Responsible, sustainable tourism has entered the mainstream. Anthony Pearce highlights the destinations leading the charge.
Tourism is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, with the number of international travellers more than doubling in the past two decades. This number could rise to 1.6 billion by next year, with over 370 million of these long-haul travellers, according to the World Tourism Organisation. The sector accounts for 10.4 per cent of global GDP and 313 million jobs, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The impact of tourism is now, of course, felt across the globe – positively and negatively. As ABTA puts it, tourism can be a powerful force for good, but the effects on host-destination environments, economies and communities need to be carefully managed.
As the industry has grown, so has the idea of, and need for, sustainable tourism. Over recent years the concept of sustainable, or responsible, tourism has become more clearly defined. In 2002, the Cape Town Declaration produced the now widely used phrase: responsible tourism is tourism that creates better places for people to live in and better places to visit.
Sustainability is understood to have three main pillars: environmental, social and economic. In a tourism context, environmental issues include climate change, water, waste and biodiversity. Social issues include labour conditions, equality and diversity, and child safeguarding. Economic issues can include tourist spend in the local economy and local economic development.
Clare Jenkinson, ABTA’s senior destinations and sustainability manager, says: “Sustainable tourism isn’t a specialist or ‘niche’ form of tourism: any type of tourism can be made more sustainable.”
Action can be taken across offices, transport, accommodation, excursions, the wider supply chain, and by influencing customers. On plastics alone, companies such as Thomas Cook and Tui are making big strides in removing single-use plastics from across the business. Travelife for Accommodation, run by ABTA, is a sustainability certification programme that helps members improve their social, environmental and economic impacts. It supports more than 1,500 member hotels in over 50 countries in improving their sustainability performance and highlighting their achievements to travellers and travel companies. Here, we spotlight eight destinations leading change.
Slovenia has long been celebrated for its commitment to sustainable tourism through its innovative Green Scheme of Slovenian Tourism, which encourages and celebrates green practices across the county. According to the 2016 Environmental Performance Index, Slovenia is the fifth greenest country in the world, while its capital, Ljubljana, was named as the Green Capital of Europe in 2016 and took first place in the Best of Cities category at the Sustainable Destination Awards at ITB Berlin this year. One of the great joys of Slovenia is, because of its small size, the permanent proximity to nature; Ljubljana, which has closed its city centre to motor traffic, has 542m2 of public green space per capita – the largest of which, Tivoli Park, leads to two wooded hills, Rožnik and Šišenski hrib plus a maze of hiking trails. Also encouraged is a river ride in a kayak under the city’s picturesque bridges.
Found 1,500 kilometres off the mainland of East Africa in the western Indian Ocean, Seychelles is a 115-island archipelago of incomparable beauty. Home to white-sand beaches, turquoise cays, and some of the rarest flora and fauna on earth, it is also establishing itself as a leader in sustainable tourism through various programmes aimed at protecting nature. This includes work with the Marine Conservation Society on projects to protect coral reef and, most impressively, the creation of natural reserves across the region: around 50 per cent of the Seychelles is now designated as such. The Cousin Island Special Reserve, which contains a Marine Protected Area (MPA), is a particular success story: once a coconut plantation, it has steadily restored its original ecosystem. Efforts are not confined to just land, with the Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) initiative enforcing bans on fishing activities in 30 per cent of the island’s Exclusive Economic Zones. The nation, ahead of the curve, has also banned plastic bags, cups, plates, cutlery and now straws.
Nearly 19 million Britons visited Spain last year, making it by far the most popular foreign destination for UK holidaymakers. But under the radar, the country has been making great strides towards offering sustainable holidays. In the 2019 Sustainable Top 100 Destination Awards at ITB Berlin, Baiona, a municipality of Galicia South West Coast, was recognised in the category of beaches and seaside. As well as having natural and marine protected status, the region has committed to making beaches smoking free; by 2018, five out of six beaches were accessible to visitors with physical disabilities. The Spanish tourist board is also promoting sites accredited with the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism, sponsored by the European Commission. These include Doñana National Park, Andalucia, known for its wetlands and migratory birds; the volcanic area of Garrotxa, Catalonia; and forested Garajonay, on the island of La Gomera, which all offer holidays that conserve the ecological and scenic values of the destination.
