The mountains of the world have long attracted visitors for their scenic beauty, sporting opportunities and rich cultural heritage. And for many rural mountain communities, tourism is a lifeline. It can increase household income, improve employment opportunities and revitalize local traditions. This is particularly important considering that one in two rural mountain people in developing countries are at risk of going hungry.
However, mountain tourism can also come at a cost.
When poorly managed, it can negatively affect fragile mountain ecosystems, endanger biodiversity, fail to ensure that local populations benefit from income and even threaten the identity of mountain communities themselves. The Covid-19 hit the tourism industry like an earthquake shock.
Before the pandemic, mountain tourism accounted for up to a fifth of global tourism.
In 2020, the number of international tourists worldwide declined by 74% and mountain destinations that depended on international visitors suffered severe economic losses.
Helping mountain regions recover from the pandemic requires short- and long-term actions that go beyond the tourism sector. It is our urgent responsibility to rebuild the industry in a more sustainable and equitable way, so as to deliver long-term benefits to mountain people and their environment.
We must act quickly. Many governments have reacted quickly to support the recovery in tourism. Most countries have adopted economy-wide stimulus packages as well as employment support measures. Georgia, for example, announced that property taxes and income taxes on businesses in the tourism sector will be deferred and that banks will restructure the debts of individuals and businesses operating in the tourism industry.
We also need to transform our agrifood systems to be more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, to improve livelihoods and ensure that local communities are fully engaged in and benefit from mountain tourism. In particular, mountain destinations need to innovate and diversify to attract new markets as tourism emerges from the shadow of the pandemic.
Developing a year-round tourist destination in the mountains can generate additional income and is increasingly vital as the impacts of the climate crisis reduce the length of snow seasons. The mountains have much more to offer than snow sports in the winter and hiking in the summer. Archaeological, cultural and spiritual sites, picturesque villages, thermal baths, product and gastronomic trails, rare species of plants and animals are all opportunities to diversify tourism.
The Cordillera region of the Philippines is a good example. The country’s tourism department, the Mountain Partnership Secretariat and Slow Food launched a project in the region in 2018 to connect tourism service providers with small producers, helping visitors to experience high-quality mountain products such as than ancestral rice, while increasing the income of mountain communities.
At the same time, we cannot ignore that climate change is likely to increase the frequency of natural hazards such as floods and landslides. Strengthening crisis management capacities and health and safety standards will be key to building the long-term resilience of mountain communities and the mountain tourism sector.
In addition, in anticipation of the return of a large number of mountain visitors, consideration must be given to reducing environmental impacts and ensuring sustainable tourism.
This includes tackling the large amounts of plastic waste generated by tourists in the mountains, which damages the health of animals, humans and ecosystems. The recent United Nations-backed mountain litter survey confirmed that plastic litter is found even in remote areas, such as the peaks of the Himalayas. Working towards the elimination of single-use plastic products in the tourism industry is of utmost importance.
Finally, we must ensure that tourism plays a key role in enhancing, respecting and protecting the natural and spiritual heritage of mountains, as well as the cultural diversity and traditional practices of mountain communities.
We have a collective responsibility to make ethical travel choices, to expect wellness destinations and tourism businesses to be environmentally conscious, and to hold them accountable if they are not.
Sustainable mountain tourism was the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day, celebrated annually on December 11. This is a reminder that for sustainable mountain tourism to thrive, urgent measures are needed to ensure that no one is left behind. In particular, this means supporting vulnerable groups in the mountains, including women, youth and indigenous peoples, who are the custodians of these majestic but fragile environments from which we all benefit.
Sustainable mountain management will promote better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, and contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Development Agenda.
(By QU Dongyu, Director General, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary General, United Nations World Tourism Organization)