations that actually monitor them and operate them in individual state, that’s how it has to happen. Otherwise, sustainability will never happen.”

 

Measuring Sustainability

UNWTO is developing a statistical framework for measuring sustainable tourism. This project is very important and challenging. Without proper measurement of sustainable tourism we cannot identify the evidence to support policies and track progress. Once in place we can compare tourism services, facilities and a destination competitiveness by using this statistical framework. This task will be finished by 2020, informed Choi.

Soin also highlighted the need to be pro-active in managing carrying capacity. “Would it not be possible to actually have destination measured for their carrying capacity and then not come to a crisis and then fix it. . If we know where we are headed why can’t we help?” he wondered. Furthermore and importantly, Soin pointed that there is no modal to conduct carrying capacity studies, and suggested UNWTO and WTTC to consider developing a modal to measure carrying capacity that industry worldwide can adopt and follow.

Bhutan that lives by its philosophy of ‘Gross National Happiness’ is one destination on the Indian sub-continent that is rated highly for putting environmental concerns before anything else. Highlighting the Bhutanese modal here, Rinzin said, “We are very mindful of the carrying capacity. If we realise that we are getting lots of people coming to Bhutan, we increase the cost. So there is an indirect way of managing the numbers. However, one of our challenges is to spread tourists to all part of the country. For example, eastern and southern Bhutan do not get lots of tourists. Looking at the numbers, we have to find a way to come up with strategy to spread the tourists.”

 

Sustainability future/ Way Forward

A joint effort by UNWTO, UNDP on “SDG – Journey to 2030” points to some important guidelines for future sustainable tourism development. The public sector needs to develop more inclusive and integrating tourism policies and also needs to assess and monitor tourism’s contribution to SDGs. In case of private sector sharing experiences and good practices are important. Purchasing local goods and services will help increase value chain of tourism. The report also addressed the issue of financing by suggesting investment in tourism as a priority sector towards achieving SDGs. Based on these suggestions UNWTO is working on establishing a wide range of initiatives for sustainable tourism at the international level.

According to Mathews, “You have to set down very strict carrying capacity rules and you have also got to do hell of a lot pre planning because the only way we can be sustainable is by putting in time and resources. What we need in India specifically is same resources and skills and funds to go into things like smart forest. We have smart cities and we do lots of investment in them. We need to look at forest in much the same way. We need to planning long term for their future, their conservation, we need to be planning for the community that are both, in them and around them.

Soin, pointed at the need of global organisations like UNWTO and WTTC to be more pro-active. “What would be nice is to have a strategy on how do we walk the talk. Because, that to me, is missing on the ground,” he said.

Rigzin said that as far as Bhutan is concerned the rules and regulations are also passed on to other stakeholders like tour guides and ownership of people and making them understand of what is important in terms of sustainability and value of tourism. “You can have strongest of the rules but if people don’t believe in it, they are not involved, it doesn’t go well. We can’t move forward in sustainable tourism development.”

Furthermore he said that Bhutan has this policy of “High value low impact.” “We are looking at getting bigger value from tourist coming to Bhutan. I admit it’s a challenge but at the same time good value for our people and not at the cost of environment and culture. While at the same time when we have the right kind of people coming to Bhutan the negative impact is less,” he argued.

Nath again pointed at the need to have functional rule of law and that it should be applied to all. “Regulations should be applied to all. There are regulations for us, as hotels, on sewage but not for the village in the vicinity. Is the government not responsible for the village or the municipality?” he questioned. He also said that the Government can’t enforce sitting in Delhi, instead he suggested that there should be strict rules and deadlines and people should confirm to them.

 

Involving Stakeholders

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development last year aimed to raise awareness of sustainable tourism, mobilise all stakeholders along the tourism value chain and force the change in policies and practices in both the public and the private sectors. Choi says that some of the key learning were that partnership is key to the sustainable development and that the goals of sustainable development cannot be achieved in a very short time but should be managed from long term perspective.

Sharing information on Bhutanese approach to Sustainability, Rinzin said, “Let’s be honest. The private sector is looking at making lots of money, whereas the public sector is looking at the long term goals. We need to strike a balance for sustainable tourism development. So as public organisation we set rule for the industry but more than the rule letting the private sector understand, making them a stakeholder in where we are heading to in terms of Sustainable tourism and what are the requirements of being a sustainable destination. That is very important.”

Nath also highlighted the importance of localising the experience. “We employ the local people and they are so quick to learn. And they actually run the place like it is their own and also bring a lot of local flavour to tourists experiences.

 

In Conclusion

In India particularly what has been found to ail most is the lack of coherent and practical approach instead of archaic and tedious tourism policies and the need to pro-actively deal with sustainability issue in tourism. Experts on the panel were also of the opinion that there is need to devise mechanism to ‘measure’ sustainability implementation by stakeholders as well as carrying capacity in a destination. Sharing information on best sustainability practices and greater sensitisation amongst the both public and private sector were also put in spotlight.

 

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The aim of Sustainable tourism is to secure the continuous growth of the tourism industry without compromising the environmental, social and cultural viability of a tourist destination. - Bo Keun Choi

The policies are there but none are applied, none are monitored. - Julian Mathews

Would it not be possible to actually have destination measured for their carrying capacity and then not come to a crisis and then fix it. – Mandip Singh Soin

Regulations should be applied to all. There are regulations for us, as hotels, on sewage but not for the village in the vicinity. – Aman Nath

The private sector is looking at making lots of money, whereas the public sector is looking at the long term goals. We need to strike a balance for sustainable tourism development. - Damcho Rinzin

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