The increasing popularity of eco-friendly trips
Choosing “sustainable voyages” has recently become one of the main and most profitable drivers within the tourist market. According to estimates, by 2020, 1.6 billion people from both developed and developing countries will be considerable international tourists and perhaps even responsible eco-tourists.
“The world is not such a lonely planet anymore but the very resources we promote through tourism are in danger of degradation”. Rachel Dodds, professor at Ryerson University in Canada and tourist expert with more than 20 years of experience, has chosen such statement to characterise his sustainable tourism consultancy web page –Sustaining Tourism. Paraphrasing the famous touristic guide Lonely Planet – once widely consulted by backpackers but recently adopted by the overwhelming majority of travellers - Professor Rachel warns of the possible risks that tourism, if understood as a mere profit machine, can pose to the planet, the environment and its inhabitants.
Since the 1980s, environmental awareness has been growing among travellers: ‘responsible tourists’ avoid environmentally degrading actions while simultaneously acknowledging the agency of local inhabitants. But, are such actors simply the product of evolving forms of good manners? No, they are rather the product of a new mode of getting to know the world engendered by a new and rapidly growing industry –eco tourism.
The first needed consideration regards tourism in itself: according to a research published in 2013 by United Nations, tourism is “one of the world’s fastest growing industries”. In 2011 only, tourism’s related activities generated an estimated 5% of global gross domestic product (GDP) and roughly between 6-7% of the overall number of employment opportunities in the world. Such numbers confirm the data on annual growth rates related to the tourist industry, ranging between 3-5%. Numbers further predicted to rise considering the growing contribution of transitioning economies. Looking at some global data, it appears clear that the number of tourists has risen steadily: from 25 million in 1950 to 435 million in 1990, to 674 million at the beginning of the new millennium, to the astonishing number of 940 million in 2010. And the billion thresholds have been crossed by the end of 2016.
Despite transnational security issues, political turbulences and natural disasters tormenting countries across the globe, the number of travellers keeps on increasing and the tourist economy keeps on booming: according to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) “the tourist sector has been the fastest recovering sector after the recent financial crisis”, averaging a 4% annual growth rate, roughly moving 1.6 billion people worldwide.
But, what is the real impact of eco-tourism in the tourist economy that fosters economic growth and increases labour opportunities? It appears to be a very hard question to answer, but considering the increasing appeal of developing countries and recognising the mounting awareness towards environmental issues, it could be forecasted that sustainable forms of tourism will proceed hand in hand with the betterment of transitional economies. Europe, East Asia and the Americas are the macro-areas currently attracting the higher number of tourists. However, Africa, West Asia and the Middle East are relentlessly catching up. Even if Europe and the United States of America have historically been the favourite destinations, data suggest that emerging economies have, over the last three decades, been attracting an ever-greater share of world’s travellers: the share of travellers visiting developing countries went from 30% in the 1980s to 47% in 2010. Today, the canonical tourist is still prevalently from the developed world, but even this trend seems to be changing. Countries like China and India, amongst others, have been fuelling worldwide tourism. Thus, tourism seems to be an increasingly beneficial machine, fostering economic growth while promoting environmental awareness.
Sensitivity regarding sustainable tourism appears to be growing, taking root even within institutional contexts. The United Nations proclaimed 2002 as the International Year of Ecotourism while the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development expressed its commitment to engender resilient alliances between tourism related producers, service providers and political authorities with the intent of sponsoring more sustainable forms of traveling. Several research projects have been set up, even within the European Union where, in 2007, the ‘Agenda for a Sustainable and Competitive European Tourism’ was drafted. In November, during the COP22 held in Marrakech, the African Ministers of tourism subscribed the first African Charter on Sustainable and Responsible Tourism and sign the Declaration on ‘Tourism and Climate Issues in Africa’.
Furthermore, associations and tourist agencies committed to these new forms of eco-tourism have also been growing: the Meso American Reef Initiative explicitly designed to protect the Mesoamerican coral reef is just one among several examples. The British Travel Foundation has been designed with the intent of providing the means and the expertise needed to convert ‘classical’ travel agencies into sustainable firms. Blue Ventures, an association committed to marine conservation, has recently been awarded for its effort in safeguarding the marine ecosystem of Madagascar. It is also increasingly common to find eco-friendly hotels, websites exclusively promoting sustainable forms of tourism and even consultancy agencies devoted towards the promotion of environmentally friendly methods of traveling. ‘Friends are everywhere’, comments Rachel Dodds. Evidences seem to prove her right.