Sustainability key to global tourism recovery

04 April 2021
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As the global travel and tourism sector continues to battle the Covid-19 health crisis, it is crucial that it does not lose sight of the bigger picture.

The industry was experiencing shifting winds even before the pandemic. Target 8.9 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism which creates jobs, and promotes local culture and products” by 2030.

SDG 12.B further stresses the need to “develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts” for sustainable tourism.

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s (UNWTO) narrative to restart tourism calls for the responsible recovery of the sector, in line with the priorities outlined in the SDGs.

For many countries, this approach had already been adopted before Covid-19 emphasised the need for it.

“Paradoxically, I tend to believe that Covid-19 has had a positive impact on sustainable tourism,” says Dorji Dhradhul, director general of the Tourism Council of the Kingdom of Bhutan.

“We all know that pre-Covid, many destinations had started to face the pressure of mass tourism and over-tourism," he says. "Many tourist sites such as Boracay, Venice, Machu Picchu, Amsterdam, Iceland and the Galapagos Islands were working to restrict tourism because of the negative impact the high numbers of visitors were having on the local community.  

"It was globally realised that, if tourism proceeded at this pace and in this style, the destruction of the destination, ecology, community, our economy and gradually our planet was inevitable.”

The slow path to recovery

Plunged into an unfathomable crisis by the Covid-19 pandemic, the global tourism sector saw its darkest days in 2020. Data from the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) highlights some grim numbers:

  • International tourist arrivals (overnight visitors) plunged by 74 per cent in 2020 compared to 2019 due to widespread travel restrictions and a massive drop in demand.
  • The collapse in international travel represents an estimated loss of $1.3tn in export revenues - more than 11 times the loss recorded during the 2009 global economic crisis.
  • Asia and the Pacific region saw an 84 per cent decrease in international arrivals in 2020, about 300 million less than in the previous year. The Middle East and Africa both recorded a 75 per cent drop in arrivals. In Europe, arrivals declined by 70 per cent, representing over 500 million fewer international tourists, while the Americas saw a drop of 69 per cent.
  • The outlook for 2021 remains mixed. There will be greater demand for open-air and nature-based tourism activities, with increasing interest in domestic tourism.
  • Most experts do not see tourism returning to pre-pandemic levels before 2023.


With global vaccine rollouts picking up pace, there is optimism that international travel and tourism will gradually pick up as consumer confidence is restored.

High value, low volume

Bhutan is a landlocked nation in the Eastern Himalayas, bordered by China to the north and India to the south. Spread across an area of 38,394 square kilometres, the country has a population of more than 754,000.

Blessed with pristine forests, valleys and rivers, Bhutan strives to deliver a unique experience for travellers. The first tourists arrived in 1974 – a total of 287 people – when the government initially sought to drive national revenues through tourism.

In 2019, Bhutan welcomed 316,000 tourists and earned nearly $120m in revenue from tourism, accounting for 4.7 per cent of its gross national product.

Even as the figures grew, Bhutan remained committed to its high-value, low-volume (HVLV) approach, prioritising sustainability over revenue and receipts and thereby foregoing the quick returns of mass tourism.

“I like to define sustainable tourism with a quote from my colleague Damcho Rinzin,” says Dhradhul. “All in all, tourism must continue to serve Bhutan, rather than Bhutan serving tourism. This means tourism should not and cannot go overboard for economic gains, which would undermine the broader interest of a country.”

Bhutan’s approach to development is based on the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, in order to ensure a good balance between economic growth and social, environmental and cultural factors.

It was globally realised that, if tourism proceeded at this pace and in this style, the destruction of the destination, ecology, community, our economy and gradually our planet was inevitable
Dorji Dhradhul, Tourism Council of the Kingdom of Bhutan

“Tourism plays a very important role in the promotion of the GNH of the country, through the generation of employment and revenue, conservation and protection of the environment, preservation and promotion of culture,” explains Dhradhul.

