by Jurgen Ringbeck, Nabih Maroun and Tansel Kilicarslan
The travel and tourism industry has enjoyed a surge in investment over the past decade, marking it as a significant contributor to economic growth for many countries. Each day, travellers spend more than US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn); the travel and tourism industry accounts for about 11 per cent of global GDP and employs more than 260 million people. The UN World Trade Organisation estimates that 1.6 billion tourists will travel the globe in 2020 - almost twice as many as do today.
But while tourism offers undeniable economic benefits, it comes with a high environmental price tag. Travel can deplete or destroy local ecosystems and contribute to global climate change. This fact has not been overlooked by the international community, which is demonstrating increased concern about global warming and greenhouse gas emissions, including the adverse effects of air travel and other activities related to the tourism sector.
As a result, the travel and tourism industry - as well as governments that hope to draw tourists within their borders - must cater to high-end, environmentally conscious, international tourists who seek sustainable, eco-friendly tourism activities and destinations. Major tourism destinations around the world are pledging to become environmentally sustainable and carbon-efficient within the coming decade — including some in Sri Lanka, plus cities such as Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne, Manchester, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle and Sharm el Sheikh. For these destinations, becoming "green" entails much more than reducing or offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Rather, it requires a comprehensive plan for environmental sustainability that achieves carbon efficiency, as well as water sustainability, waste reduction and management, and ecosystem preservation.
Abu Dhabi has also made great efforts towards sustainability. The emirate's current portfolio of programmes could turn it into an environmentally conscious tourism hub: Abu Dhabi recently launched a Dh11.5bn eco-tourism project - Desert Islands - combining six nature reserves spread across eight islands, including Sir Bani Yas, Dalma and Discovery.
It has been a greater challenge for Dubai to bring a green ethos to tourism. Recently, it was ranked 96th for sustainability and authenticity on National Geographic's ranking of 99 of the world's coastline, island and beach destinations; the panellists that determined the ranking indicated the rapid pace of development had compromised sustainability. However, Dubai has recently increased its efforts to deal with this challenge by clearly recognising that waste management and awareness must be urgently addressed, among other things. However, authorities are limited by the fact that a large proportion of Dubai's inhabitants are expats or tourists with little motivation to preserve its assets in the long term. The Dubai Government needs to make a greater effort to promote recycling; and these initiatives will be more successful in the long run when supporting infrastructure such as sorting and recycling plants are in place. Any waste management strategy should also consider liquid waste treatment, an issue that correlates highly with water conservation. However, water recycling, treatment and reuse for domestic or touristic purposes are still not easily accepted practices in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, destinations that turn a blind eye to sustainable practices risk depleting their resources and shortsightedly under-investing in the preservation of their natural assets. By borrowing against their future, they trade long-term health for short-term gain. Instead, destinations should strive for meaningful change by pursuing sustainable environmental policies and practices. If they fail to do so, mounting environmental costs may soon outweigh tourism's economic benefits.
Capturing the economic benefits of tourism while limiting undesirable environmental consequences is the ultimate goal of a successful green strategy. By crafting such a strategy, policymakers and industry leaders in the tourism sector can ensure that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and, at the same time, ensure that no part of the system is neglected.
Building a comprehensive blueprint for sustainability begins by addressing four key environmental issues: reducing carbon emissions; conserving biodiversity; managing waste properly; and conserving water. It also requires an analysis of the underlying systems that a destination must have in place to enable change: regulations and governance; stakeholder participation; funding and financing; capacity building and education; marketing; and public relations.
Once policymakers and tourism leaders have thoroughly analysed these environmental issues and enabling systems, they can develop a truly holistic green strategy for their destination, using three steps.
Step 1: Assess environmental health. Policymakers must first determine the strengths and weaknesses of their location as a destination ecosystem, comparing its current environmental performance to global best practices. This baseline analysis will be a starting point for understanding issues that need to be addressed immediately as well as those that may become obstacles on the road to green transformation.
Step 2: Map out the "green journey". Policymakers must determine how aggressively they can move forward. They may choose a basic approach centred on simply preventing the destruction of natural assets and the environment, using proven yet affordable technologies. With greater economic or political capital, however, they may be able to pursue radical, innovative options that stake a powerful claim to leadership in green tourism.
Step 3: Realise the green vision. The implementation of the chosen strategy should begin with a sustainable master plan that frames specific strategy projects, aligns projects with proper investment and sets up long-range planning steps. This plan must be linked to existing infrastructure and commercial initiatives, including property development. At this stage especially, destinations must obtain community buy-in, with the energetic involvement of the government, private sector and civilian society.
Sustainable tourism will become more relevant only as the effects of climate change continue to intensify and the growing middle class in emerging nations creates a larger tourism market. Destinations that hope to remain competitive will come to realise that pursuing a policy of sustainability is not just good for the environment but essential in attracting visitors and reaping the economic benefits of tourism.
Jurgen Ringbeck is a senior partner, Nabih Maroun a partner and Tansel Kilicarslan a senior associate at Booz & Company