2017 – The International Year for Sustainable Tourism for Development

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Tourism, to be sustainable and be a tool for development, should not only flourish in the present but also contribute to the welfare of the future of the planet.


 by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

So called sustainable development…is meaningless drivel ~ James Lovelock

( November 3, 2017, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Over the years there has been a sustained link  between tourism and development, which has culminated in The United Nations designating the year 2017 as the International Year for Sustainable Tourism for Development.  The main reason for this pronouncement by the world body is tourism’s capacity to enhance economic growth which results in job creation, attraction of investment, and enhancement of entrepreneurship.  Tourism also brings to bear the importance of the preservation of biodiversity of ecosystems and the importance of protecting cultural heritage and enrichment and empowerment of local communities.  TRAVELWIRENEWS – a valuable website – states: “Tourism has the potential to significantly contribute to a nation’s GDP, employment and export earnings. The sector is fairly job-rich, employing comparatively high share of women and youth. On a global scale, women make up between 60 and 70 per cent of the tourism labor force, and half of its workers are aged 25 or younger. It thus has the potential to foster more inclusive growth (United Nations Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD), 2017).

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) in its statement for 2017 says that travel & tourism’s direct contribution to GDP grew by 3.1% in 2016. This was faster than the global economy as a whole which grew at 2.5%. According to WTTC, travel & tourism’s direct contribution to global GDP is expected to grow at an average of 3.9% per year over the next ten years.  WTTC goes on to say: “By 2027, Travel & Tourism is expected to support more than 380 million jobs globally, which equates to 1 in 9 of all jobs in the world and the sector is expected to contribute around 23% of total global net job creation over the next decade. Meanwhile, total travel & tourism GDP is expected to account for 11.4% of global GDP and global visitor exports are expected to account for 7.1% of total global exports”.

Given this upbeat prognosis of WTTC for  travel and tourism, it is important to focus on the phrase “sustainable tourism” and its link to “development”.  The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines “sustainable tourism” as :Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities, while going on to say that sustainable tourism should  make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity; respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance; and ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.  Here the word “all stakeholders” resonates an inclusivity that is not borne out by logic.

Something seems to be odd about the UNWTO definition of “sustainable tourism” which identifies all stakeholders as visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.  The concept of sustainable anything (be it sustainable development or sustainable tourism) essentially involves the future generation and their needs and welfare.  Should the definition have said sustainable tourism is “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts on the world” it could well have, at least by implication, included the future generation.

Stuart McMinn in his article The Challenge of Sustainable Tourism claims that sustainable tourism raises some concerns and involves challenges to be overcome.  The first concern involves the measurement of environmental degradation caused by development which is not yet determined. The issue is how the such degradation can be measured.  Intergenerational impacts are yet another issue raised by the author. Also at issue is the fact that tourism is driven by market forces that are external factors to geographic locations. Another question concerns exactly what is the `environment’ to be sustained. Fourthly, tourism is an industry which is often controlled and thus sustained by market forces external to its actual geographical location. Finally, and linked with the idea of external market forces, is the potential for tourism to be a form of “neo colonialism”.

Arguably, the intergenerational impacts are the most crucial if tourism should be sustainable.  Even the United Nations General Assembly, in adopting its resolution of 4 December 2016 to make 2017 the year of sustainable tourism, seemingly left out the future generation when it said on the adoption of the Resolution: “…the importance of international tourism, and particularly of the designation of an international year of sustainable tourism for development, in fostering better understanding among peoples everywhere, in leading to a greater awareness of the rich heritage of various civilizations and in bringing about a better appreciation of the inherent values of different cultures, thereby contributing to the strengthening of peace in the world”.

Whether it is tourism, economic development, air transport or any other industry, the word “sustainable” and “development” should immediately bring to mind future generations.  One cannot attend to the needs of the present generation while jeopardizing the needs and welfare of future generations. Most view the environment in its simplistic sense – that it is the overall summation of all things natural. In this context, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen observes, the pervasive common view is that this “state of nature” will remain without change as long as we interfere with it as little as possible.  Sen further states that this misconception can be rejected on two counts, the first being that the value of the environment does not lie in its existing state but in the opportunities it offers humankind, and the second being that it is not sufficient to ensure that the environment is passively preserved by us but there needs to be active initiatives in educating the populace of the world on the environment and the benefits that would accrue to it by our actions such as reducing the population of the world and creating employment opportunities.

Tourism, to be sustainable and be a tool for development, should not only flourish in the present but also contribute to the welfare of the future of the planet.


The author is former Senior Legal Officer at the International Civil Aviation Organization and author of several books on aviation and the environment.  He is currently President/CEO of Global Aviation Consultancies Inc., and Senior Associate, Air Law and Policy at Aviation Strategies International. 

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