Next Tuesday, World Tourism Day will be celebrated from Indonesia, “putting people and planet first and bringing everyone from governments and businesses to local communities together around a shared vision for a more sustainable, inclusive and resilient sector.” Zurab Pololikashvili, UNWTO Secretary-General, describes the UNWTO’s basic idea as to ensure that “even more people get to benefit from tourism’s restart.” There are three calls to action “spread the word”,” join the celebration,” and “share your story”. Not much of a call to make change and intervene to ensure that tourism benefits the economically.
Two decades ago, in 2002, at a side event to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the first International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations took place in Cape Town. As it was then, the WTO and several other UN organizations participated. The Cape Town Declaration called on governments and the private sector to “put renewed emphasis on sustainability, economic development, and in particular on poverty reduction. The DFID-funded work on Pro-poor Tourism was presented and endorsed at CSD7 in 1999 at the UN in New York. We know what needs to be done to make tourism more inclusive. We just need to do it.
We reviewed the detailed South African Responsible Tourism guidelines, and there was a call for action. The conference called “upon countries, multilateral agencies, destinations and enterprises to develop similar practical guidelines and to encourage planning authorities, tourism businesses, tourists and local communities – to take responsibility for achieving sustainable tourism and to “create better places for people to live in and better places to visit.”
I have just spent the better part of a month in India, visiting initiatives in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, where there are programmes of work creating opportunities for the economically poor but culturally rich communities in rural India. Many individual businesses have worked to ensure that neighbouring communities benefit from tourism. Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have brought together state resources and worked with local village councils, the panchayat, and the private sector to use learning from the pro-poor tourism work and experience in the Gambia and South Africa. Madhya Pradesh has built on Kerala’s experience and made remarkably rapid progress. Sadly South Africa and the Gambia have lacked the political will to make the changes to make inclusive tourism a reality and to require the private sector to engage. India is now the world’s leading Responsible Tourism Destination benefiting both communities and the industry, which now gets an extended length of stay and a culturally rich and diverse set of experiences in the informal sector which they can sell. In India, we are seeing active partnerships successfully making tourism more inclusive.
Sustainable and Responsible Tourism are not the same things. Unless businesses and governments work together with local communities to secure access and economic benefit, more inclusive tourism will not be achieved. It is the exercise of responsibility and taking action that results in sustainable and inclusive tourism. In truth, there is little to celebrate, although every year in the Responsible Tourism Awards, we see excellent examples of effective action by individual businesses. Only in the last few years have we seen governments, the private sector and communities working together to make tourism more inclusive and then only in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh.
There is a chasm between the fine words and policies and the lack of action to tackle climate change, the same applies to inclusive tourism. Queen Elizabeth was rarely heard commenting on the actions, or rather the lack of them. As she commented recently on climate change, “It is very irritating when they talk – but don’t do.” She might have said the same thing about inclusive tourism. I shall miss her willingness to speak truth to power, albeit mostly in private.
Responsible Tourism is about making changes that are good for local communities and their natural and cultural heritage. Only by taking responsibility can we drive sustainability. The industry and government must lead and create sustainable choices for travellers and holidaymakers. Booking.com’s 2021 report revealed that 83% of global travellers think sustainable travel is vital. Almost half (49%) still believe that there aren’t enough sustainable travel options available, with 53% admitting they get annoyed if somewhere they are staying stops them from being sustainable, for example, by not providing recycling facilities.
Businesses and governments create the framework within which travellers and holidaymakers make their choices. Businesses and governments can and must make tourism sustainable. They must take responsibility for making tourism better for local communities. It is for time for action.
At Tendu Leaf Jungle Resort, there is a sign on the path you approach the restaurant which makes the same point as “never mind the patter, watch the hands”, more gently but perhaps more powerfully.
The difference between sustainable and Responsible Tourism is revealed. Sustainability is an abstract idea, often an inoperative objective, a mantra mouthed but not actioned. The examples we have seen in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have demonstrated this difference. Where people take responsibility and take action real change results, tourism are better and local communities secure better livelihoods.