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Tourism and the sustainability challenge

By Taleb Rifai
Secretary-General, World Tourism Organisation

It was at the Mexico Summit in 2012 when tourism was recognized for the first time by the G20 as “a vehicle for job creation, economic growth and development”. Indeed, there are few sectors in the global economy that are as strategically positioned as tourism to make a significant contribution to the major challenges of our times, by generating employment, raising people out of poverty, safeguarding the environment and fostering intercultural peace and tolerance. 

 Since achieving a historic milestone in 2012, of one billion people traveling the world in a single year for the first time, international tourist arrivals in 2013 surpassed expectations and grew 5%, rounding up the world´s total to a remarkable 1,087 million tourists. Tourist export earnings mirrored this 5% growth with a total of US$1.4 trillion in revenue.

 This growth course is expected to continue over the next decades. UNWTO forecasts international arrivals to rise 4% to 4.5% in 2014, and continue expanding up to 1.8 billion international tourists by 2030.

 The figures speak for themselves. Yet beyond the big numbers, the breadth and scope of tourism has taken on much greater significance today, as the world continues to face the critical challenges of uneven economic growth, mass unemployment, social inequity and climate change. Stimulating growth and building economic resilience will take center stage at the G20 Summit. I would like to recall that, as recognized by G20 leaders meeting in Mexico two years ago, tourism, one of the fastest growing and most resilient economic sectors of our times, can thus can make a major contribution to sustainability in all its three pillars – economic, social and environmental.


Tourism means inclusive development

 Tourism delivers one of the most effective tools to promote inclusive social development. This year´s World Tourism Day, centered on the very theme of tourism and community development, highlights tourism´s potential to build stronger, more resilient communities by engaging local populations in the tourism value chain and empowering individuals through education, capacity building and local governance.

 Today, over a billion people are traveling the world each year, representing a formidable global force for development. Each time we travel, use local transport at a destination or buy products from a local market, we are contributing to a long value chain that creates jobs, provides livelihoods, empowers local communities, and ultimately brings in new opportunities for a better future.


The sustainability paradigm

 Yet, without responsible management and careful planning, tourism can cause harmful impacts on destinations and societies – damaging the environment, disturbing social structures and disrupting cultural values. Sustainability must therefore be the unconditional paradigm of our sector.

 Embracing the concerns of people and planet entails linking the exponential growth of the tourism sector and its benefits with the safeguarding of the fragile natural assets and cultures of the destinations and societies which welcome visitors from around the world.

Indeed, the overarching challenge of sustainability is also a great opportunity. Tourism growth, if managed responsibly and ethically, can contribute not only to economic development but also towards more stable societies as well as the promotion and protection of natural and cultural resources. Furthermore, tourism contributes to regenerate lost traditions and activities and provides resources for conversation. 

 In fact, it is of tourism’s own interest to preserve unspoiled environments, promote vibrant cultures and welcoming host communities. Sustainable tourism thus enforces the mutual relationship of preserving environments while developing competitive tourism businesses to create wealth in destinations.

UN World Tourism Organization Author PicTaleb Rifai-Climate Change Section 

A cohesive effort

 The goal of sustainability will largely remain an ideal without strong collective efforts among the public sector, private enterprises and civil society. Governments play a definitive role in establishing tourism as a national agenda by implementing clear policies on the control and management of the sector in conjunction with all tourism stakeholders. Levelling the playing field allows stakeholders to increase their contribution to sustainable development while favoring the creation of jobs and wealth across the board.

 The G20 Summit in Australia offers an invaluable opportunity for world leaders to work within the UN framework transitioning into the post-2015 sustainable development agenda. In this new chapter, tourism represents an extraordinary opportunity to transform our shared goals of strong, sustainable and balanced economic growth and inclusive development into a reality.








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