Last week saw World Responsible Tourism Day 2013 move up a gear, with a record number of companies signing up to show their support. By the time the show opened on Monday 4th November, 185 companies had joined what is already the world’s largest initiative dedicated to responsible tourism. They represented all different types of enterprises, from the very small to the very large, and across all sectors, from skiing to safari, bus companies to walking trails.
And it wasn’t just companies this year – a few destinations declared their support as they look to develop responsible tourism across an entire region. The Mediterranean island of Gozo may only have a population of 30,000, but 125,000 tourists visit each year, putting huge pressures on its resources. As a result Gozo is developing an ambitious plan – EcoGozo – to differentiate itself both from its bigger and better known neighbour Malta, and also from other islands in the Mediterranean. “We want people to see us as offering more than just sun and sand,” explained the director of Tourism and Economic for Gozo, Manuel Tabone. “Being part of World Responsible Tourism Day 2013 supports our efforts to position Gozo as a responsible destination throughout the year”.
For many the highlight of the day was the Responsible Tourism Awards, this year celebrating their 10th anniversary. All manner of inspiring companies were acknowledged, and the progress of responsible tourism was clear from the level of innovation shown. None more so than the winner of the Best for Responsible Wildlife Experiences Award, Nam Nern Night Safaris in Laos, so small they don’t have a website or Twitter account, yet they have come up with a unique way of gamifying safaris to deter poaching.
Hunters traditionally pay fees for the right to kill animals, with the fees increasing depending upon how endangered the animal is. Nam Nern have flipped this principle to raise funds while keeping the animals alive. Every time a guest sees an animal on safari with them a score is given, depending upon how endangered the species is. This score is then converted into money, which is donated to the local villagers, incentivising them to protect the species rather than poach.
World Responsible Tourism Day 2013 – moving into in the mainstream
Another sign responsible tourism is gaining momentum came from the fact the overall award went not to a small innovative independent, but to a big mainstream company. TUI Nederland won for its work combatting child sex tourism in Brazil. While many companies would baulk at associating their brands with such horrors, TUI chose to run shocking poster campaigns in Dutch airports, using the billboard space they purchased not to promote the luxury of their hotels, but to highlight the seriousness of the issue. Receiving the award, Elise Allart, sustainable development manager for TUI Netherlands, called to the industry as a whole to work with them.”Child sex tourism is a complex issue where root causes need to be addressed to make a difference,” she said. “This is a huge problem and we need huge partners to solve problem.”
TUI was also involved in World Responsible Tourism Day 2013’s flagship debate on climate change, which WTM’s Senior Director Simon Press announced simply as “The key issue for the industry.” During the debate, TUI’s Deputy Chief Executive Johan Lundgren claimed it wasn’t just a matter of doing the right thing, that it made business sense. “Cutting carbon emissions increases our competitive advantage and saves us millions,” he said. He also laid down a serious challenge for both industry and governments when he criticised long term sustainability targets as being to easy to ignore, stating “Targets need to be for the short term, to incentivise organisations and penalise bad behaviour.”
Perhaps the most significant comment, however, was the last one, made by WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor Harold Goodwin as he closed the day. He observed that far more people attended the a session on marketing responsible tourism, than turned up to the three events addressing the issues of climate change, water scarcity, and child protection. Picking up where Lundgren left off, Goodwin told everyone: “Tui won the overall Responsible Tourism award this year precisely because they had the courage to take on an issue like Child Protection and put in the mainstream.”
Coming away from this World Responsible Tourism Day 2013, it was inspiring to see ever greater numbers of companies like Nam Nern focussing brilliantly on local issues. They deserve continued support and recognition. But with 1 billion people travelling this year, and that number only set to grow, the tourism industry needs to ask how it will sustain itself into the second half of this century, and how how it will protect the people and resources on which it relies. The answer – a large part of it at least – is that it needs big players to have the courage to take the lead.