Sustainability is embedded into Portugal’s national tourism policy, which includes stimulating a balanced distribution of tourism demand, reducing seasonality and generating value and employment throughout the country. Among other things, they also closely monitor visitor numbers, for example tracking where they are spending their time in order to help avoid over-crowding in popular areas. The city of Águeda, the region of Oeste and the coastal towns of Cascais and Lagos are among those that have been internationally recognised for green tourism. The government has begun to declare some of Portugal’s coastal areas as protected landscape, such as Esposende, southeast Alentejo and Sintra-Cascais. The latter contains magnificent Sintra, a small town a short train ride from Lisbon that has been recognised by Unesco since 1995. The Azores, described by Lonely Planet as ‘Europe’s secret islands of adventure’, is fast becoming recognised as an eco-paradise. Unesco designated three of its islands (Graciosa, Flores and Corvo) as biospheres, while the group has more than 30 Blue Flag beaches – eco-labels awarded to beaches.
As one of Africa’s most popular destinations, but one of the world’s poorest countries, tourism is of great importance to the well-being of the Tanzanian people. Poaching is a major problem in a nation full of endangered species (one in three elephants poached in Africa is taken from Tanzania), meaning efforts are under way to protect the country’s incredible wildlife. The Chumbe Island Coral Park in the semi-autonomous region of Zanzibar is a great example: a private nature reserve, it includes a fully protected coral reef sanctuary and forest reserve, where you can spot rare wildlife, and an education centre for the local population. In 2013, it won the World Responsible Tourism award.
Tajikistan, a landlocked country in Central Asia, is surrounded by Afghanistan, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and given its rugged mountains, the country is increasingly popular for hiking and climbing. Although Tajikistan is one of the region’s least visited countries, operators such as Intrepid Travel do offer tours here: its 13-night tour begins in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and ends in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, allowing guests to take advantage of the latter’s homestay network and immerse themselves in local life. In the Pamir Mountains, the Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA) supports local people by creating jobs, including for single mothers and people from remote areas.
Ever since Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galápagos Islands in 1825, a voyage that played its part in his theory of evolution, this archipelago off the coast of Ecuador has fascinated the world. With 80 per cent of its land birds, 97 per cent of its reptiles and land mammals, and about 30 per cent of its plants endemic to the archipelago, it’s no surprise this delicate ecosystem requires stringent destination management. Fortunately, that’s just the case: 97 per cent of the Galápagos is designated as a national park, while the Galápagos Marine Reserve protects an additional 50,000 square miles of ocean around the islands. No tourist is allowed to explore the islands independently, ensuring the famously confident wildlife remains untouched, and cruise ships – such as Celebrity Cruises’ new Celebrity Flora – are being built with the destination in mind. In Ecuador itself, Planeterra and G Adventures are working with the Shandia village, which is inhabited by indigenous Kichwa families, to develop a cycling tour and chocolate-making class led by the village’s youth. The class is available on the eight-day Ecuador Quest Classic tour.
There are a number of community-based itineraries now in operation in Nepal intended to support local people, while many of the best-known operators offer tours there. Travellers with Trafalgar, for example, visit a thangka painting school in Patan and a Tibetan Refugee Centre, which features the Jawalakhel Handicraft Centre. One of the country’s success stories is Bardia National Park, the largest protected area in Nepal’s Terai and home to the Bengal tiger. It’s one of the largest refuges for the majestic animal in all of Asia – its population is set to double by 2022, while the park is also home to many other endangered species such as the Asian elephant and one-horned rhinoceros.