HVLV is further supported by regulations and practices that support sustainable tourism. These include the Tourism Policy of the Kingdom of Bhutan 2020, which aims to make Bhutan a green, sustainable, inclusive, viable and high-value tourist destination. Key initiatives under the policy include:

  • Licensed professional tour guides
  • Designated campsite and certified tourist accommodations
  • Carbon neutrality and tree planting
  • Ban on single-use plastic bags
  • Green taxes on conventional vehicles and no taxes on electric ones
  • Distribution of free electricity in the rural community
  • Minimum daily package rates for all tourists

Dhradhul says the Covid-19 pandemic has made it loud and clear that the tourism industry must be more resilient and more sustainable in the face of future health and climate crises.

“Covid-19 has also made it very clear that personal health and well-being are so important, which depends so much on the health of our environment and other resources,” he says. “It is therefore an opportunity to restart tourism, and offer a new tourism model post-Covid-19 that is more sustainable.   

“We must pass onto our children the Mother Earth that we have inherited. And ensure the travel industry doesn’t tell a different story.”

Sustainable and responsible

The European Union’s transition to clean energy involves binding climate and energy targets for 2030, and requires that each member state drafts supportive 10-year plans and targets.

The Portuguese draft has been developed in coherence with the nation’s Roadmap for Carbon Neutrality 2050.

Portugal is among the 30 most sustainable countries in the world, according to the Yale Centre for Environmental Law & Policy's Environmental Performance Index 2020, which evaluates 32 different parameters in 11 categories including environmental health, air quality, water management, biodiversity and habitat, forests, fisheries, agriculture and climate change.

Objectives from national-level targets have permeated Portugal's tourism and travel sector. In 2017, the government launched its Tourism Strategy 2027, incorporating monitoring indicators known as SITS (Sustainable Tourism Indicators System) to improve environmental, social and economic sustainability.

For Portugal, the end goal is to be one of the “most competitive, safe and sustainable destinations in the world”.

And the impact of Covid-19 has meant that recovery through sustainability is the way to go, says Luis Araújo, president of national tourist board Turismo de Portugal.

The tourism-dependent nation was hit hard by the pandemic, with GDP shrinking 7.6 per cent in 2020.

Turismo de Portugal echoes the directives of UNWTO and introduced a three-year sustainable tourism plan in October 2020 featuring 70 actions, which will supplement the 2027 strategy.

“The challenges, present and future, for Portugal to become a more sustainable tourist destination impose a shared responsibility with regard to the sector,” says Araújo. “This is why the Sustainable Tourism Plan 2020-23 foresees several awareness actions among the national tourism actors towards a “greener” conscience and, in particular, for greater responsibility with regard to the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental and social.”

Among the goals to be achieved by 2023 is a 50 per cent increase in tourist developments with energy-efficient measures, and water and waste management systems, as well as the elimination of single-use plastic in 50 per cent of four and five-star tourist developments.

The challenges, present and future, for Portugal to become a more sustainable tourist destination impose a shared responsibility with regard to the sector"
Luis Araújo, Turismo de Portugal

The plan also foresees that by 2023 there will be 25,000 tourist resorts adhering to the ‘Clean & Safe’ label, 50,000 professionals trained in sustainability and 500 international references on sustainable supply in Portugal.

 “To conquer the tourism of the future, which incorporates objectives for balanced and focused development, we call for a change in the attitude of the entire value chain – destinations, companies and tourists,” says Araújo.

Travel and Connectivity was the seventh in a series of 10 pre-expo thematic talks – launched in October 2020 with Space – bringing together influential policymakers, thought-leaders, Expo participants and the public to help shape the thought-provoking content and conversations taking place during Expo 2020 Dubai.

Representatives from Bhutan and Portugal were part of a panel discussion titled ‘Looking Beyond the Crisis: Coming together on the future of tourism and sustainable development’.

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