As international borders reopen, some say tourism should be more sustainable after COVID


With the gradual reopening of national and international borders, many tourist operators hope for a rapid return to pre-pandemic commercial conditions.

But Emma Whittlesea, senior researcher at Griffith University Institute for Tourism, says there is a better option than just getting back to normal.

“There is a great opportunity to sightsee in a different way,” Dr Whittlesea told ABC RN’s Sunday Extra.

She says breaking the status quo offers a chance “to rethink how tourism can benefit the community, the environment and culture as well as the economy.”

Before the pandemic, concerns about the impact of mass tourism on local environments led to the complete closure of some destinations.

Maya Bay in Thailand, for example, featured in Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach, was closed to tourism in 2018 due to damage to its ecosystem from thousands of people visiting every day.

Meanwhile, residents of popular destinations such as Venice and Barcelona have protested against the detrimental effects tourism has on their lives.

Dr Whittlesea says the pandemic has seen life in many of these places return to a more “normal” state, with communities no longer inundated with travelers.

“There is an opportunity to address these sustainability challenges, be it waste, emissions or impacts on communities that are negatively affected by the number of tourists,” she says.

She believes tourism can be harnessed as a force for positive change, which helps ensure that communities are “viable and resilient in the future”.

“It’s about moving from growth and profit at all costs to a more regenerative way of thinking.”

But, she said, government support will be needed for there to be more than gradual change.

Tourists want to be part of the solution

One place where many people are eagerly awaiting a return to tourism is Fiji, which will once again host international tourist flights from December 1.

Tourism Fiji CEO Brent Hill said so far bookings from that date have exceeded their most optimistic expectations.

“There is certainly this pent-up demand to come and travel to Fiji,” he said.

For many, the reopening cannot come soon enough. Tourism accounts for around 40 percent of Fiji’s GDP.

Before the pandemic, Mr Hill said, around 150,000 people were directly employed by the country’s tourism industry.

After the pandemic, he says, that number was more like 20,000 to 30,000.

“Unfortunately… we don’t have the kind of government support Australia has,” he said.

“A lot of people just had to go back to their villages and try to sort things out from there.”

But sustainability is a pressing concern for the island nation.

A wooden walkway to a tropical island above the water
Tourism Fiji’s Brent Hill lists Turtle Island as an example of a tourist resort with a deep commitment to sustainability. (Provided: Turtle Island )

Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum called climate change an “existential threat”, with 70% of the country’s population living within 3 miles of the coastline.

Mr Hill says many resorts in Fiji are working to reduce their carbon footprints, with some being entirely off-grid.

“Tourists are asking operators more and more questions and want to know, you know, what their credentials are in this space,” he says.

Mr. Hill says tourists don’t just want to know they’re not contributing to the problem, they want to feel like they’re part of the solution.

“One of the things that I find fantastic about tourism is that you absolutely can involve tourists in this sustainability push,” he says.

He says the local tourism sector is undertaking coral breeding and marine life conservation programs.

“People who come to Fiji can participate in these kinds of activities and just help leave a better place for generations to come, which in my opinion is a really critical thing.”

Aerial view of a heart shaped coral reef
Emma Whittlesea says some Great Barrier Reef operators are raising awareness about sustainability. (Unsplash: Yanguang Lan)

Dr Whittlesea says there are many other examples of tourism operators doing “exceptional things”.

“[There’s] a lot of great work is happening, for example, in protected ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef where they engage tourists to look after those systems and raise awareness at the same time, ”she says.

“A lot of industries in these places are more and more aware and are making efforts to get eco-accreditation and to try to reduce their [carbon] footprint.”

Tackling aviation emissions

Before the pandemic, commercial aviation generated 918 million metric tons of CO2 per year, or more than 2% of global CO2 emissions.

Passenger transport accounted for 85 percent of this total.

“Transportation is by far the most important component of the tourism emissions footprint,” says Dr Whittlesea.

But, she says, the industry is working to change that, with airlines and airports making “ambitious” attempts to reduce emissions.

These include the search for sustainable aviation fuels, as well as the development of electric and hydrogen aircraft.

“These are some of the really big things that could make some really big changes to the emissions footprint,” said Dr Whittlesea.

However, she says, these programs are mostly industry-led.

“Without increasing regulatory and government support to help them make the transition, this will be a slow move.”

Using tourism to drive wider change

Dr Whittlesea says there is already a lot of information on how to do tourism in a sustainable way and many good examples of sustainable tourism.

She says it is time to “rethink how tourism can benefit the community, the environment and culture as well as the economy.”

“I think there is a really big opportunity for the sector and the industry to really tackle some of the other emerging challenges and existing challenges that we have – such as the climate – and to really start to integrate them into the plans and policies and really maximize the benefits of tourism, ”she said.

Dr Whittlesea says tourism has “great potential to be a force for change”.

She says the pandemic is not only an opportunity to transform tourism, but also a chance to “think about how we can really use tourism as a vehicle to effect change in many other sectors of our society.”

But at the moment, while she’s hoping for such a transformation, she doesn’t see much evidence of it.

“At the moment, attention just seems to be back on track,” she said.

“It would be nice to see us get back on track differently – and better.”

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