Promises and Progress: Sustainable Tourism Development and Rio+20

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‘Despite the presence of scores of heads of state, Rio+20, as the summit is known, was expected to produce the weakest imaginable commitment to greening the global economy’ - The Economist June 2012

Not the most optimistic of starts to the third global summit on sustainable development…

Why the doom and gloom? As followers of the sustainable development agenda will know, skepticism and fatigue have plagued these international negotiation processes for many years. Whilst progress has been demonstrated on many fronts since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the meetings themselves can be reduced to endless semantic debate on terminology and tit-for-tat fidgeting - producing weak final documents.

Rio+20 was no exception.Has tourism turned sustainable? (Flickr Creative Commons, StormeTX)

The final Outcome document emerging from the last world summit (the 2002 World Summit of Sustainable Development) outlined five, rather weak commitments specifically for the tourism sector. Ten years on – has there been any progress?

Results are mixed, and interesting. At the national level, there has been remarkably little progress. A country benchmarking exercise I published in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’ samples 15 signatory nations to evaluate how far they have delivered on the commitments and reveals three key trends.

Developing Countries make the most progress
Firstly, in terms of improving capital investment, entrepreneurship, job creation, quality of life, and domestic expenditure on tourism – developing countries have the edge (notably; Mongolia, Ghana and Tanzania). Lower initial baselines are to some extent responsible for this progress but it is nonetheless commendable.

South Africa, whilst not included in the study sample should also be applauded for its pioneering path to integrate sustainable or ‘responsible’ tourism into the very core of the sector. It was the first country in the world to include Responsible Tourism as government policy in 1996 and is releasing a new, comprehensive National Strategy for Responsible Tourism with action plans to guide implementation and mechanisms to measure progress.

Many countries were better off 10 years ago
Secondly, the benchmarking study reveals most of the sample recorded degradation of natural and cultural resources, increasingly negative attitudes of their residents towards tourism, minimal improvements in approaches environmental sustainability, and declines in the quality and quantity of local suppliers.

Most alarming is the data that shows growing resentment among local populations towards tourism (WEF 2011), in direct correlation to the increasing ratio of tourists to locals (World Bank 2011). In other words, host country citizens are less engaged and seeing fewer of the benefits of the tourism industry than they were a few years ago.


Graph published in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’ 2012, data sourced WEF, UN and World Bank

Economic gain at the expense of sustainability
Thirdly, almost all countries record growth in tourism’s contribution to GDP, and growth in the number of arrivals. However, this has not translated into job creation which has declined in half the countries of this sample. Hardest hit were the more developed economies of Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Spain, where employment cuts have been well reported in the last few years due to the economic crisis. Undoubtedly, the global financial crisis affected the industry very badly, but as there are signs of economic recovery in most destinations, it is not unreasonable to expect that jobs, and social and environmental indicators should follow suit. They don’t.

As signatories to the summit’s international commitments, governments are ultimately responsible – but what of the role of business, and consumers for that matter? 

The private sector
This year, media commentators reported a buzz around the rigorous reporting on sustainable development initiatives carried out by global firms. There was a dramatically increased presence of corporations at Rio+20 compared to the Earth Summit and most were taking a strong position for sustainable development. A coalition of institutional investors, led by Aviva, a big British insurer (with US$2 trillion in asset management), even lobbied governments to pressure companies into providing regular reports on their environmental and social performance.

At the International Centre for Responsible Tourism’s 6th Annual Conference on June 21st, delegates heard from the big guns in the European tourist industry including Tui Travel, Virgin Holidays, Thomas Cook and Kuoni, all of whom are working to put sustainability at the heart of what they do. TUI, the world’s largest leisure travel company with 30 million customers and operations in over 180 countries, has integrated sustainability into the core of its business – for the mass market – and not just for eco-fanatics.

Launched in 2007, a set of performance standards for suppliers known as ‘TravelLife’ was agreed in a multi-stakeholder process and rolled out through TUI’s vast supply chain. Notably, social issues are weighted with as much importance as environmental ones. So far over 10% of suppliers have been audited, and on June 21st Product and Purchasing Director Gary Wilson pledged that by 2014, 100% of their suppliers would attain TravelLife status.

Tourists remain price-conscious for now. A recent TripAdvisor poll in the US found that 71 percent of respondents say they plan to make more eco-friendly choices in the next 12 months compared to 65 percent that did so in the past 12 months. In the UK, the Association of British Tour Operators (ABTA) finds that the social and environmental impact of tourism is an increasingly prominent concern in the minds of consumers. Whilst 17% of respondents agreed that they would pay more for a greener company and travel experience, 37% disagreed. They do feel, however, that responsibility lies more with the travel companies to ensure that their holidays help the local people and economy. 

Until this behavior changes, responsibility remains with businesses and the governments that regulate them. As the World Bank Group we already play a role in supporting investment in new hotels and tourism infrastructure, and work with governments to improve the investment and business climate for responsible operators to grow – but more needs to be done, especially in countries where tourism is - or is set to be - a key driver of growth.

What role should governments play in setting the agenda, and what can we, and other international players do to support them and the private sector?

The benchmarking study and further information can be found in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’

Audio presentations and debate can be sourced at the Rio+20 Responsible Tourism in Destinations (RTD) Legacy site

More resources available at

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