Declared by the UN General Assembly as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, 2017 was expected to raise awareness of the contribution of tourism to attaining the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet at the halfway point, there is no evidence of the necessary changes of attitude among policymakers, in the tourism industry or on the part of travellers.
According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism generates 10 per cent of global income. The tourist industry accounts for every 11th job. If tourism is structured and developed differently, it could contribute appreciably to sustainable development. This was already recognized when the 2030 Agenda was being drawn up. Three of its 17 SDGs refer expressly to tourism: they are SDG 8 on decent work, SDG 12 on sustainable production and consumption, and SDG 14 on marine ecosystems.
But indirectly, tourism is even more closely bound up with the 2030 Agenda. Greater efforts are therefore needed in respect of other goals of the 2030 Agenda such as employment conditions (wages, continuing training, women’s promotion), the use of resources (water consumption, environment and water protection, CO2 emissions, use of renewable energies) and honesty in tax matters.
Yet so far the UNWTO campaign for the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development has lacked any in-depth examination of these topics. On the contrary, there is talk of the growth potential of the tourism industry. Attention thus focuses on the aforementioned impressive contribution of the tourism industry to world income and to employment, and to continuing unchecked worldwide growth in tourist numbers. But at best this gauges the contribution of tourism only to economic development, but not to social or environmental development. All three levels should therefore be interlinked in the 2030 Agenda framework, as a matter of urgency. There must also be discussion of the quantity of resources being consumed by tourism, whether human rights are being respected and the implications of tourism for a society and for social cohesion.
Who are the travellers?
In 2015 the UNWTO counted 1.3 billion international tourists. The forecast is for this number to rise to 1.8 billion by 2030. It is expected to double by 2050. Compared to a world population of roughly 7.5 billion, this would seem to be a large share. This figure however counts cross-border trips and not individuals, who are often counted several times over. Traveller estimates are based on the assumption that at most 5% of the world's population can afford cross-border travel.
Resource consumption in tourism
Most people today equate the environmental impacts of tourism with CO2 emissions. Yet compared to other economic sectors, tourism accounts for a mere 5% of worldwide emissions (2011). Still, it is precisely air traffic emissions – representing 40% of emissions attributable to tourism – that are particularly harmful to the climate. They occur at an altitude where they have a considerably greater influence on the greenhouse effect than emissions at the earth's surface. Besides, despite greater efficiencies in means of transport, emissions will double by 2040. The upshot is that the increase in the number of travellers far outstrips efficiency gains.
But resource consumption in the tourism industry is appreciable in other areas as well. Water consumption is especially problematic. A luxury hotel with wellness facilities will of course have a significantly greater impact than a small guesthouse with no swimming pool. Per capita and per day water consumption in the tourism industry therefore ranges from 94 to 3300 litres. Forecasts are that water consumption will double by the year 2050. By way of comparison, average water consumption in Switzerland is around 170 litres.
Land use is often underestimated. Tourism is dependent on infrastructure such as airports, streets, hotel facilities, ski resorts, golf courses, and the like. Additional land is needed for food production and in particular for refuse disposal. In areas with considerable tourism, the depots built for the local population are not enough. Land-use is predicted to double by 2040 and may even triple by 2050.
Who benefits? And who bears the costs?
It is relatively easy to identify the beneficiaries of tourism. Is food locally sourced? Are employees locally recruited? On what terms and conditions? Are they given further training and allowed access to senior management positions? Where are taxes paid? Does the tourism provider belong to an international consortium headquartered in a tax haven? Indeed not all tourists always have equal access to information, but asking costs nothing.
A comprehensive cost analysis is usually more difficult. What is clear, however, is that many costs are borne by the local population and that infrastructure is funded by local taxpayers. It is therefore indispensable for tourism providers to pay their taxes locally. It is difficult to put a figure on the health costs generated by air and noise pollution. They too are being borne by the public in general.
Research on the Panama Papers has shown that many tourism providers conduct their business through tax havens. They benefit from State-funded infrastructure, a trained workforce and from national parks, while at the same time denying the same State a fair share of the profits they make. Sustainability works differently.
Tourism is also regularly criticized by human rights organizations. Local communities are being expropriated through land or ocean grabbing. Sustainable tourism must also create prospects for local people. In the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, respect for human rights and children's rights – keyword child prostitution – also belong on the international agenda.
On the one hand, a legal framework is needed under which tourism providers are held accountable. But we ourselves, all of us, are no less important – as responsible travellers who ask questions about environmental protection, labour rights and local products.