The global tourism industry is asking itself tough questions in the wake of the pandemic –  Rajika Jayatilake

Tourism was a powerful industry as recently as in 2019, contributing 10 percent to global GDP and creating 330 million jobs worldwide. Yet, this planetary interconnectivity contributed to tourism becoming one of the pandemic’s worst casualties.

As a recent UNCTAD report states, the pandemic-related tourism crash could lead to a global GDP loss of over US$ 4 trillion for 2020 and 2021.

However, with eased lockdowns, relaxed travel restrictions, opened airports and intensive vaccination programmes, the slumbering tourism industry is beginning to stir – even though the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) doesn’t foresee a full recovery of the industry until 2024.

UNWTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili explains: “There is clearly a strong demand for international tourism, and many destinations have started welcoming visitors back – safely and responsibly. However, the true restart of tourism and the benefits it brings remain on hold as inconsistent rules and regulations, and uneven vaccination rates, continue to affect confidence in travel.”

As the tourism industry adjusts to a future of permanently altered requirements, nature is openly challenging countries to rethink their strategies on the basis of posterity. As the Native American proverb says, ‘we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.’

Countries with a vision are already focussing on diverse strategies for tourism within their borders – they’re moving beyond sustainable tourism to adopt a regenerative ethos.

As much as destinations and players in the industry want a return to normalcy, and tourists eagerly look forward to travelling, there is a new soul-searching taking place about everyone’s obligation to tourist destinations.

As CEO and Founder of Lindblad Expeditions Sven Lindblad states: “Sustainable tourism was largely defined on the concept of doing no harm… (and making) sure it’s available for future generations to also enjoy.”

On the other hand, regenerative tourism builds on this concept and takes it a notch higher.

Lindblad adds: “With regenerative tourism, there’s an opportunity … to actually improve the destination. However, when it comes to nature, is it possible to leave a place ‘better’ than it was before?”

For instance, if a burgeoning tourism industry has led to negative consequences for a destination, the ill effects can be mitigated through positive strategies. But this essentially calls for an attitudinal shift among tourists and across the industry, he notes.

Encouragingly, there are countries that have understood this need and are implementing strategies to engage in regenerative tourism.

For instance, New Zealand – with a population of slightly under five million – was hosting about 11 million tourists annually between 2016 and 2019. With the strain of this on the country’s resources and environment becoming visible, the government introduced a visitor levy of NZ$ 35 that’s mainly for managing its world-renowned national parks.

New Zealand is also working to decarbonise travel with electric vehicles and has invested in developing new low emission aviation fuels. Included in this plan are repairing damaged rivers, seas and scenic sites with a zero waste circular economy.

As the Chief Executive of Tourism New Zealand René de Monchy explains, “tourism must give back more than it takes to our people and home. We are focussed on ensuring that tourism contributes across the four ‘wellbeings’ – economy, nature, culture and society.”

Meanwhile, there is a dynamic governmental equation connecting the tourism industry in Hawaii. For instance, the Pacific state closely monitors industry performance while individual counties handle their tourism objectives with the support of the Hawai’i Tourism Authority (HTA).

As it happens, Kaua’i County’s Destination Management Action Plan (DMAP), which stretches up to 2023, focusses on protecting the island’s natural beauty and rural ambience. It also aims to ensure that the benefits of tourism exceed the cost of resources consumed while enhancing the quality of life of the island’s people.

In the process of trying to repair the damage done to the environment through unsustainable practices, Kaua’i is engaging in regenerative tourism. There is focussed attention on preventing crowding, and the overuse of popular beaches and state parks, finding alternatives for individual tourist car rentals that congest the roads and preventing the illegal conversion of residences into guesthouses.

HTA is engaged in marketing the islands to travellers and promoting tourism to Hawaiians, emphasising the positive outcomes for residents and travellers alike.

At the height of the pandemic in 2020, Pololikashvili noted: “This crisis is an opportunity to rethink the tourism sector, and its contribution to the people and planet; an opportunity to build back better towards a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient tourism sector that ensures the benefits of tourism are enjoyed widely and fairly.”

COVID-19 had indeed pressed the pause button on tourism and that has led to a regenerative approach to building back better. As Sir David Attenborough asserts, “surely we have a responsibility to leave for future generations a planet that is healthy and habitable by all species.”

This crisis is an opportunity to rethink the tourism sector, and its contribution to the people and planet

Zurab Pololikashvili
World Tourism Organization