UNWTO Drives Sustainable Tourism

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Interview with United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai.

Tourism is an essential source of job opportunities, livelihoods, foreign exchange and inclusive growth for small island nations, which in many cases possess a natural cultural and competitive advantage in the marketplace. However, they also possess unique vulnerabilities. What are the principal challenges affecting the future sustainable development of the sector for such nations and how can these be overcome?

Indeed, as one of the fastest growing sectors in the world, tourism has become the main economic activity for many Small Island Developing States (SIDS), creating much needed job opportunities and bringing in important income and foreign exchange earnings. Their special geographical situation and immense natural and cultural richness makes SIDS unique for visitors, but at the same time, confronts them with a number of challenges and vulnerabilities. These include connectivity, scarce and fragile natural resources, climate change and leakages, as the small economic base and the land scarcity of many SIDS means that they are prone to financial leakages, and sometimes to shortage of labour and skills.

Addressing the challenges above and seizing the immense opportunities presented by sustainable tourism in SIDS requires strong governance, including cross-cutting tourism policies, participatory frameworks and enhanced public-private partnerships. Further opportunities exist for SIDS to promote socio-economic growth, resilience and sustainability through regional integration and cooperation.

SIDS need to establish specific governance and management structures for tourism, which engage tourism, environment, culture, transport, trade and industry, planning and development responsibilities and expertise, and enable a participatory approach, and the fostering of meaningful partnerships between the public and private sectors and local communities. Furthermore, there is a major opportunity to strengthen the regional coordination of tourism policies and actions within groups of SIDS, to gain economies of scale in tourism management, share information and knowledge, and as integrated regional destinations, achieve a higher profile in the marketplace.

Renewable options for water heating, air conditioning and electricity generation can cut hotel operating costs and advance sustainability.

How has the UNWTO helped to facilitate investment in cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions that reduce the reliance of islands on fossil fuels?

UNWTO has partnered with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organisation dedicated to supporting countries’ efforts to adopt renewable energy, to promote the use of renewable energies in Islands, including investment in cost-effective energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions that reduce the reliance of islands on carbon-emitting fossil fuel.

Islands are burdened by high energy costs due to their reliance on costly imported diesel fuel. In spite of efforts to improve energy efficiency, more than 90% of SIDS´ energy consumption is met through oil imports, which represent up to 20% of their annual imports. Many islands have goals to expand the use of renewable energy options and reduce this oil dependency. Since tourism is an economic mainstay for many islands, investment in such options by hotels is key to achieving these goals. Renewable options for water heating, air conditioning and electricity generation can cut hotel operating costs and advance sustainability, while making them more appealing for tourists.

A key obstacle to catalysing the greening of the tourism sector for small island nations is lack of access to capital, particularly for SMEs, which constitute the bulk of the sector.

Where do you believe the answer lies in respect of this financing dilemma?

I believe at the root of this dilemma is a general lack of understanding of the fundamental importance of sustainable practices in tourism businesses to ensure their long-term operations, growth and profit. Tourism is dependent on vibrant and well-preserved natural and cultural resources, and so without interest or investment in maintaining them, the sector risks suffering in the long term.

To address this challenge, there must be heightened political will and the consequent inclusion of investment in green innovation in tourism as a priority within national tourism policies worldwide.

Economic success can never come at the expense of environmental degradation.

Do you believe the successful advancement of sustainable tourism development across the world’s most popular island destinations must be predicated upon regionally binding decisions between these markets and whether, without consensus, there is a danger governments, developers, tour operators and host communities will engage in a race to the bottom in pursuit of the tourist dollar?

As highlighted in the Réunion Island Declaration on Sustainable Tourism in Islands, close partnerships are a basis for achieving and promoting sustainable tourism. Regional cooperation among island groups addresses some of the key challenges facing small islands in tourism development, such as connectivity, given that island destinations are dependent on air transport to provide effective access to source markets. Through multi-government cooperation, tourism and transport policies can be better coordinated to pursue optimal growth in connectivity and secure economic benefits for island communities.

An example of this partnership approach is the creation of the Vanilla Islands, which unifies the islands of Comoros, Mauritius, Madagascar, La Reunion, Seychelles, Maldives and Mayotte under one tourism brand. This alliance was forged with the view to increasing connectivity to and within the islands, creating new multi-destination products and attracting more visitors to the Indian Ocean.

Regarding the issue about the lack of consensus among government, companies and communities in pursuit of profit – it is important to remember that economic success can never come at the expense of environmental degradation. Sustainable development benefits everyone across the board, and this requires the synergy of all quadrants of society, which embraces the public and private sector and civil society. In this regard, governments play a key role in leveling the playing field for tourism enterprises, by establishing and implementing clear policies on the control and management of the sector, in conjunction with all tourism stakeholders, in order to ensure a competitive field for all enterprises to thrive.

What part can tourists themselves play in upholding the principles of sustainability and so drive the economic growth and development of small island nations?

Tourists play a key role in upholding sustainability in islands, especially considering that international arrivals to SIDS have increased significantly, from 28 million in 2000 to 42.3 million in 2014 (+3.5% growth over previous year).

Each of these tourists has the potential to make a positive impact on the development of small islands by stimulating the local economy through the support of local businesses and services, and championing the conservation and preservation of the natural heritage of small island destinations. In addition, by immersing in local cultures, tourists help foster closer ties with host communities, leading to multicultural understanding and peace.

For more information, visit www.unwto.org