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Expert Essay
Planning: Innovation in Sustainable Ocean Planning to Incentivize a Shift to Sustainable Coastal and Marine Tourism

How have planning instruments and governance mechanisms been a catalyst for change in the coastal and marine tourist sector? What are examples of innovation that could be replicated or scaled?

Patricio Azcárate Díaz de Losada
Patricio Azcárate Díaz de Losada
Secretary General, Responsible Tourism Institute

The Responsible Tourism Institute (RTI) was created in 1995 after the first World Charter for Sustainable Tourism with the mission to transfer the objectives established in the UN summits and charters to all the actors involved in this industry: public administrations, private companies, citizens and tourists.

After more than 25 years of experience in this sector, today we can affirm that society is increasingly demanding sustainable solutions and spaces. And as the pandemic forces tourism entrepreneurs to reorient their business models for their post-pandemic survival, the need for this new orientation towards more responsible production and consumption models is evident.

We can see this trend in the increasing number of sustainable campaigns and initiatives targeting maritime spaces, the so-called blue strategies. And although coordination between institutions and entrepreneurs is quite complex, saving the ocean has become a common goal.

Experience has shown that sustainability is more than just a word to be included in slogans. In fact, citizens and tourists worldwide are increasingly demanding destinations and companies committed to respecting the natural environment, as a result of information, social awareness and consciousness about climate change and the real consequences of pollution and the unsustainable models of current societies.

These demands for sustainability in tourist destinations are expected to progressively favour the evolution towards a more sustainable industry, given that tourist companies will be obliged to meet the needs derived from this commitment. Furthermore, the global nature of the tourism sector will mean that this trend will spread more quickly to all parts of the world.

Biosphere, the RTI’s responsible tourism system that promotes sustainability in destinations and companies, works towards these ends, based on the guidelines of the United Nations, encouraging the members of our community to contribute to the fulfilment of their objectives and goals, while we help them promote and communicate their efforts and achievements.

Information and communication plans

One of the main problems in certain coastal tourist destinations is overexploitation. Summer arrives and environments double or triple their population. During the pandemic, the impact of mass tourism on local destinations was more evident than ever before. For example, in one month the canals of Venice regained their fauna and crystalline colour. As expected, tourism activities resumed as soon as the global quarantine eased and pollution levels rose again. In Spain tourism grew by 64 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year of confinement, as the country received up to 31 million international tourists[1]. These figures undoubtedly favoured the economies of the affected areas, but the resulting pollution was frightening.

Yet social awareness of the importance of protecting natural areas is growing alongside demand for sustainable products and services. This is forcing the tourism stakeholders to include this perspective in their offer, which promotes the preservation of destinations and, in the case of maritime destinations, their coastal resources.

Tourism in maritime areas has many impacts, positive and negative, derived from the wide range of activities taking place around the sea. Whale watching, boat parties, scuba diving or even bathing can lead to deterioration of the ecosystem in the long term, even as it can bring great benefits at an economic or sociocultural level. This makes it essential to analyse the positive and negative implications for the different actors involved.

The main objective must always be prevention and, if that is not possible, compensation and minimisation of negative impacts. To this end, the action proven to be most effective is information, as tourists are most likely to be unaware of the particularities of the environment and, consequently, of their needs for care and conservation.

We recommend that the institutions in the area draw up comprehensive communication plans and, if necessary, specific plans for each problem detected. The aim is to make tourists aware of the specific circumstances of the area and its resources, and to provide them with the necessary tools to conserve it.

In order to guarantee the success of a communication plan in touristic environments, let’s consider two main elements, which seem obvious but are not always taken into account. First, The first is the use of different languages, selected based on the tourist profile. The second is information through the appropriate channels, which are usually those closest to the environment to be protected.

