woman in white and black polka dot dress sitting on chair
Photo by Marco Testi on Unsplash

General Secretary of United Nations World Tourism Organization Zurab Pololikashvili, spoke to EKOIQ about sustainable tourism and the post-pandemic situation of tourism, the sector that is most affected by COVID-19.

Interview: Burcu Genç

What is the impact of mass tourism on the environment and carbon emissions? 

As a sector, tourism touches upon virtually every part of our societies. With UNWTO at the helm, the tourism sector has been working to fulfil its responsibilities and commitment to all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those related to climate action. Much progress has already been made since we first started addressing this issue more than 15 years ago, the first international tourism organization to do so. At the end of last year, as UNWTO took part in the UN Climate Summit COP25, we released a report on transport-related emissions in the tourism sector. This noted that emissions from tourism-related transport are set to account for 5.3% of all man-made CO2 emissions by 2030. However, emissions per passenger kilometre are on course to keep on falling as the sector embraces new technology and steps up its commitment to sustainability. Furthermore, the worldwide pause made necessary by COVID-19 gives us the chance to rethink our sector and accelerate progress towards sustainable tourism and advancing climate action.

After Covid-19, how do you think the future of tourism will be? Especially, to maintain a sustainable and resilient business for the communities whose economies are based on tourism basically?

Sustainability will no longer be one part of tourism but will at the heart of every part of the sector. We also expect tourism to become more diverse, both in response to changing consumer demand and as communities dependent on tourism work to increase their resilience. The growth of rural tourism, of cultural tourism and gastronomy tourism to name just a few parts of our sector, will have to ensure the benefits are spread as widely as possible while also enhancing resilience.

As per UNWTO’s report “Supporting jobs and economies through travel & tourism” article 18 under Preparing for Tomorrow; do you think digital tourism or in other words “Virtual Reality” technologies can be a future trend? As you know, generally third world countries’ economics is based on tourism and they simply don’t always have access to valuable digital technologies? How does the UNWTO plan to widen these opportunities in the mentioned areas?

Humans are social beings and we have an inbuilt desire to travel, see new places and enjoy different experiences. This is unlikely to change. Virtual reality experiences will continue to improve and will enhance and complement tourism, not replace it. At the same time, technology will be an effective way of opening the opportunities tourism can bring up to even more people, particularly those in the developing world. UNWTO Online Academy is an excellent example of this. Through online courses, people around the world are able to gain the qualifications needed to work in the tourism sector or to progress their careers. Similarly, UNWTO has seen strong interest in innovation within developing countries, and the ongoing digital transformation of our sector offers people the chance to create their own jobs.

Do you think eco-tourism can be an alternative over mass-tourism pos-COVID-19? And if it can reduce the quantity but increase the quality, also known as over-tourism? Do you have any data, analysis or future projections that compares mass-tourism and eco-tourism? 

Sustainable and environmentally-conscious tourism was on the rise prior to the pandemic, and this trend will continue as we restart tourism and grow back better and stronger. As we have noted, this pause offers us a chance to rethink and realign tourism, and this includes placing more emphasis on diversification. This way, when tourism does grow back – and it will – the benefits are spready widely and not just concentrated in a relatively few popular destinations. The emphasis must not be on labelling different types of tourism and dividing the sector up into ‘eco’ and ‘mass’ markets, for example. Rather, the emphasis should be on improving the whole of the sector, making it more sustainable at every level and every stage of the value chain.

What are the responses and feedback you received from the world’s tourism zones, business and from your partners? Regaining trust would be a response to the tourism business in 2021? 

This has been a shared challenge. On the back of it, the global tourism sector is united as never before. When UNWTO convened the Global Tourism Crisis Committee, we saw the determination of both governments, as represented by our Member States, and the private sector, to work together to get the world moving again. Restoring trust was identified as a key component of this. If people feel safe, they will travel again. And this will have an avalanche effect. Tourism, as the ultimate person-to-person sector, promotes solidarity and understanding and establishes trust and confidence. In short, tourism’s recovery can build the essential foundations – trust, solidarity cooperation – needed for recovery and growth.

This interview published on EKOIQ’s 89th volume (June-July 2020) in Turkish.

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