Expert views

Tourism and the Sustainable Development Agenda

8 abril 2020
Zurab Pololikashvili, UN World Tourism Organization

Seizing opportunity in crisis

COVID-19 has brought global tourism to a standstill as countries impose full or partial travel restrictions and consumers stay home. Prior to 2020 international arrivals had been rising by an average of 4% a year. While it is too early to quantify the full cost of the pandemic, it is clear that this sudden fall in demand will have a significant impact, hampering economic development throughout the entire tourism value chain and its SMEs and placing millions of jobs at risk, most notably those held by the most vulnerable members of our societies.

An expected fall of between 20-30% could translate into a decline in international tourism receipts (exports) of between $300-450 billion, almost one third of the $1.5 trillion generated in 2019. Taking into account past market trends, this would mean that between five- and seven-years’ worth of growth will be lost to COVID-191.

As the United Nations specialized agency for driving sustainable development through tourism, UNWTO will support the sector in the difficult months and years ahead, bringing together key global players and forging strategic partnerships. While appreciating the severity of the crisis, this may also be seen as an unexpected opportunity to position firmly tourism in the economy and in the trade agenda, and to rethink and recalibrate tourism as a global phenomenon.

The sector has proven its resilience before: in the wake of the SARS health crisis and then the Global Economic Crisis of 2008, international tourist numbers and revenues dropped only to rise again the following years. We can be confident, therefore, that tourism can bounce back from this adversity. But the sector, with the support of governments and private enterprises, must be committed to growing not only stronger but better, with sustainability and inclusiveness as a key priority for every stakeholder.2

Supporting travel and tourism is supporting jobs and livelihoods

The global community now has just ten years to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the 2030 Agenda – we have started the Decade of Action. Managed responsibly, tourism can emerge from the current crisis as an even more important contributor to the SDGs, supporting livelihoods and creating opportunities for millions of people around the world and leaving nobody behind.

Having reached 1.5 billion border crossings by tourists in 2019 alone, tourism has a profound and wide-ranging impact on societies, the environment and the economy. As of the end of last year, tourism, as a services trade represents 7% of total world exports and 30% of total exports in services, and in 2018 was the third export earning category after fuels and chemicals. On average, tourism accounts for 10% of World GDP and provides one out of 10 jobs worldwide.

Last year was the ninth consecutive year of sustained tourism growth following the 2009 global economic and financial crisis. But with growth comes responsibility, which is paired with immense opportunities for socio-economic welfare, poverty alleviation, low carbon growth and the overall advancement on the 17 SDGs.

The explicit mention of tourism in the SDGs - as a target in Goal 8, 12 and 14 – is a clear recognition of its potential to contribute to sustainable development. However, tourism’s cross- cutting nature and its broad value chain can have an impact on the advancement of all SDGs. The current SDGs paved the way for integrating/strengthening delivery of broad dimensions of development, with a real value addition to entrepreneurship, trade and jobs (including youth and women) to have meaningful impact on both society and environments. The UNWTO Global Report on Women in Tourism illustrates how, as well as contributing to the above goals, by being a leading employer of women, tourism is also an unparalleled contributor to SDG5, the goal to achieve gender equality (54% of the tourism workforce is female, compared to 39% across the wider economy).3 At the same time, tourism is also a leading promoter of innovation and entrepreneurship, as small enterprises disrupt the sector and make an impact at the grassroots level, for instance through providing non-traditional livelihoods, particularly outside of major cities and urban centres.

Research on tourism and SDGs shows that, for the private sector, competitiveness is now bound to sustainability (SDG12) contributing to low carbon growth models. For tourism policymakers, Job creation and Economic growth (SDG8) is key for economic diversification. Innovation (SDG9), Urban Development (SDG11), Education (SDG 4), Poverty Reduction (SDG1) and Climate (SDG13) are the other SDGs of most interest for tourism stakeholders. There is also an increasingly strong business case, as well as an environmental imperative, for moving towards a circular economy. Major players from across the sector have committed to the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, for instance, pledging to eliminate unnecessary waste within the sector and adopting circular business models by 2025.4

Promoting and protecting heritage

The benefits of tourism go beyond economic growth and jobs, however. One of the most notable trends of recent years has been the growing demand for unique and authentic travel experiences. Consumers are increasingly demanding experiences that allow them to really appreciate and understand a destination, for instance through its unique gastronomy, its culture or its nature. And this has a corollary through its direct impact at the community level, catalysing social inclusion, with the potential to give an active role to many of those who otherwise are left outside of formal economic development cycles. Furthermore, this not only provides new business opportunities for people living in these destinations, particularly in rural communities, but is also helping protect cultural and natural heritage the world over. If managed responsibly, the revenues generated through tourism can be used to safeguard wildlife and give new life to traditions that may otherwise die out altogether.

Leaving nobody behind

Sustainability is at the heart of our plan for tourism’s post-COVID-19 recovery. Again, UNWTO seeks to guide tourism as it not only grows back stronger but grows back better. The spirit of solidarity and international cooperation that has characterized the global response to the biggest challenge of a generation must be carried over into the future. In this regard, the sector has a responsibility to ensure the economic and social benefits of tourism are spread as widely as possible rather than concentrated in small areas.

Now is not the time for ‘business as usual’. Rather, this is tourism’s time to realize its potential as a major driver of fair, equal and sustainable economic development, and both businesses and governments – as well as individual tourists – have a role to play in delivering this, leaving no one behind.