Expert Essay
Building Back Better: A Catalyst for Change

Why does the global pandemic offer an unprecedented opportunity for transformation for coastal and marine tourism? What are the most promising opportunities and what are the challenges that must be overcome to seize these opportunities?

Zoritsa Urosevic
Zoritsa Urosevic
Executive Director, UNWTO

The pandemic brought global tourism to a near complete standstill. And the sudden and unexpected halt in international travel was particularly noticeable in coastal communities. Prior to the pandemic, around half of all tourists were choosing coastal destinations for their trips. Their return will bring hope for the many millions of workers and businesses who are dependent on tourism. At the same time, the sector’s restart offers a unique opportunity to rethink and recalibrate. For everyone’s sake, this opportunity must be fully embraced.

The tourism sector must do better. The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) recognises the importance of embracing the pause in international travel as an opportunity to switch to a blue economy—one that supports people, protects communities and safeguards the ocean—with tourism as the central driving force.

Positive change

To understand tourism’s unique transformational potential, it’s worth first reminding ourselves of its significance. The ocean economy supports more than 3 billion people. And tourism accounts for 40 percent of the ocean economy. For many small island developing states—among the places most vulnerable to and hardest hit by the pandemic’s social and economic impacts—the ocean economy is responsible for between 30 percent and 50 percent of gross domestic product. In short, tourism is a lifeline, especially for developing nations, coastal communities and youth.

But the benefits that tourism delivers go beyond providing jobs and supporting businesses. The sector plays a central role in protecting and promoting the very same natural and cultural assets that make coastal destinations so popular with tourists everywhere. To take just one example: before the pandemic, each year around 600,000 people would spend a collective US$300 million to watch sharks in their natural habitat. This tourism experience alone supported 10,000 jobs, again many of them in developing countries where opportunities would otherwise be limited. At the same time, it provides a powerful incentive to protect species and ecosystems. Similarly, before the pandemic hit, 70 million trips were made to reefs each year. Again, this pushes communities to preserve the natural assets that place them on the tourism map. And since studies show that coral reefs can reduce wave energy levels by as much as 97 percent, thereby protecting coastal communities against the devastation caused by rising tides and extreme weather events, it really is a virtuous circle.

However, we are nowhere near to fulfilling tourism’s potential as a force for good. Indeed, in many respects, tourism continues to endanger biodiversity and increase pollution and resource consumption.

Shifting to sustainable consumption and production patterns

At the core of the blue economy is the decoupling of socioeconomic development from environmental impacts. Shifting to sustainable consumption and production patterns can help global tourism live up to its climate action responsibilities while building a more resilient future for coastal communities everywhere. The challenge is huge. But the good news is we will not be starting from zero.

Already prior to the pandemic, significant progress had been made in creating a greener, fairer and more responsible tourism. In many cases, the sector itself has proactively led the way, mindful of the benefits that will come from cleaner beaches and a clearer ocean. The One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme, which UNWTO leads alongside the governments of France and Spain and in collaboration with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), aims to accelerate sustainable consumption and production patterns in tourism policies and practices. One example is our work to establish circular economy principles as a central part of the tourism value chain and ecosystem. And we recognise the importance of addressing challenges individually, with manageable goals.

The use and waste of plastics has long been a pressing issue for tourism. In the Mediterranean region alone, it is estimated that over recent years, the sector is responsible for a 40 percent increase in levels of marine litter. This includes both large pieces of plastic and microplastics, now at record levels and causing significant damage to the marine ecosystem. Beach clean-ups alone are not enough. Above all, tourism must address the issue by stopping plastics pollution at the source. For this reason, at the start of 2020, UNWTO joined UNEP in collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. With the support of the French government, we launched the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative[1] to help stakeholders from across the sector shift towards a circular economy. The initiative encourages tourism companies, suppliers and destinations to commit to a set of ambitious and actionable targets around the elimination of unnecessary and problematic plastics, the introduction of reuse models and collaboration on the value-chain level to increase recycling rates and recycled content, as well as annual reporting and disclosure of progress. As before, the sector is leading from the front and proactively acting. To date, more than 100 stakeholders (Iberostar Group, Booking.com, deSter, EXO Travel, Hostelworld, Tour Operators Society of Kenya, TUI Group, Visit Valencia, etc.) have joined the initiative[2], and we are developing innovative ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. Wherever possible, plastic is kept in the tourism value chain and out of the environment.

