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Are we moving toward sustainable “travelism?”

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The president of the International Coalition of Tourism Partners, Professor Geoffrey Lipman discusses how we are becoming more environmentally-responsible tourists and why we must make a change in our

The president of the International Coalition of Tourism Partners, Professor Geoffrey Lipman discusses how we are becoming more environmentally-responsible tourists and why we must make a change in our reality to “put green on the same page as growth.”

Someone famously said that “an elephant is a very hard thing to define, but if you see one running down the street, you know what it is very quickly.” It’s rather the same about sustainable travel and tourism – we’ve stopped describing it and started to recognize it. Now we have to move further and faster if we want to harness its immense positive reality.

Twenty years ago at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – when the modern approach to sustainable development was set out in Agenda 21 – the focus was on preserving the planet’s resources. For our sector, it was very much about ecotourism that often translated into: “take pictures, leave footprints.” Back then, our industry was not seen as a major polluter so it was under limited pressure to embrace the new sustainability mind-set. The big thing then was notices in hotel bathrooms telling guests to save the planet by not changing their towels every day.

Ten years later at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, the mood had shifted from planet to people and poverty. Against the background of the Millennium Development Goals, we moved on to a broader idea of responsible tourism with an emphasis on ensuring that local populations don’t suffer from tourism’s influx and with a growing focus on creating economic benefits and jobs.

Now after Rio+20 we have seen another “sustainability” shift to green growth – a geopolitical paradigm to respond to the big social, economic, environmental, and climate challenges of today and the population-driven resource challenges on the horizon. This is not so much a defined set of initiatives, guidelines, or even policies, but a multi-decade journey with periodic targets and checkpoints to create sustainable consumption, production, and investment patterns for every activity on the planet.

Our industry has also begun to come of age as a mainstream socio-economic sector, with recognition of its job-creating importance. At the same time, the climate and economic-driven rethink of the last decade has broadened our environmental engagement, highlighting carbon impacts – particularly from transport and old inefficient buildings. It has begun to place increasing attention on local jobs as well as lifestyle impacts. It’s also focusing on renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, resource efficiency, and social inclusion. And there is talk of visitor impacts alongside the visitor economy.

Eventually, somewhere on this multi-decade transformation journey, sustainable “travelism” – transport, hospitality, travel services, hard and soft infrastructure, and local impacts – will meld with the evolving mainstream societal sustainability. Because the sheer numbers of travelers, boosted by massive emerging markets like China, India, Brazil, and South Africa have such a physical and psychological impact on the communities they visit. Green Growth will mean that we must pay as much attention to the green as we do to the growth. We must measure it just as seriously, and we must act on it with just as much priority.

Hopefully if we move far enough, fast enough, there won’t be any need for notices in hotel bathrooms about changing towels. Our industry will have sustainability – environmental, social, economic, and climate – at the core of its operational strategy. The next generation will have learned that in school. Our leaders will put green on the same page as growth – because it’s instinctive as well as right: and the communities at the base of the pyramid will have a powerful role in shaping their own destiny. It’s at the local level that the real visitor impact is felt – good and bad. For that to happen we have to both recognize the elephant for what it is and change our actions towards it now.

Geoffrey Lipman is President of the International Coalition of Tourism Partners – a grass roots organization for destinations and their stakeholders promoting green growth and quality, and a member of the WEF Global Agenda Council on new Models of Tourism. He is also lead author of “Green Growth & Travelism; Letters from Leaders.” For more information about ICTP, visit:

Adapted from World Economic Forum Blog – March 2013

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Editor in chief for eTurboNew is Linda Hohnholz. She is based in the eTN HQ in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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