Can tourism be sustainable in the pandemic age?

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UNDP Kyrgyzstan’s Aid for Trade program is working to develop a tourism industry in places like Alatay Lake. Photo: UNDP Kyrgyzstan.

Over the last few years, Kyrgyzstan has been working on making itself a destination sought after by travelers. The idea is to appeal to adventure seekers, not just those interested in a trip around the countryside. The natural environment is stunning, and the landscapes provide spectacular and intense hiking, rafting and mountaineering possibilities. They have not been promoted the way other more popular “adventure” destinations have been, but throw in historical caravanserai, equestrian traditions and a unique cuisine and you have quite a destination.

Tourism’s share of the country’s 2019 GDP was 5 percent: the export of services amounted to US$613 million, imports of $379 million. And this importance of tourism dollars is a trend across the world.

In 2019, tourism generated seven percent of global trade, employed one in every ten people and — due to many interconnected industries — provided livelihoods to millions of people. In the Europe and Central Asia region alone, tourist spending exceeds 20 percent of GDP in a number of economies, including Albania, Georgia and Montenegro, and 10 percent in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Overall, these economies are highly vulnerable to the collapse in global tourism that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic. Estimates say that international tourist numbers could decline by 58 to 78 percent in 2020. In countries that rely on tourism, tens of thousands have lost their jobs across all sectors of the industry. Many of these are small and medium sized business owners, often family-run and the only source of income.

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(L) Hikers along the Via Dinarica, Photo: Via Dinarica ; A new solar boat dock in Perast, Montenegro. Photo: Risto Božović / UNDP Montenegro

Turning the region into a destination

Around the region, countries have been working to develop tourism industries. For many of these areas, lacking farmable land or regular employment opportunities, tourism is a way to bring visitors to the region and develop small businesses. The development of rural tourism in particular is seen as a way to bring down the level of rural poverty and pave the way for other avenues of development.

For instance, in Montenegro — a destination for both skiing and beaches — tourism development and the push for renewable solutions are progressing together. UNDP’s “Towards carbon-neutral tourism” has brought more environmental-friendly practices into an industry that has been growing exponentially, and potentially harmfully. This includes creating infrastructure for electric car road trippers and expanding an ECO Certified accommodation program. In Budva, a hugely popular seaside destination, the largest resort is committed to renewable practices for its property, from solar power operated water heaters to organic cleaning and hygiene products. This mirrors the EU Eco label, drawing more business from European tour agencies.

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Sveti Stefan is popular destination in Montenegro. UNDP is working on no carbon tourism solutions in places along this highly-visited coast. Photo: Risto Božović / UNDP Montenegro

Another key factor in the region’s tourism models is to promote and maintain the economic, social, cultural, natural and human resources of these local areas. The Via Dinarica, which stretches across seven countries and territories in the Western Balkans, has been a successful example of this type of initiative.

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Slavojka Puhalo in the kitchen of her guesthouse, along the Via Dinarica in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Adnan Bubalo / UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina

While the concept of a thriving tourism industry is inviting and has been provided new opportunities for many regions, true success is not without challenges.

Beauty alone does not suddenly make a destination welcoming to visitors; there is also the necessary infrastructure to accommodate visitors in safe and healthy way. New business owners need to develop professional skills in line with international tourism expectations. And producers or businesses must ensure their popular products and services are consistent and can expand with growing interest.

In Georgia, for example, some regional governments — with support from local citizens –set sustainable tourism as a priority to improve their regions. Being famous for its wine and hospitality, this seemed a natural fit and UNDP supported the initiative with trainings, business development and municipal support. The municipality worked on improving roads, waste collection and upgrading a small local airport.

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The vineyards at a guesthouse in the Racha region of Georgia. Photo: Karen Cirillo / UNDP Eurasia

With beauty comes risks

A reliance on tourism as an economic booster has potential risks. An increase in visitors, especially to natural habitats, can lead to potential environmental degradation. But the need to be protected can clash with profit ideals.

Overall, tourism is a highly volatile industry. It can be affected by natural disasters (floods, hurricanes), conflict or instability, and health restrictions, as we’ve seen most recently with the Coronavirus pandemic.

This is why the idea of sustainable tourism is so important. “Sustainable” is not just about being environmentally friendly, although finding ways to be green and add value is part of it. It’s also about being resilient — to shocks, to nature, to changing interests.

The most recent shock — COVID-19 — has pushed countries to examine their tourism industries, not only for survival’s sake, but also for a more sustainable future.

Looking forward, resiliently

In the immediate term, many countries are shifting towards promoting domestic tourism, while others are using this time to introduce different technological and innovative approaches.

Armenia has been trending and the number of tourists visiting was increasing every year, to 1.9 million in 2019. The global tourism freeze stopped that flow, bringing only 311,000 visitors the first trimester of 2020, and an estimated $700 million loss in potential income. But it also affected its own citizens’ ability to travel outside the country. Still interested in exploration, Armenians started to rethink their booking and travel preferences, discovering new places inside their own country and boosting domestic tourism.

UNDP’s Gastro Yards project instantly became popular and on-demand spots for visitors. Bringing together beautiful nature, tasty authentic rural food, welcoming hosts and unforgettable wine, the Gastro Yards across the country saw 60,000 visitors in only four months. UNDP helped ensure these destinations are safely operating during the pandemic.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, places along the Via Dinarica similarly shifted to the domestic market, encouraging visitors with lodging vouchers and special programs.

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Slavojka Puhalo and her husband don’t have the chance to welcome as many guests these days. Photos: Sulejman Omerbašić / UNDP Bosnia and Herzegovina

Other countries, who have been slowly developing their unique niche in the tourism landscape, are focusing their energies on keeping that progress moving forward while waiting for restrictions to lift.

Montenegro, which saw 20 percent of their GDP come from tourism in 2019, expect to see a 70 percent drop in revenues this year. In June, it received an emergency loan worth $83.7 million under the IMF’s Rapid Financing Instrument, partly to help weather the economic disruption caused by the collapse of tourism. The low carbon tourism work has set a standard in the country though, and it seems the hospitality industry is ready to embrace the challenge to come back better, greener and more responsible.

In Kyrgyzstan, UNDP’s Aid for Trade program was working with the government to develop the new tourism sector, by focusing on high added value experiences and green, sustainable practices. Some operators are choosing to wait until they can sell tours to foreign tourists again, estimating that it will still be more profitable. In the meantime, one agency is creating a 3D map of the country to raise the interest of potential tourists, and the Ministry of Tourism is actively working to restore the sector with preferential credit resources for entrepreneurs.

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This kind of direct economic support is a call that also came from the Secretary General in his note on tourism industry recovery. He also notes it is a time to recalibrate the industry so that it is more safe, equitable and climate-friendly. It needs to be “informed by a human-centred approach that puts rights, international labour standards and psychological wellbeing of workers at the heart of economic, social and environmental recovery strategies.” While the industry does cater to clients, it cannot be at the expense of those who deliver the experience.

Ironically now, after months of lockdowns and restrictions, people are itching to get out and see something fresh. Hopefully, countries around the region can whet their appetite so that when flights resume and borders re-open, countries around the region can once again welcome visitors and thrive again economically.

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