Climate action

A shared commitment to positive change is also essential if we are to accelerate climate action in tourism. Forecasts made at the end of 2019 showed that carbon dioxide emissions from tourism in a business-as-usual scenario are on track to increase at least by 25 percent by 2030, making it difficult for the sector to stay in line with international climate goals. Rising temperatures mean a rising ocean and more frequent and more severe extreme weather events. The sector must do more. Fortunately, again, it is clear that the determination is there. When UNWTO launched the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), we set our ambitions high[3]. Signatories commit to support the global goals of halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050 at the latest. They also commit to deliver climate action plans (or revise existing plans) within a year from becoming signatories. Also at the centre of the Glasgow Declaration is a commitment to restore and protect marine and coastal ecosystems, thereby supporting nature’s ability to draw down carbon, buffer coastal communities against extreme weather and provide food and livelihoods. Since November 2021, more than 530 stakeholders have signed up, including businesses of all sizes, destinations, trade organisations and even whole countries[4]. Signatories include, for example, Accor, Expedia Group, the Tourism Authority of Panama and the South Pacific Tourism Organization. To support the implementation of the Declaration, and especially smaller businesses and destinations, guidance on measurement of emissions and climate planning is under development in preparation for COP27.

The potential is there. So too is the determination. However, many coastal communities, as well many of the small businesses that make up 80 percent of our sector, still lack the means to shift to greater sustainability. Unlocking innovative finance will therefore be key to enabling tourism’s transformation at every level, and for coastal and marine tourism in particular. In response to the resolutions set out at COP26 in Glasgow, UNWTO is looking to create a UN NetZero TOURISM Facility and Ecosystem. This will leverage a unique alliance of the UN system partners—UN TOURISM—to lead the change at the global and national levels; international financial institutions and equity funds to support the green and blue investment required; international organisations, development partners and the private sector generally to support both the transformation and the investment needed to help tourism reach net zero emissions.

Tourism: An investment that will deliver

Investing in the transformation of coastal and marine tourism is not merely an altruistic act, done for the benefit of the planet and for future generations. The longer-term goals it supports, such protecting ecosystems and combatting climate change, not only underpin the global economy but also offer opportunities for creating green and decent jobs and pay real-time dividends, not least for coastal communities themselves[5]. To return to the example of plastic pollution, litter can damage how tourists see a destination. In extreme cases, it can lead to the closure of beaches and resorts. Indeed, one study estimates that destinations across the Mediterranean region alone lose up to €268 million each year from plastic pollution.

Transformation will also allow the benefits of tourism to be shared more widely and fairly—providing opportunities to even more people, including entrepreneurs, innovators and whole communities. As travel restrictions are eased and lifted all around the world, now is the time to recognise the power of tourism and support the sector to catalyse real and lasting change.

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[1] World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “Global Tourism Plastics Initiative,” https://www.unwto.org/sustainable-development/global-tourism-plastics-initiative.

[2] One Planet, “Global Tourism Plastics Initiative Signatories,” https://www.oneplanetnetwork.org/programmes/sustainable-tourism/global-tourism-plastics-initiative/signatories.

[3] UNWTO, “The Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism,” https://www.unwto.org/the-glasgow-declaration-on-climate-action-in-tourism.

[4] One Planet, “Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism: Launch Partners and Signatories of the Glasgow Declaration,” https://www.oneplanetnetwork.org/programmes/sustainable-tourism/glasgow-declaration/signatories.

[5] UNWTO, “Recommendations for the Transition to a Green Travel and Tourism Economy,” 2021, https://doi.org/10.18111/9789284422814.

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