3 Essential Commitments for Sustainable Tourism - Earth Day 2023

up close image of earth
by Chris Adams
Head of Research & Insights

April 22 is Earth Day, and it serves as a reminder that travel and tourism are at the front lines of protecting and restoring our natural world. The increasing frequency and severity of both extreme weather and red tide events show how vulnerable tourism is to natural disasters. But more profoundly, our failure to protect the natural world is undermining the very foundations of our industry. Over the last 50 years, as tourism has grown and prospered, nearly 70% of the world’s natural habitats have been degraded or destroyed (World Wildlife Fund). These are the natural areas, wildlife and experiences that are the very basis of why people travel. 

zero carbon itinerary screenshot

Developing low or zero carbon travel itineraries, as in this example from Nelson/Tasman region of New Zealand, is one simple area of action on climate change.

Serious action on sustainability by our industry is no longer an aspiration, and it must be an urgent imperative.

Earth Day 2023 is a call to action for tourism, led by Destination Organizations (DMOs), to step up, moving from aspirational statements on sustainability to real, meaningful action - backed by time and budgets.  

Here are 3 Essential Areas of Action: 

1. Commit to Nature Positive Tourism                                                                     

nature positive tourism cover with leopard

Tourism should be leading advocates of not only meeting but exceeding the commitment from the 180+ nations at COP15 to protect and/or restore a minimum 30% of the planet for nature by 2030.                  

Action: Tourism and DMOs should actively support the protection and restoration of natural areas in their destination. This starts with responsible traveler messaging, for example: Care for Colorado or the Palau Pledge, but should extend to active support of habitat restoration and protection programs - ideally backed by funding (see #3 below). One example is Cape Cod’s "State of the Waters" Action Plan - partly funded by tourism, which includes significant wetlands restoration & water protection initiatives - along with expanded wastewater treatment for locals and visitors. 

Resources: The World Travel and Tourism Council has developed a guide for tourism organizations on how to support natural habitat protection and restoration efforts.

2. Invest in a Real Plan of Action on Climate Change

27 for cop 27 layered coveres

The March IPCC report highlighted that “climate change is speeding toward catastrophe” and that “the next decade is crucial” for action. If tourism does not act then governments will impose increasing regulations and taxes we may not agree with. For example, more than a dozen European countries have introduced environmental taxes and levies on both short and long haul flights. More are expected. 

Action: Many city and local governments and most major hotel and airline partners have climate change action plans. Engage with your partners and identify practical ways in which you can be actively involved. Critical areas of action include supporting airlines migration to electric aircraft or Sustainable Aviation  Fuels (SAFs), making public transportation obvious and easy for visitors to use plus working with government, businesses and events on eliminating single use plastics and/or reducing food waste.

Resource: Our white paper series "27 for COP27" has 27 practical areas of action for DMOs and their industry partners on climate change. Each area of action is illustrated with practical case study examples and resources  from around the world. 

3. Develop Funding for Sustainable & Regenerative Tourism

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is funding to support meaningful action on sustainability. As our work on "Funding for Tomorrow’ demonstrated, tourism generates an estimated $500-$800 billion in taxes worldwide - with less than 5% being reinvested back into tourism. A minute fraction of this is used to support sustainable tourism. This must change.  

funding for tomorrow layered covers

Action: Destinations should develop meaningful sustainable tourism funding from existing taxes, or if needed, new dedicated funding mechanisms. Examples of sustainable tourism funding include Iceland’s Tourist Site Protection Fund or New Zealand’s Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy. If our industry is serious about Regenerative Tourism, then directing significant resources into sustainable tourism is essential. Priorities areas for investment include natural area protection and restoration programs (see #1 above) and support of sustainable aviation solutions - a critical part of tourism reducing its carbon footprint (see #2). 

Resources: The "Funding for Tomorrow" series of reports, led by Miles Partnership, Civitas and Group NAO, identify best practices in tourism taxation and funding for DMOs - including funding for sustainable tourism initiatives. 

More Resources: 

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