We need more sustainable tourism, and we need it now

Sustainable travel may sound like an oxymoron, as traveling is frequently associated with a large carbon footprint, as well as the derogation of natural and cultural heritage. Personally, having visited over 50 different nations, I am painfully aware of my limited actions toward more sustainable travel. Simply reusing the towel another day is no longer enough to classify as a sustainable solution. The purpose of sustainable tourism is to make a positive impact on the destination and the local inhabitants without damaging the natural habitat or cultural heritage. It is about preserving and protecting the places we love to explore.

If you traveled this year, you are one in a billion, or more accurately 1.2 billion globetrotters traveling internationally. The tourism industry has exploded over the last decades and now accounts for 10% of the global GDP, making it the largest industry worldwide. In 1950, there were 25 million international tourists, in 2000 there were 674 million and by 2030 it is expected to grow to 1.8 billion travelers setting off to see the world.

The rising number of travelers increases our responsibility to safeguard and protect our planet. To raise awareness, the United Nations heralds 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Tourism is vital for many local and national economies, yet overcrowding and derogation of cultural heritage and ecosystems are changing the perceptions of the benefits of mass tourism. Spain is a prime example of a country struggling with mass tourism and has now begun to take initiatives to reduce visitors using quotas in its most popular destinations, a drastic last resort to combat the negative effects of tourism.

Yet, there is a silver lining. Several travel organizations, hotels and experience providers are taking actions towards sustainable solutions. The Brando, a luxury resort in French Polynesia, offers their guests a unique experience on a beautiful, private island. The resort reflects Polynesian lifestyle and culture whilst being environmentally sensitive and sustainable. The resort consumes renewable energy produced by the South Pacific sun and a biofuel power station fuelled by coconut oil. A seawater air conditioning system harnesses ocean water, pipes it to land and converts it to use. Rainwater is collected from roofs to supply the toilets and laundry service. During their stay, the guests are encouraged to engage with the animal life and explore the coral reefs in the area, in a sustainable manner. I don’t know about you, but I definitely wouldn’t say no to the opportunity to enjoy white sandy beaches, crystal blue water, and the Polynesians wildlife, whilst feeling good about contributing in a sustainable way.

The Brando Resort in French Polynesia, a sustainable luxury resort

The solutions to sustainable travel may not only be obviously ‘green’ solutions but rather tech-focused solutions. Tech solutions have the potential to tackle the entire value chain of the tourism industry by offering new approaches to travel planning, the experiences at the destination, the stay and the impact on the local community. An excellent example of this is Airbnb, who recently partnered with UNWTO to promote sustainable tourism. The environmental benefits resulting from a stay at an Airbnb (reduction in water usage, energy, and greenhouse gas emissions) is an additional benefit separate from the problem Airbnb initially intended to address. As a result, at Beta-i we believe that tech startups possess the ability to create more sustainable solutions as a byproduct of solving another issue. Furthermore, we believe that tech startups in other industries may be able to implement their solution in the tourism industry to address specific issues with travel and hospitality. An example of this is GreenNess, a tech startup who has applied to the tourism accelerator, The Journey. GreenNess aims to enhance accountability for people’s (green) choices when shopping, which can also be implemented with regards to people’s travel choices. However, there are currently limited solutions in sustainable travel tech (a quick google search will confirm this). If tourism continues to grow at the current speed, we also need sustainable travel solutions to accelerate at the same speed to avoid damaging prime destinations. This is what the Journey attempts to solve, whilst enhancing the experience.

I love to travel and believe traveling has immense positive impacts. Thus, I do not think the solution is to limit tourism. Instead, to enhance sustainable travel we need smart solutions entering the industry, and we need them fast. To address this urgency, Beta-i is teaming up with large players in the tourism industry, such as Pestana hotel group, Airbnb, and Turismo de Portugal to power The Journey. The Journey is a startup accelerator addressing the challenges of sustainable tourism, enhanced experience, and business optimization. The program attempts to empower the sustainable travel visionaries of today who blaze the trail to a better tomorrow and allow future generations to explore the world and all it has to offer.