According to the UNWTO, 1.4 billion international tourist trips were recorded worldwide in 2018. This figure not only reflects a growth of more than 5% compared to 2017, but also far exceeds the UNWTO's own forecasts of a few years ago.
This trend is also far from being reversed, quite the contrary, with growth of approximately 4% expected in 2019. At this rate, the UNWTO's 2030 target of 1.8 billion tourists will be reached much sooner than expected.
The reality is that, today, tourism accounts for 10.4% of world GDP and 10% of total employment worldwide, not insignificant figures that deserve the attention of those responsible for the sector at world level.
Something similar is happening in Spain, where tourism is an important economic engine (even authoritative voices announce that the target could be 15% of GDP), with a successful model so far, but which will undoubtedly have to continue to evolve with the support of all the bodies involved.
This context of continuously rising numbers has positive consequences such as economic growth, job creation, revitalisation of regions or improvement of infrastructures. However, we can also speak of overcrowding or excessive growth that can lead to a low-quality tourist offer, with a lack of coordination and resources to deal with the tourist boom, poor use of heritage or even problems of coexistence with the local population.
Not everything is black and white. The data point to tourism as a fundamental pillar, present and future, as an engine of economic, social and environmental development worldwide. The potential is undeniable, so the determining factor when it comes to a country, region, city or tourism company knowing how to adapt to this new scenario and focus its strategy in the right direction is definitely management.
In order not to be so generic, we will refer to this management with a concept that has gained much relevance lately: sustainable tourism.
We would agree that there is no need to cite too many examples of unsustainable tourism. We all remember images of a Venice ravaged by hordes of tourists, beaches in Southeast Asia, until recently paradisiacal, where tourism has multiplied with an absolutely catastrophic environmental impact, long queues of tourists climbing Everest, destroyed by the invasion of travellers, or problems of urban speculation that generate disproportionate price rises, with the corresponding impact on the residents of the area.
Sustainable tourism does not aim to stop tourism growth (which is almost impossible), but rather proposes a different model: a change in the mentality of the industry and of all the actors in the sector, including the tourist himself, which allows tourism flows to be managed in an efficient and responsible manner.
In short, tourism activity must be a win-win for all involved, but above all it must preserve the most important thing, the tourism resource itself. If the authenticity of the reason why travellers visit a place is not cared for and maintained, this model is doomed to failure in the long run.
In the short term, large revenues may be generated, but over time this will leave only a degraded ecosystem, a damaged environment or heritage, and a short-lived social impact that may even lead to more problems and inequalities than before.
The benefits of a sustainable tourism model must be defined, implemented, monitored and measured in four areas: environmental, heritage, economic and social.
1. At the environmental level, the main practices to be carried out in order to achieve a good balance with tourism could be:
Tourism practices with zero (or minimum) environmental impact: electric vehicles or any sustainable transport, reduction of the use of plastics, generation of clean energy, use of zero kilometre raw materials, responsible consumption and awareness that resources are limited and that taking care of them will make tourism last longer and in better conditions.
The aim is to make all those involved realise that tourism must adapt to the existing environment in order to preserve it, and not the other way around.
2. In terms of heritage, sustainable tourism should focus on:
Preserving tangible heritage: monuments, museums or any other physical element of cultural interest Preserving intangible heritage: regional traditions or festivals, typical gastronomy and the way of life of the local people.
The idea is to integrate the tourist into the destination and at the same time make them feel integrated (with all the potential that this also has at a business level) and not become a "foreign element", alien to the place they are visiting.
3. With regard to the economic benefits of sustainable tourism, they can be summarised in the fact that it must be a driving force for development at all levels: for the local population, for tourism businesses and for public bodies, which also play a fundamental role in the process of managing and controlling tourism activity.
4. Finally, on the social level, sustainable tourism should focus on:
Reverse part of the benefits that tourism generates in society (more and better jobs, improvement of infrastructures, etc.), revitalisation of regions through tourism, care for the tourist-resident relationship (remember the win-win principle).
The question is, is it possible to have a tourism model that combines all these characteristics and remains profitable, successful and attractive to all? The answer is clearly yes. A sustainable model is perfectly capable of continuing to attract tourists and provide them with unique and inspiring experiences.
Moreover, tourism demand is evolving to new tastes and expectations, and more and more travellers are becoming aware that another type of tourism is possible and more companies see this business model not only as a way of preserving the future of tourism, but also as a way of differentiating themselves.
One can look the other way or think that it will all remain good intentions, but in the future tourism will either be sustainable or it will not be.