How do we know what’s really important in sustainable tourism?

There are about as many definitions of sustainable tourism as there are international travellers (1.2 billion at the last count), so how does a small business, multinational company, or even an industry association know where best to focus their resources when it comes to working towards a sustainable future?

The World Travel & Tourism Council recently undertook an exercise to answer just that question, and here is how we found the answer.

Before we started asking people what’s important, we wanted to know what the scope of the conversation was. We investigated what others had identified and researched, and compiled a long list of issues to prioritise. We grouped the issues (43 in total) under eight headings, and you can find the full list HERE.

· Travel, tourism, and environmental impacts.

· Maintaining sustainable destinations in a changing world.

· Travel, tourism, and health.

· Travel, tourism, and human rights.

· Shifting innovation drivers in the Travel & Tourism sector.

· The evolving labour market and employment practices.

· Travel, tourism, and security.

· Responsible business practices and leadership.

We then did a survey of all our Members, where they were asked to rate each of the 43 issues in terms of their relevance to the industry, using a simple scale of low/medium/high and severe impact over a medium term horizon.

Perhaps not surprisingly many of the responses focused on key issues of the day — security threats (Brussels airport bombing had just happened) and health pandemics (the Zika virus was in full swing); as well as day to day governance and compliance issues. It was clear that those issues that play out in the longer term — such as climate change — are perceived to be less significant amongst those who have more pressing concerns.

Given the focus on issues of immediate concern we were keen to get a perspective from outside the sector. Individuals who are taking a longer term view of the issues and their impacts. We did this by speaking to a wide range of academics, economists, private sector specialists, and NGOs and intergovernmental organisation leaders from across the sustainability spectrum. To find out what they said read the full report HERE.

We chose to apply four ‘lenses’ to the analysis to help us identify where best our resources could be focused. These were:

· Long term — issues that will play out over the next 5–10 years or longer.

· Strategic — issues that will affect the ability of Travel & Tourism companies to create sustainable growth.

· Influential — issues where the Travel & Tourism sector is able to make a specific and unique contribution, relative to other sectors.

· Cross sector — issues where there is a need for collective action across Travel & Tourism as a whole.

We mapped the priorities of the Members against those of the experts and were able to clearly identify a selection of the original 43 issues that were at the top of both lists. These included:

· Degradation of ecosystems, biodiversity, and landscapes.

· The impact of climate change on the attractiveness and the long term feasibility of certain destinations.

· Safety and security preparedness and response.

· Reduced travel to destinations affected by public health crises.

After applying our own success criteria, and to take into account the cross cutting nature of the issues, we then further refined them, so that we have a clear answer to the question “What are the critical issues facing Travel & Tourism’s sustainable future?” — in our view, and as a result of a year-long process that engaged nearly 300 people they are:

1. Climate Change: Travel & Tourism needs to speed up its transition to a low-carbon future, within current planetary resource boundaries. To do this, the business imperative needs to be made clear, making connections across tourism sub-industries (hotels, airlines, cruise, car rental etc) and developing and implementing joined-up solutions. Awareness needs to be raised on how to set targets on climate impacts grounded in science, how to measure and communicate progress, with robust disclosure against standardised frameworks and metrics.

2. Destination Degradation: The relationship between tourism and the people and places at a destination is a fragile one. The sector needs to play a central role in securing the cultural and social integrity of destinations and demonstrate a positive contribution by promoting the benefits (decent work, economic growth, safeguarding natural and cultural heritage) whilst addressing potential negative impacts (resource depletion, overcrowding, damage to cultural heritage and biodiversity, rising living costs).

3. Disruption: To address the risks posed and demonstrate action in response to external pressures, the sector needs to speak against the increasing barriers to trade and movement of people, mitigate the threats from climate change, and do more to invest in quality staff and build strong communities.

To find out more about how we are addressing these challenges, visit

To read the full report, please click here.



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