Sustainable Tourism: Challenging a Personal and Global Catch-22

At 37,000 feet in the air, there was a hint of hypocrisy that filled my mind; I was on my way to attend a conference dedicated to sharing how humans are impacting the environment and what can be done to reduce that impact. And to support that mission, I was traveling over 4,000 miles and across the Atlantic ocean to simply be an observer. 

The emotions I was feeling on my way to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change 25th Conference of Parties (COP) in Madrid, Spain are not new. As an avid environmentalist and traveler I often feel the pang of the catch-22 between these interests. My passion for the environment increases the more I travel, but so does my environmental impact. Travel can be associated with various environmental impacts such greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and waste. When those impacts are multiplied by millions of travelers every year, nations face their own catch-22. Tourism is the third largest sector of international trade in the world, accounting for just over 10% of global GDP and supports over 300 millions jobs worldwide. In countries with strong tourism industries, how are they addressing the impacts of tourism while retaining the sector’s significance in the economy? At COP, I had the opportunity to listen to government leaders address this question.

Panel on Transforming Tourism for Climate Action, December 3, 2019
Photo Credit: Sabrina Vivian

Overcoming sustainability challenges requires a myriad of solutions. Promoting sustainable tourism is no exception. Panelists from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and officials from the government departments of France, Seychelles, Spain, and Argentina revealed that these nations have been independently exploring and supporting various sustainable tourism efforts for some time. For example, the Seychelles government developed and implemented the Seychelles Sustainable Tourism Label that certifies businesses that meet particular sustainability criteria, while Argentina has focused on increasing the comfort of existing recreational areas, especially ski destinations, and the creation of new recreational areas.

While these approaches may be varied, a theme did emerge which highlighted four key components of transitioning to sustainable tourism, regardless of where the transition is being pursued: data, policy, collaboration, and education.

Brigitte Collet, French Ambassador for Climate, stressed the importance of data access and sharing data. This would allow for the impacts of tourism to be understood and inform future decisions on what steps should be taken to reduce those impacts by establishing a base of information that can be analyzed. Policy was discussed as a lever for prioritizing government support of changes within the tourism industry. While policies can create positive change, collaboration with the private sector was voiced as a way to help shift practices more quickly. An example of possible collaboration was provided by Spain’s Secretary of State for Tourism, Isabel Oliver, while commenting on the nation’s growing cruise ship industry.

Barcelona, Spain cruise port.
Photo Credit:

Lastly, panelists emphasized the role that consumers play in shifting the tourism industry through purchasing power. Educating customers about sustainable options and the impacts of tourism, such as within transportation or lodging, is important for supporting the growth and implementation of sustainable tourism products and services. Pristine Seychelles, a sustainability awareness campaign, was shared as one example of increasing consumer education. 

As the Deputy Director of the UNWTO gave closing remarks for the panel, I began to reflect on a comment that had stuck with me through the session. Sharing is the essence of travel, Bridget Collet had said. Whether it be through culture or exploring natural places, travelers learn and experience from one another. This essence is what resonates with me after each trip I take and helps motivate my professional and personal interests. So, I decided to embrace the hypocrisy felt from attending COP and share how the world is approaching the future of travel.

May readers be reminded that global challenges can be traced to the individual level, and that individual choice and action matter for global progress. Next time you travel, join me in planning a journey that is more sustainable and share your experience with others.

Cover Image: Andes Mountains, Argentina Photo Credit:

Author: Sabrina Vivian, University of Michigan, School for Environment and Sustainability Master’s Candidate, 2020; University of Michigan COP 25 Delegate

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