Interview by Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary – General of UNWTO to Symela Touchtidou
Tourism, one of the most crucial sectors in the fight against climate change, found itself at crossroads, long before the pandemic hit. Its stakeholders (states, entrepreneurs, local communities and tourists themselves) are asked to make a decisive turn: change their ways or face the risk of causing irreversible damage to their beloved destinations.
Tourism is one of the fastest growing and most resilient socio-economic sectors of our times. It accounts for 7% of global trade and has outpaced economic growth for the last decade. A leading employer, it generates millions of jobs directly and indirectly (source: UNWTO Recommendations on Tourism and Rural Development, 2020).
However, the pressure on the most visited locations comes with risks such as overcrowding, unsustainable demand for natural and cultural resources, and possible disruptions to the social fabric and local community life.
The concept of sustainable tourism is achieving economic growth without damaging the natural environment, while preserving the culture of local communities.
Greek Business File interviewed Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, about the importance of sustainability policies, the impact on Greek tourism and the potential the new forms of tourism present for Greece.
How important is sustainability for the tourism sector? What are the means to achieve it?
Sustainability is critical along tourism’s value chain and not an add-on. The current pause in international travel is an opportunity to accelerate the progress we have been making in this field. For example, the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative is identifying and celebrating business and destinations that are leading the way in reducing waste. Tourism is also facing up to its climate action responsibilities, such as working to reduce carbon emission from tourism transport.
Does sustainability mean just environmental protection? Are there social and economic components too?
It also involves social and economic aspects. Tourism depends on diverse culture, preserved nature, and lasting heritage, and on the communities that are being visited. All of this can only thrive –and tourism along with it– if sustainable social and economic conditions go hand in hand with environmental sustainability.
What is the UNWTO International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories (INSTO) and what services does it provide?
The UNWTO International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories (INSTO) is a network of tourism observatories monitoring the economic, environmental and social impact of tourism at the destination level. The initiative is based on UNWTO’s long-standing commitment to the sustainable and resilient growth of the sector through measurement and monitoring, supporting the evidence-based management of tourism.
INSTO seeks to support and connect destinations that are committed to regular monitoring of economic, environmental and social impacts of tourism, to unlock the power of evidence-based decision making at the destination-level, fostering sustainable tourism practices locally and globally.
Sustainability is not a luxury
Some consider the prioritization of sustainability of tourism a luxury at this point of time, given the severe blow the sector endured during the Covid-19 pandemic. What is your answer?
Sustainability cannot be a niche part of tourism, limited only to the “luxury” end of the sector. Instead, it must be a consideration for every part of tourism’s broad value chain. Certainly, it is in the best interests of destinations and tourism businesses to become more sustainable. Tourists are becoming increasingly conscious of the impact of their travels and experiences, including those travelling on a budget.
Greece hosts the first European Sustainable Tourism Observatory in the Aegean Islands. What is its importance?
You need to measure it if you want to have the right policies and guide the responsible and sustainable growth of tourism. The Sustainable Tourism Observatory for the Aegean Islands provides just this. It allows us to analyze tourist behavior and impact, and then make informed decisions.
During the 66th meeting of the UNWTO Commission of Europe in Athens, a deal was signed for the creation of the Sustainable Coastal and Maritime Tourism Research and Monitoring Centre, based in Greece. What will the Centre’s role be? How will it contribute to the overall aim for sustainable tourism?
Again, maritime and coastal tourism is a pillar for many destinations in the Eastern Mediterranean region. As tourism restarts, up-to-date, reliable and insightful data will help guide decisions to ensure that future growth is inclusive and sustainable and that tourism’s benefits are enjoyed widely and fairly. The Sustainable Coastal and Maritime Tourism Research and Monitoring Centre will continuously assess our sector’s impact on the environment and on communities and inform decisions to guide its responsible restart and growth.
Diversification is the key
You have mentioned that Greece should invest in “outdoor, slow, rural tourism”. What forms can these tourism take and how are they more beneficiary than the current “sea and sun” mass tourism model?
They are not more beneficial; they are complementary. Diversification allows destinations, Greece included, to become more resilient and to welcome more and more diverse tourists. Diversification can also ease pressure on the most popular tourist destinations and ensure the benefits our sector delivers are enjoyed more widely, for instance through creating jobs in rural communities.
At the same time, focusing on slow, outdoor and rural tourism can also provide short-term benefits. UNWTO’s research has found growing demand for outdoors and nature-based tourism experiences, and Greece has the infrastructure, experience and attractions to benefit from this trend.
Greece has been reelected Chair of the UNWTO Commission for Europe. What will the joint priorities and initiatives be moving forward?
The immediate priority is the safe, responsible restart of tourism across Europe. The UNWTO Commission for Europe will play an important role in ensuring this reopening is coordinated and carried out in a harmonized manner.
This article was published in the September/October issue of Greek Business File, available here.