Tourism is waking up to social responsibility

Sabine Pracht is fvw’s joint editor-in-chief.
Sabine Pracht is fvw’s joint editor-in-chief.

The travel industry must invest massively to better protect nature, animals and local people from the consequences of overtourism such as congestion, pollution and damage, urges fvw’s Sabine Pracht.

Close, closer, as close as possible - that's what tourists want when they travel. They want to immerse themselves in foreign worlds, to observe and experience people, animals and nature at close quarters. This is the core business of many specialist tour operators who have always had to do a balancing act. On the one hand, they want to give guests the best view of penguins, polar bears or giraffes, and present the most beautiful coral reef and direct access to a glacier. On the other hand, they must ensure that people, animals and nature do not suffer from tourists. Otherwise, their business is at stake.

What for a long time was only the wish of a few travellers is increasingly becoming a mass phenomenon in the form of adventure tourism. But sensationalism combined with the desire to experience and to be something special - not just one of many tourists – also brings masses of problems. Overtourism is the new buzzword behind which so much is hidden: overloading of the local infrastructure, harassment of inhabitants, cruelty to animals, destruction and damage to special places, and environmental pollution.

Seeking solutions

Fortunately, the tourism industry has woken up to these problems. The UNWTO, for example, is seeking solutions to overtourism. In Germany, Michael Frenzel, president of the German Tourism Industry Association (BTW), warned at this year's ITB that the industry could become ‘a victim of its own success’. Yet the repeated declarations from associations and politicians about how important tourism is to the economy and how it contributes to understanding between different nations cannot hide the urgent problems that it causes.

Travel is not, and never will be, sustainable as such. Tourism generates 8% of global emissions, according to researchers at Sydney University. And tourism will continue to grow. The UNWTO expects annual growth of 3.8%. The strongest growth is forecast for Asia and Africa, markets where environmental and climate protection are still only in early stages. The result of this flourishing business is environmental damage – heatwaves, storm chaos, floods, animal extinction - and overloading – flight chaos, traffic congestion and overcrowding.

The travel industry faces a dilemma. Its job is to promote travel. Flights have never been so cheap, and cruises - including expeditions – are expanding further. More and more regions and destinations are being opened up to tourism.

But the traveller who benefits from all this is the same person who is outraged by low wages, pollution, aircraft noise on his own doorstep, too many tourists in his own city or endangered animals. The recent case of the killed polar bear underlines this. Customers blame travel companies if something goes wrong, and incidents spiral into scandals because consumers have changed and can spread their outrage worldwide through social media.

Travel industry and politicians must respond

Pressure is rising on tourism companies to take more responsibility and also to make this better-known to the public. Support for environmental and social projects in destinations is certainly one way but is not enough by itself. Airlines, cruise firms, tour operators and hotels must all invest massively, for example in more environmentally-friendly technologies and in socially acceptable working conditions. Customers expect this – but are definitely not prepared to pay for it. If tourism wants to remain "an excellent example of the opportunities of globalisation" - as Chancellor Angela Merkel said at ITB – then politicians will also have to create the right incentives.

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