A Growing Role for Tourism in Sustainable Development

A new U.N. report finds that ecotourism could boost the economy, create jobs, reduce poverty and save the environment at the same time.
A new U.N. report finds that ecotourism could boost the economy, create jobs, reduce poverty and save the environment at the same time.

Think of environmentally friendly businesses, and you probably think of things like solar power, green building and recycling. But according to a report released last week by the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), one of the most promising green industries -- at least when it comes to creating economic growth, reducing poverty, fueling job creation and addressing major environmental challenges -- turns out to be sustainable tourism.

It's an interesting conclusion because tourism isn't generally considered green. But the U.N. report, titled "Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication," finds that investing in sustainable tourism could play a big role in creating a green economy. The findings of the report -- which includes contributions from the U.N.'s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), an agency that promotes sustainable tourism development, and economists and experts worldwide -- were presented to environmental ministers from more than 100 countries last week in Nairobi, Kenya.

"This is a landmark report. Advancing the sustainable agenda in tourism will allow the sector to strengthen its capacity to continue generating growth and creating jobs worldwide," UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai said in a statement. "The conclusions of this report corroborate what we at UNWTO have long been advocating for -- that the tourism sector can be a lead change agent in the transformation to the green economy."

Eradicating Poverty

The report's authors say the development of a green economy could improve human well-being and social equity while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. Environmentally friendly businesses could be a key catalyst for growth and poverty eradication in developing countries, where -- in some cases -- close to 90% of the gross domestic product is linked to natural resources, such as forest and fresh water, according to the report.

"With 2.5 billion people living on less than $2 a day and with more than 2 billion people being added to the global population by 2050, it is clear that we must continue to develop and grow our economies," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement. "But this development cannot come at the expense of the very life support systems on land, in the oceans or in our atmosphere that sustain our economies, and thus, the lives of each and everyone one of us."

While tourism is one of the most promising generators of world economic growth, its development is accompanied by sustainability challenges, the report notes. But an investment of 2% of the global GDP per year to sustainable tourism between now and 2050 would allow the sector to reduce water consumption, energy use and carbon-dioxide emissions while continuing to grow steadily and contribute to much-needed economic growth, employment and development, according to the report.

The Economy and the Environment

The report proves that the idea of a "trade-off between economic progress and environmental sustainability was unfounded," says Sharr Prohaska, a clinical associate professor of hospitality and tourism management at New York University. Based on case studies, the report projects that destinations that plan for sustainable tourism and develop a green economy will outperform other destinations over the long term (meaning 2020 and beyond), even though green investment may initially reduce economic growth in the short term, she says.

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The report includes excellent case studies, good analysis and concrete suggestions on how to develop standards and regulation, promote green investment and measure progress toward a green economy, says Prohaska, who specializes in sustainable tourism planning and development. "Tourism, sustainability, and development are all dependent on the conservation of natural resources," she says.

Still, others suggest the industry has a long way to go. According to a 2009 survey from the U.S. Travel Association's Travelhorizons research project conducted with Ypartnership, only one out of 10 U.S. leisure travelers base their travel choices on environmental considerations, even though approximately eight of those travelers consider themselves to be environmentally conscious.

"The 'greening' of our industry is less about consumer demand and more about doing the right thing," says Roger Dow, chief executive of the U.S. Travel Association trade group.

"This Is Not a Fad"

But while travelers might be somewhat reluctant to pay more to support green travel service suppliers, they are definitely paying attention to those who are green, the association says. Travelers want green travel choices, but at the right price. And Dow expects the trend to grow.

"This is not a fad, it's the future of travel in the U.S.," Dow says. "Numerous travel companies nationwide are already managing sustainability as a business strategy in their day-to-day operations. These companies are achieving meaningful change by delivering their product in a greener, more environmentally friendly way."

The UNEP's report could help accelerate the trend toward sustainability, experts say. Studies such as this one "will help decision-makers justify expending resources on, and prioritizing, sustainable travel," says Brian Mullis, CEO of nonprofit Sustainable Travel International, which recently launched a website, Green.travel, that rates international lodgings, cruises and tours for their eco-friendliness. "The business case for sustainable travel is just getting stronger and stronger."