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After a year that stripped bare the inadequacy of tourism’s success metrics, how will the industry measure “building back better”? Before it answers that question, there needs to be an industrywide reckoning of tourism's root problem.

Since Covid, platitudes on greening and reinventing tourism have echoed globally across the industry. A general consensus exists among destinations and tourism businesses that the industry must “build back better.”

It’s not a novel debate. It rings that way now because of the pandemic’s brutal impact on travel. But let’s take at face value — once more — this industry-wide clamor to make travel more sustainable. How will tourism determine “building back better” on the other side of recovery? Surely it cannot continue pretending that its success lies in arrival numbers and contributions to gross domestic product?

Yet as vaccine distribution accelerates and consumer confidence rises, governments are already back to projecting visitor numbers and counting tourism jobs recovered, while comparing performance levels to 2019.

“There is still the challenge of rethinking the measurement of tourism,” said Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Kenya-based Sustainable Travel & Tourism Agenda, noting that “mega data” from international organizations obscures the reality on the ground. “We will not move forward unless these lead organizations change the way they communicate, because they influence governments, and governments influence their destination management organizations.”

Tourism desperately needs new performance metrics if it is to transform into a more climate-smart, socially sustainable and equitable industry across its supply chain. Is it just a matter of acknowledging that and identifying the metrics? Or does the industry need to have a major reckoning on tourism’s problematic post-colonial construct? Can tourism reset without uprooting?

A Host of Missing Metrics

Pre-Covid, there was a disturbing lack of gumption from the travel industry at large in addressing climate action. There’s more hope since the pandemic, including newly launched Tourism Declares and Future of Tourism initiatives that unite various segments across the industry in finding scalable solutions. Intrepid Travel’s environmental impact specialist, Dr. Susanna Etti, said the most important thing now for stakeholders is having a measurement plan. ”Without quantifying your emissions, it becomes immensely challenging to quantify the effectiveness of your reduction,” Etti said.

But there’s no time left to choose a single climate solution — offsetting, net-zero goals, carbon removal, organic farming for carbon sinks — we need all of them, according to Christina Beckmann, vice president of global strategy at the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Beckmann also leads Tomorrow’s Air, a collective of travelers advocating for carbon removal and scaling up negative emissions technology.

“What if we brought the muscle and the influence of travel to helping scale negative emissions technologies?” Beckmann said. “What if we started talking about carbon removal … with travelers, linking the passion that we feel for the places we visit with this very tangible thing that we can do, chip in?”

Climate action aside, tourism remains one of the least transparent industries out there. What’s the true cost of the industry in a given destination?

“Ultimately we need to have a cost-benefit analysis,” said Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation. “It would include how much money is spent locally, are residents actually thriving, and then maybe the single one that could really help us is, are the costs visible and accounted for — because this has been totally missing.”

What’s also baffling is that an industry relying on people-to-people exchanges has mostly omitted measuring success according to locals’ sentiments about tourism. Instead, most governments have remained focused on the incoming tourist’s satisfaction.

“How do we measure acceptability of tourism in a destination? We identify places and we don’t even know if these people welcome tourism because we go there with a bag of goodies,” Kepher-Gona said, referring to promises of resort jobs as an example. “We’ve not asked them if they have welcomed tourism.”

Denaye Hinds, managing director of Just a TAAD and a board member at the Center for Responsible Travel, said that destinations must count communities as stakeholders.

Sustainable Tourism’s Elitism

Can the travel industry pretend to build back better when the leadership of major sustainable travel organizations and foundations lacks diversity?

“In this part of the world where I come from, 90 percent is driven by the Western world. They’re investors or they run the businesses,” Kepher-Gona said of Kenya. This dominance is what Kepher-Gona believes created the misconception that sustainable tourism is an elite concept, further pushed by the tourism industry as a premium product.

Yet sustainable tourism is a management approach that balances people, planet and profits and is open to all. A big part of locals’ resistance to this idea can be traced to tourism’s inability thus far to remedy equity and inclusion issues in large parts of the world, all of which are rooted in a not-so-distant colonial past. It’s a power imbalance that Covid highlighted and a reality that South Africa tourism recently chose to confront.

“There is that savior mentality that wants to be carried forward,” Kepher-Gona said, noting that not everyone is accepting of diverse voices in the sustainable tourism space. Hinds agreed, adding that even Caribbean island nations tend to be more favorable to people coming from outside and looking in.

“It is the replication of colonial patterns that has led us to that point,” Sampson said, noting that The Travel Foundation and other groups such as Future of Tourism are taking a hard look at the need for a more inclusive discussion.

An Industry-Wide Reckoning

No one can deny that tourism has the power to change lives when sustainably managed and measured. But the converse is also true: the presence of mass tourism does not translate into a decline of poverty or a flurry of decent jobs and decent pay. We know this; Covid proved it.

Before the pandemic, some of the fastest growing tourism economies continued to show deepening inequality and unabated poverty levels. One could, again point to the root problem: tourism grew fast in a post-colonial setting in which reparations have been largely absent for Indigenous and communities of color, in turn reducing their role in tourism to low-wage jobs and a troubling dependency on the industry. This power imbalance had persisted in spite of increasing tourism tax revenues for governments and record profits for businesses.

At a global level and across its value chain — from destinations to hospitality, tour operators and sustainable tourism organizations — tourism can only claim functioning better when all stakeholders make room for local communities to enter the tourism supply chain as active, equitable participants in the industry, not as mere “projects” or “beneficiaries” of tourism.

A new range of metrics on the other side of recovery are absolutely necessary, alongside arrival and gross domestic product numbers. But first, there needs to be a major reckoning of the industry’s problematic equity imbalance, with every segment committing to a role in dismantling a broken model. Can tourism declare an emergency on that? Only then can the industry claim it is “building back better.”

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Tags: coronavirus recovery, sustainable tourism

Photo credit: The travel industry must come up with new ways to measure its success and impact, particularly on people and planet. Cyprien Hauser / Flickr Commons

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