Rio +20: Time to refocus on sustainable development through tourism

As delegates  gathered in Rio for Rio+20, twenty years on from the Earth Summit, I am in Brazil’s second city co-chairing the 6th International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations. There are delegates and speakers from 21 countries discussing what progress has been made in sustainable tourism since 1992.

We have heard some great examples from, among other places, Oman, Brazil and South Africa. Speakers have been open about their successes and the challenges they have had to face along the way. We have heard too about approaches that didn’t work. That is important, we learn more from failure than from success, our failures and those of others. Such candour is rare. It is one of the characteristics of our Responsible Tourism in Destinations conferences.
On Monday Eugenio Yunis Executive Vice-President of FIDETUR in Chile, and previously Director of Sustainable Tourism Development at UNWTO, shared his reflections on progress since 1992. His critique is worth listening to, it was well received by the conference. It will be available on line shortly.

Many delegates and speakers share the view that there has been too much time spent formulating lists of actions which contribute to sustainable tourism and too little effort put into implementation. The focus of this year’s RTD conference is on progress since 1992, the cup is clearly less than half-full. There is a broad consensus here that whilst there are a good number of initiatives which have made a difference, there needs to be a step change in the approach.

Speakers and delegates have been talking about the need to shift our focus from international arrivals and to recognise the importance of domestic tourism and the contribution which tourism makes to economic development, we need to focus on yield and spreading economic benefits more widely in communities and in destinations.

It is not enough to report and talk about outputs, on what is done, the money spent on technical assistance or days of training. We need to be assessing initiatives on their impacts, what changes on the ground, who benefits, by how much.

Several speakers have talked about the isolation of tourism, an isolated sector handled by a minor ministry, even where there is a tourism minister. There is an emerging consensus here that those involved in tourism – in business, in governance, in education and academia, in inter-governmental organisations or in NGOs – need to change our approach and to think and talk much more about sustainable development through tourism.

We need to break out of the silo and engage with national and local priorities for sustainable development, asking ourselves how tourism can contribute to sustainable development to benefit communities. We need to break out of the silo we put ourselves in and engage with other business sectors and with the whole of government.

Others have pointed to the lamentable absence of the sustainable tourism agenda in college and university courses in tourism and hospitality.

We shall be returning to the issue of Progress in Responsible Tourism at World Travel Market in November

Lawrence Reinisch and Hasiba Rehman from WTM Latin America are at the conference and there was enthusiasm for the inclusion of four panels on Responsible Tourism at the trade show which will be held in April 2013.

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Harold Goodwin