blog article

Fairer society & destination stewardship: a case for sustainable travel & tourism

13th May 2022

Author: Christopher Imbsen, Director of Sustainability, World Travel & Tourism Council

Christopher Imbsen photo

The shock felt by the world from the COVID-19 outbreak is indelible, both psychologically and economically; this is especially so in travel & tourism.

People have embraced travel as a human right. So, there is little doubt that the sector will bounce back and continue to grow.

However, the pandemic increased our awareness about the impact of human disruption to natural ecosystems. David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, wrote in the New York Times "We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it." There is a general scientific consensus about the increasing and significant threat that disappearing ecosystems and emerging animal-borne pose to global health, security and economies.

While the world scrambled to respond to the pandemic, a much larger global crisis looms. Though climate is perhaps a slow-burn in comparison to COVID-19, its potential impacts are more far-reaching, including immediate devastation from as extreme weather events, but also gradual devastation such as the loss of biodiversity and coastlines and displacement of entire communities.

The Guardian article imagines a world in which we respond with the same urgency and vigour to the climate crisis as we did to COVID-19. And, we should. Not only on ethical grounds, but also because the tourists of tomorrow demand it. Millennials and Generation Z, represented so powerfully by Greta Thunburg, were climate-conscious before COVID-19 and the pandemic will undoubtedly cement the feeling that something is broken in our planet and that we need to find a new balance.

With this newfound collective sense of fragility, the question then is do we want to go back to the way things were? Instead of 'bouncing back', should we rather 'bounce forward'? Focus on building afresh, and on solid foundations, with stewardship – a responsibility to take care of the planet and its inhabitants – front and centre in our thinking.

The answer seems to be self-evident, though it requires a commitment to change. Travel & tourism has a chance to be the face of a new balance, a responsible steward of communities and ecosystems. A steward has a responsibility to improve what’s in their care. To create opportunities for people, to safeguard and strengthen nature and culture, to find new and more sustainable ways of enjoying our fragile planet. Future crises and changes will inevitably disrupt travel & tourism, so it is vital to build in resilience not just to pandemics and other global crises, but also to climate change and its myriad impacts, to political upheavals, technological change, social calls for greater inclusion, economic disruptions and so on. The best way to bolster resilience is through prevention, looking at ourselves as stewards of the destinations in which we operate.

How do we become better stewards of our destinations?

The answer is simple – collaboration. As with everything, the devil is in the details.  Destination stewardship requires a shared understanding of the common good and effective platforms for collaboration with shared objectives and measurements of success that go beyond traditional growth metrics, such as visitor arrivals and overall spend. These new models of collaboration must deliver on market expectations and support the needs of host communities. Public-Private-Community (PPC) approaches present great potential but are often hampered by governance flaws that prevent better co-management of tourism to operate efficiently, effectively, and transparently, thereby generating legitimacy and trust.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), together with the Travel Foundation and the European Tourism Futures Institute (ETFI) at NHL Stenden University address this challenge in their joint study  'Towards Destination Stewardship: Achieving Destination Stewardship through scenarios & a Governance Diagnostics framework'. The report presents four Destination Stewardship scenarios, based on varying levels of engagement from the public and private sector, which show how differing levels of support can produce different outcomes with the aim of creating a common sense roadmap towards greater stewardship. It offers a Destination Stewardship Governance Diagnostic framework, built on the scenarios, to support stakeholders in considering how to move along this pathway, identifying the key aspects of governance that are either facilitating or frustrating a destination stewardship approach, and the required actions and resources to achieve an improved scenario. Importantly, the scenarios and diagnostic framework can support stakeholders to come together to debate and scrutinise how tourism is managed in a way that meets the needs of the destination, casting new light on the barriers and opportunities for greater destination stewardship. By addressing collaboration in a structured manner, the hope is that destinations can avoid the common pitfalls that often hinder effective collaboration such as a lack of a clear mandate, clashing cultures and agendas, insufficient knowledge and data, as well as a fragmented travel & tourism sector.

There is no magic bullet; creating a legitimate governance model with active participation from the public and private sectors, as well as the local community, that balances and meets the economic, environmental, and socio-cultural needs of a destination requires significant effort from its stakeholders to figure out what works best them. Effective models may vary depending on respective budgets, interest, engagement, competences, and so on; a model that works in one destination may not necessarily work in another. However, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and encouragingly, many destinations have already started their respective journeys even before COVID-19 and can serve as inspiration for those that are just beginning.

The time for action is now!

COVID-19 moved travel & tourism up the political agenda, demonstrating the codependence of governments and their visitor economies. As a sector, it will continue to face environmental, political, technological and social challenges and opportunities. As such, it is critical to develop effective governance models for travel & tourism to ensure it has a seat at the table in government decision-making.  By doing so, the sector can fulfill its promise as a driver and steward of sustainable, inclusive and resilient destinations.

our goals

Fairer society

We are passionate about working with researchers globally to deliver a fairer, more inclusive society. This perhaps has never been more important than in today’s divided world.