The road less travelled — how to create a new path for sustainable tourism

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The road less travelled in Costa Rica. Photo: Dmitriy Rnd/Fotolia

When the coronavirus COVID-19 shut down the world, we saw something never seen before — the cosmopolitan cities of Europe and the Americas, used to receiving and entertaining millions of visitors every day, fell silent; their cultural monuments, restaurants, theatres, hotels and sports arenas lay empty. At the same time the pristine beaches of South East Asia, the South Pacific, and the Caribbean became deserted. The great game parks of Africa returned to the almost exclusive use of the animals who live there.

For the first time in our lifetimes, almost everybody who could stayed home.

Tourism is a multi-trillion dollar industry that generates seven percent of global trade, employs one in every 10 people on earth, and provides jobs to hundreds of millions more.

Prior to the pandemic, the UN says tourism grew faster than the world economy for 10 years in a row.

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Top: the turquoise waters of Mauritius. Bottom: Tourists walk on the beach of Albion, Mauritius at sunset, December 2019. Photos: UNDP Mauritius

It is now one of the industries most in need of help. The United Nations says US$320 billion was lost in the first five months of the year and the World Tourism Organization estimates that tourism will drop 60–80 percent by the end of the year.

Up to 120 million direct jobs are at risk. Many are in the informal economy, which has had particularly severe implications for women and young people who make up the majority of the workforce.

Altogether the losses could add up to US$1.2 trillion — by far the worst crisis that international tourism has faced since records began in 1950.

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Top: The Monastery in the tourist destination of Petra, Jordan. Bottom: Young informal workers at the Monastery. Up to 120 million direct jobs are at risk in tourism. Many are in the informal economy, which has had particularly severe implications for women and young people who make up the majority of the workforce. Photos: UNDP/Sumaya Agha

The impact is being felt hardest in Africa and in small island states. Many countries in the Caribbean rely on tourism for nearly half their GDP. In countries such as Palau, in Micronesia, it’s up to 90 percent. Ironically, many of these small nations have almost entirely escaped the health effects of COVID-19, yet they continue to suffer because visitors have stopped coming.

“This crisis is a major shock for developed economies and an emergency for the most vulnerable people and developing countries,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

UNDP has long recognized the importance of tourism as a way to promote conservation, empower indigenous communities, encourage economic development and give as many people as possible the opportunity to experience the best of what the world’s cultures — ancient and modern — have to offer.

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A scuba diver encounters a Manta Ray in the German Channel of Palau. In countries such as Palau, in Micronesia, they rely on tourism for up to 90 percent of their GDP. Photo: iStock.com/Global_Pics

This crisis, while revealing the deep fragilities inherent in a system that relies on workers without a social safety net, also represents an opportunity to build a green tourism industry that provides valuable and secure jobs while protecting the environment.

In the short term UNDP is working with its partners to not only support small businesses who depend on tourism and have seen their incomes dry up, but we’re also looking to the future planning how to ensure that tourism, when it does return, is more meaningful for local hosts and their visitors, while at the same time as safeguarding the natural world.

We have begun supporting tourism workers in Nepal who’ve lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and helping families on the Via Dinarica hiking trail in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has seen a 71 percent drop in international tourists since the beginning of the year.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2018 wildlife tourism generated USD$343.6 billion and more than 21.8 million jobs in 2018. We are working with The Lion’s Share to protect animal communities in nine countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America who’re suffering financially from the effects of the pandemic shutdown of international travel.

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Top: The Una River along the Via Dinarica trail in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has seen a 71 percent drop in international tourists since the beginning of the year. Bottom: Amela and her husband Sanjin own a tourist agency in Konjic, a hotspot (pre-pandemic) on the Via Dinarica Trail. They offer trekking tours, rafting, canoeing and canyoning on the Neretva and Rakitnica Rivers. Photos: UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina/Adnan Bubalo

More than US$400,000 has been disbursed in partnership with the GEF Small Grants Programme. It’s going to communities who are protecting some of the world’s most critically endangered wildlife, such as rhinos, elephants, gorillas, sea turtles, tigers and sharks. It will help them deal with not just job losses and the resulting economic hardships, but also increased lockdown poaching. The World Bank reports that the numbers of rangers who’ve lost their lives to poachers has increased this year.

The Lions Share, a coalition of businesses and UN partners that asks brands to contribute every time an animal is featured in one of their advertisements, aims to raise up to US$3 million to fund all 40 organizations who’ve been selected for help.

“By leveraging the power of partnerships, The Lion’s Share has been able to not only raise financing for conservation and wildlife, but also engage businesses and consumers on this urgent issue,” said UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner.

Pandemics don’t last forever, and tourism will eventually recover — the question is what kind of recovery will we see? UNDP is working with its international network of partners to promote a just and sustainable future for tourism which leaves no person — or sea turtle — behind.

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To save the threatened tourism and fishing industries of Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica, the residents worked to protect the entire ecosystem. Game Warden Omar Sparks locates a nest of critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles in preparation to release the hatchlings into the sea, September 2019. Photos: UNDP Jamaica/Talk Up Youth Media

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