Sustainable tourism plans

A good example of commitment to sustainability is Gijón, a destination which has a complete sustainable tourism plan and already is a biosphere certified destination, thanks to its good practices and efforts to contribute to the fulfilment of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

This plan addresses, among other issues, the adoption by accommodation companies of efficient management measures, with a commitment to social development, as well as family management and personalised treatment. Likewise, catering companies must include in their models the consumption of ecological and local food and, as a whole, the entire tourist industry must promote cultural activities related to raising awareness of the care of the destination’s marine and land environments, among other initiatives. In the strictly maritime field, the plan includes the control of visitor flows, the repair of coastal facades, as well as other initiatives to raise awareness of marine ecosystems, which are managing to alleviate the impact suffered by these spaces, mainly during the peak tourist season, which coincides with the summer period.

Another major sustainability challenge is the reduction of plastic pollution, which particularly affects the seas and oceans. From an individual perspective, certain actions can be taken, such as reuse or recycling. However, the scale of the problem requires plans involving societies, institutions and companies around the world.

To understand the real scale of plastic pollution of the oceans, it can be enough to investigate the figures: 95 percent of maritime waste is plastic and, in total, it is estimated to contain around 200 billion tons in the sea. Given these figures, it is unfortunate that the predictions are so unfavourable: by 2050 the oceans could have more plastics than fish (by weight)[2].

One of the marine environments suffering the most from this situation is the Mediterranean Sea, since, being surrounded almost entirely by continent, it favours the accumulation of plastic that decomposes into smaller and smaller parts, affecting the entire ecosystem. Moreover, the pollution of the Mediterranean is not only caused by what is generated in its immediate vicinity, but plastics and other waste are also transported through rivers. In addition, each year, the 200 million or so tourists visiting the Mediterranean cause a 40 percent increase in marine litter during the summer[3].

And just as tourism has an impact on certain marine environments, it is also suffering from the ravages of such pollution. The litter which accumulates on beaches and other coastal areas is discouraging the arrival of visitors, which has a direct impact on the area’s economy. In addition, administrations are spending enormous amounts of money trying to keep these areas free of litter. An empty action without a real and effective involvement of all the agents in the area.

An example of good practice can be found in Guía de Isora, in Tenerife, where a successful sustainable action plan is being carried out as a result of its certification as a biosphere destination. Among other initiatives, this destination has installed augmented reality information panels to inform visitors about the conservation needs of the municipality’s marine spaces and ecosystems, raising awareness among locals and tourists about the marine fauna and flora of its coast and how humans should carry out their activities to avoid damaging these ecosystems.

Despite international awareness of the need to reduce maritime pollution, there are major shortcomings in coordination among the actors involved, a fundamental problem given the global nature of pollution. The path currently being followed is the right one, but there is still a long way to go.

Even with the right governance, planning and information in place, the results will not be immediate. Sustainability happens in stages, with the speed of change depending on the level of involvement of tourist agents in the area, who are responsible for creating and informing different strategies, as well as on the involvement of visitors, who are responsible for contributing to maintaining the marine ecosystem in optimal condition. For the natural spaces involved, all actors should keep in mind the objective of maintaining the recovery that became visible during the pandemic.

Finding the balance between tourism and sustainability is as difficult as it is necessary. And an exceptional framework has been created to reinvent the sector after the pandemic. In short, the period of tourism recovery should be seen as an opportunity for all stakeholders—destinations, businesses, employees, customers, citizens and tourists—to consider jointly what kind of tourism we wish to rebuild, what resources we wish to continue enjoying in the future, and how we should act now, each in our individual role, to ensure tourism’s survival, more sustainable, inclusive and resilient.

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[1] Radiotelevisión Española (RTVE), “El turismo internacional se disparó un 64% en 2021, pero no recupera cifras previas a la pandemia,” 2 February 2022, https://www.rtve.es/noticias/20220202/turismo-internacional-disparo-64-2021/2278380.shtml.

[2] E. Alessi et al., “Out of the Plastic Trap: Saving the Mediterranean from Plastic Pollution,” WWF, 2018, https://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/a4_plastics_med_web_08june_new.pdf.

[3] Alessi et al., “Out of the Plastic Trap.”

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