Realising a global vision for sustainable tourism

Cruise tourism is increasingly in the spotlight for its impacts on destinations. Michele Witthaus looks at what resources the World Tourism Organization offers to support more environmentally friendly cruising

Realising a global vision for sustainable tourism

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2019 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

The cruise sector is feeling the effects of the innovations and technological advances that are transforming tourism in general – from the rise of smart technology, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, to the integration of social media in the guest experience. The diversity of cruise options has never been broader, from ever-larger ships to increasingly popular small-ship exploration cruises.

At the same time, sustainability is more important than ever, especially as tourists seek to lessen their impact on the planet. When planning their fleet development and itineraries, cruise operators have to take into account new issues such as ‘overtourism’ in response to the significant spikes their ships cause when several thousand people disembark in destinations that are already heaving with visitors. Placard-waving locals are now a familiar sight for arrivals in major ports, while issues around infrastructure adequacy and waste management require urgent attention.

As the global body for tourism data, policy and governance, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) offers unique insights into the challenges of balancing quality and competitiveness of destination management with sustainable tourism products and initiatives.

UNWTO is clear on the need for tourism to link in with the global sustainable development agenda. At a discussion on ‘Tourism Financing for the 2030 Agenda’ in Geneva in July 2019, UNWTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili highlighted the key role that the global tourism sector plays in economic growth and job creation.

Pololikashvili pointed out that tourism is explicitly mentioned as a target in three of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – goals 8, 12 and 14. He also noted that aid and development financing directed towards tourism needs to be increased significantly, saying: “This is an important time for both the tourism and the international development sectors. Strengthening and unlocking aid flows for tourism will help the sector be a driver of job creation, as well as of social and economic development and economic diversity. Working together we can harness the power of the new aid architecture and ensure that nobody gets left behind as tourism transforms lives around the world.”

At its 22nd General Assembly in Chengdu, China from 11-16 September 2017, UNWTO recommended that governments “develop an integrated and holistic approach to tourism policy in order to leverage the sector’s positive impact on planet and prosperity.” It also proposed to: “undertake national assessments on tourism’s contribution and commitment to the SDGs and ensure the inclusion of tourism in inter-ministerial SDG commissions and/or working groups, as well as to enhance the contribution of tourism in SDGs national strategies through the set-up of institutional frameworks and mechanisms that allow participation of all stakeholders”.

The UNWTO Annual Report for 2017
The report states that although tourism “continues to be one of the best positioned economic sectors to drive inclusive socioeconomic growth, provide sustainable livelihoods, foster peace and understanding and help to protect our environment”, the sector is facing several major challenges, including:
•  Safety and security concerns and the temptation to build new barriers to travel
•  The technological revolution
•  Charting a course toward sustainable development.

Considering these global trends and challenges impacting the tourism sector and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, UNWTO has defined the following three priorities for the sector:
•  Promoting safe and seamless travel
•  Enhancing the role of technology and innovation in tourism
•  Embracing the sustainability agenda.

UNWTO launched a data centre and education platform in July 2018, aimed at “sharing good practices, innovative ideas and recommendations for action”, as well as monitoring progress and results. Several aspects of tourism are in the spotlight, especially those that shape the role tourism plays in the sustainable development agenda, such as:
•  Visitor management
•  Environmental management
•  Conservation of natural and cultural heritage
•  Economic and community impacts
•  Governance.

The cruise industry is already spearheading moves to more sustainable, energy-efficient ships with many of its newbuilds. The industry’s investment in renewable fuels, clean energy and advanced technology solutions onboard fits well with UNWTO’s focus on the SDGs. But UNWTO warns that “efficiency improvements alone may not compensate for the overall growth in traveller numbers, for which more progressive and innovative action is needed.”

According to another UNWTO document, Sustainable Cruise Tourism Development Strategies – Tackling the Challenges in Itinerary Design in South-East Asia, “the premise of sustainable tourism is that the unique natural and cultural heritage offered by a destination is what generates its brand reputation, its value and what drives tourist demand”.  Hence, the report adds, it is of “utmost importance to manage growth to preserve the natural and cultural heritage assets of a destination and to sustain tourism’s long-term economic vitality.” The report identifies the three pillars of sustainable tourism as environmentally friendly practices; support for protection of cultural and natural heritage; and tangible economic and social benefits to local people in host destinations.

UNWTO also notes that “cruise tourism brings large numbers of people to concentrated areas of destinations for brief periods, thereby concentrating cruise tourism’s impacts” and that “cruise ships often arrive at more active city districts and via waterways with ecosystems that are more fragile and contain higher biodiversity value than the sky and airport location.” This is why cruise tourism merits higher levels of scrutiny and assessment for its economic, environmental and cultural implications. UNTWO’s report recommends three strategies to manage cruise tourism in the region:

•  Strategy 1: approach regional cruise tourism development by focusing efforts on controlling demand, rather than stimulating it
•  Strategy 2: assess the sustainable development needs across the entire value chain and visitor experience
•  Strategy 3: quantify the value of natural and cultural heritage conservation to cruise tourism.

The report also recommends applying a ‘value chain’ concept to cruise tourism, taking into consideration passengers, distribution channels, cruise lines, destinations, cruise terminals and port reception facilities, ground transportation, local attractions and communities.

Viewed in the light of the 2030 Agenda, these strategies and recommendations are still of relevance both within and beyond the region for which they were devised and may be of particular interest for the cruise industry today as its increases its efforts to achieve the SDGs.

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Michele Witthaus
By Michele Witthaus
02 October 2019

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