COVID-19 AND THE FUTURE OF SUSTAINABLE TOURISM

Conversation with Xu Jing, independent tourism adviser & former Director of Asia and the Pacific, UNWTO

Over the past few months, it has become evident that the tourism sector is one of the hardest hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. With international travel coming to a complete halt and constantly changing border restrictions between Australian states, not to mention intrastate limitations on how far and in what way people are allowed to travel, it is sometimes hard to see how there can be a light at the end of this tunnel. Our Communications Manager, Lina Cronin, spoke to former Director of Asia and the Pacific at the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in Madrid to get an international perspective on the crisis and hear his thoughts on how the tourism sector has the opportunity to rise up to be more sustainable and responsible as a result of this pandemic.

EA: Xu Jing, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to Ecotourism Australia.

XJ: Good afternoon from sunny Madrid!

EA: Tourism around the world has stopped because of COVID-19. What impact has this had on livelihoods, particularly in developing countries?

XJ: The outbreak of the coronavirus into a global pandemic has hit the tourism industry much more severely than any crisis of any scale before it. In fact, the impact has been strongly felt in all facets of society, particularly in the informal sector of tourism and with the numerous SMEs [small to medium enterprises] in developing countries. For instance, it is believed that many small businesses in Phuket will barely survive if the crisis lasts for more than three months because they depend mainly on inbound international traffic. The same is true for island destinations like the Maldives and Fiji.

At the same time, it is heartening to note that despite the catastrophic setbacks, countries in South East Asia are making timely efforts to stimulate domestic tourism rather than waiting for the reopening of national borders, which in reality is beyond the control of their tourism administrations. Such actions may not be that beneficial to profit making, yet they are conducive to creating some sort of cash flow as well as saving jobs. It is also encouraging to see that for destinations with larger populations, such as China, summer bookings within the country have reached some 65-70 percent of capacity as compared with the previous year, according to latest industry reports.

EA: That is encouraging. As an industry professional, you’ve spent a large part of your career working in Europe. From what our members tell us, European travellers are often looking for more sustainable travel options. Do you think there is a growing expectation of sustainability from European travellers? 

XJ: Tourism will no longer be the same after COVID-19, not just for the post-virus recovery period but also for the future. Tourism will be perceived differently when it comes to its definition, planning and development, as well as its promotion.

National tourism administrations and destinations are currently concerned about coming up with plans for the immediate recovery. Understandably so. But the long-term perspective of tourism, in my opinion, will most likely follow a trajectory of paying more attention to the social and humanistic factors of tourism as a result of the pandemic. Consequently, demand for products centred around achieving harmony with nature, being climate-friendly and focusing on sustainable production and consumption will be on the rise, particularly for more matured source markets such as Europe.  

EA: How can the tourism sector use this COVID-19 induced downtime to build back better and be more sustainable in the future?

XJ: More than ever, we, as tourism professionals, must advocate the principle of sustainability in the planning and development as well as the management of tourism.

Over the years, we have had too many governments and enterprises developing large scale projects and construction of assets of volume under the excuse of embracing the high-growth tourism industry in the Asia-Pacific region. If we had had a greater focus on sustainability from the beginning instead of only pursuing profits, we might have been better placed to survive the current crisis. The original form of tourism after all is that of a family-based bed & breakfast. If there was only one thing we could change about our industry after the pandemic, I would say it would be to embrace the principle of “less is more” – this will aid the long-term health of our industry.

More strategically speaking, rethinking is needed to build tourism back better in order to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We need to rethink what our fundamental concept of developing tourism should be. I sincerely believe that tourism is about more than the basic enjoyment and rights of mankind. Tourism can and should be an effective means to achieve the SDGs set forth by the United Nations.

EA: Addressing climate change was a big topic in the tourism sector before COVID-19 hit. Do you still think this is as important now?

XJ: Tourism must be a force for good. The 8% CO2 emissions from the tourism industry are 8% too many! I am hopeful that we can turn this crisis into an opportunity whereby tourism can contribute more to the sustainable production of resources and consumption of goods and services.

More than ever, people now have a better understanding of the destructive nature of irresponsible travel behaviour. This pandemic has hit not just one country or one region but the entire planet earth. If we, as human beings, do not behave responsibly, including when we travel, then the whole planet is threatened. 

I do think that as a result of this crisis and the increased awareness of climate change impacts, discussions will be on the rise on how to disperse tourism traffic to less visited and more remote areas, how to mitigate the negative impact of tourism on climate change and how to address the rethinking of mass tourism products.

EA: Do you believe tourism can contribute to a better world for people and planet?

XJ: As a whole, responsible tourism is part of a much bigger push toward sustainability, and this will be more tabled globally so that tourists can be encouraged to behave in more environmentally friendly ways and in harmony with nature. Industry players will have to align their products more towards slow-paced tourism and the public sector will be more encouraged to look at regional development as part and parcel of solving the issue of over-concentrated tourism.

As we speak, the global pandemic is still spreading like wildfire and when the health crisis has unfortunately gone beyond its original boundary into potential geopolitical conflicts, we must use tourism as a powerful force for peace, solidarity and mutual understanding among the peoples of the world. As early as in 1967, the United Nations declared the International Year of Tourism: Passport to Peace. I see no reason why, decades later, we should not continue to raise our flag high in advocating tourism as a vital force for peace, as stipulated in the Manila Declaration on World Tourism in 1980.

mountain biking Pemberton Discovery Xu Jing article

Photo: ECO certified operators like Pemberton Discovery Tours see tourism as a way to benefit people and planet.

In 2019, Ecotourism Australia signed a partnership agreement with the UNWTO, setting the stage for increased collaboration between the two organisations. Read more about it here.

For more information on the World Tourism Organization, visit https://www.unwto.org/.