Tourism has come a long way from being a leisure activity reserved for a privileged few to becoming a global-wide movement participated in by billions of people across the world.
In a mere six decades, international tourism grew from 25 million international arrivals in 1950, to 700 million in 2000 and 1.133 million in 2014. UNWTO long-term forecasts indicate that the sector will continue growing to reach 1.8 billion tourists by the year 2030.
Today, the figures speak for themselves, with 1.133 million international tourists travelling the world every year; one in 11 jobs created directly or indirectly by tourism; six per cent of global exports generated by international tourism; and tourism accounting for as much as 10 per cent of the world’s GDP.
Furthermore, in recent years the tourism sector has proven its resilience to the global economic downturn, geopolitical tensions and natural and man-made disasters, asserting itself as one of the world´s leading socio-economic drivers. On average, international tourist arrivals have grown 4.5 per cent since 2010 – a growth that has translated into economic progress, increased exports and employment.
Beyond these big numbers, the scope of tourism takes on much greater significance. As recognised by the 2012 G20 summit in Mexico, tourism has become one of the fastest-growing and most resilient economic sectors of our times that can make a major contribution to sustainability in all of its three pillars – economic, social and environmental.
Tourism and the sustainability goals
The year 2015 will be marked as a milestone year for sustainability, as governments are set to adopt the post-2015 development agenda at the United Nations Summit in New York. The post-2015 development agenda is a transformative, people-centred agenda, elaborated from the collective engagement of a broad range of global stakeholders, with bold and ambitious targets for a more sustainable future.
Embracing the concerns of people and the planet entails linking the exponential growth of the tourism sector and its benefits with the safeguarding of the fragile natural assets and cultures of the destinations and societies that welcome visitors from around the world. As highlighted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on the occasion of World Tourism Day 2014, “harnessing tourism´s immense benefits will be critical to advancing our sustainable development goals as we shift to the post-2015 development agenda”.
Indeed, without responsible management and careful planning, tourism can cause harmful impacts on destinations and societies – damaging the environment, disturbing social structures and disrupting cultural values. Sustainability must therefore be the unconditional paradigm of our sector.
What is more, the overarching challenge of sustainability is also an immense opportunity. Tourism growth, if managed responsibly and ethically, can contribute not only to economic development but also to the establishment of more stable societies, as well as the promotion and protection of natural and cultural resources. In fact, it is of tourism’s own interest to preserve unspoiled environments, promote vibrant cultures and encourage welcoming host communities. Sustainable tourism thus enforces the mutual relationship of preserving environments while developing competitive tourism businesses to create wealth in destinations.
The outcome document of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (RIO+20), The Future We Want, highlights poverty eradication, the promotion of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and the protection and management of natural resources as the “overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development”. At the same time, it recognises that “well-designed and well-managed tourism can make a significant contribution to the three dimensions of sustainable development, has close linkages to other sectors, and can create decent jobs and generate trade opportunities”.
To support a focused and integrated approach to sustainable development, the intergovernmental Open Working Group (OWG) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) put forward, in July 2014, a proposal comprising 17 goals and 169 targets. Tourism, given its cross-cutting nature, has the potential to contribute to several of these goals (for example, in relation to efficient water use or renewable energies penetration) and has been specifically considered within three targets under Goals #8, #12 and #14 on Sustainable Economic Growth, SCP and the Sustainable Use of Oceans respectively. To achieve these goals, we need to appropriate policy responses, tools and monitoring mechanisms for enhancing tourism’s economic, social and environmental benefits while mitigating its negative impacts.
The importance of tourism as a driver of sustainable development has also been emphasised by the Resolution A/RES/69/234 of the UN General Assembly in 2014, which highlights the contribution of sustainable tourism to poverty eradication, community development and the protection of biodiversity. In line with UNWTO recommendations, Resolution A/RES/69/234 underlines the importance of appropriate national policies, guidelines and regulations for promoting sustainable tourism and encourages UN Member States and regional and international financial institutions to support sustainable tourism projects, enabling the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises, promoting cooperatives and facilitating access to inclusive financial services, including microcredit initiatives for the poor, local and indigenous communities.
In view of the above, sustainable tourism is firmly positioned in the post-2015 development agenda. Yet crucial elements remain for the tourism sector to thrive along the sustainable development path, including support at the highest political level and committed financing and investments in technology, infrastructure and human capacity.
Tourism is part of the solution
As world leaders meet in Turkey later this year to discuss measures to address the current global challenges, I invite them to look at how tourism can contribute to our common objectives of a fairer and more sustainable future for all.
Tourism´s development potential is tremendous – as one of the leading employment sectors in the world, tourism represents vital opportunities to create sustainable livelihoods, helping to alleviate poverty and driving inclusive development. As tourism revolves around the encounters between different peoples and cultural heritage, the sector can foster multicultural understanding and raise awareness on the imperative need for the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage.
With over one billion international tourists travelling the world each year, tourism has become a powerful and transformative force that is making a genuine difference in the lives of millions of people. Each time we travel, use local transport at a destination or buy products from a local market, we are contributing to a long value chain that creates jobs, provides livelihoods, empowers local communities, and ultimately brings in new opportunities for a better future.
Tourism´s potential as a driver of sustainable development comes at a critical turning point as we gather to advance universal SDGs. The sector can be instrumental in creating jobs, promoting local culture and products, and championing the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources. Maximising this potential entails placing sustainability at the core of tourism development and ensuring that tourism is positioned high on the sustainability agenda.