Tourism & COVID-19: Reassessing our Travel Through a Responsible Tourism Lens

In recent months our world has experienced unprecedented changes due to COVID-19, with global economies and societies evaluating how best to proceed and reorganizing broader structural systems that underpin our everyday lives. As part of these rapid changes, global tourism has emerged as one of the most affected industries due to its consolidation of smaller travel, hospitality, and service industries. Traditionally, tourism is a driver of job growth, accounting for 1 in 10 jobs worldwide and delivering 1 in 5 of all new jobs in recent years. However, the closure of thousands of hotels, flight stoppages, and restrictive restaurant policies have had a tremendous influence on global employment rates. 

As tourism re-starts next year the industry will be examining and planning different ways to move forward. Some tourism experts are predicting a quick boom in travel as a response to the international lockdown. Although this forecast will be perceived as a respite from a difficult spring and summer, a travel boom will potentially re-agitate many of the systemic problems that are foundational to the current tourism industry. By using this time to reassess our tourism practices and organization, actors in the industry can employ a responsible tourism lens to facilitate sustainable growth and mitigate the detrimental impacts of ill-planned tourism. In particular, responsible tourism can be exercised through three main goals. 

Economic Growth: Responsible tourism emphasizes broader and the more even distribution of economic benefit within a host community. In particular, the economic frameworks of responsible tourism allow small producers to increase their income, while employing community members with fair wages. The outcome of these initiatives create greater financial security, intergenerational upward mobility, and growth of positive health indicators. In the event of a tourism recession, community members continue to have access to food, education, and shelter as a result of their increased financial stability. 

Environmental Stewardship: Responsible tourism providers and broader community initiatives frequently prioritize the protection of local ecosystems and environmentalism. Environmental stewardship often results in the reduction of large-scale infrastructure projects, pollution, and resource waste in responsible tourism locations. This is especially important in rural areas, as increased construction and pollution often negatively impact the livelihoods of local communities. Environmental stewardship facilitates the continued use of traditional sustenance and agricultural practices, access to clean water, and sustainable energy sources. In the long-term these practices allow rural communities to reduce the cost of living and thus dependence on precarious revenue flows from the tourism industry. 

Social Wellbeing: One of the most important goals of the responsible tourism movement is to generate and protect the social and cultural wellbeing of host communities. This can be facilitated through a variety of initiatives ranging from capacity building, training, and education to the protection of rights for indigenous peoples, women, and other marginalized groups. The diverse programming available through responsible tourism operations has been shown to reduce violence, increase cultural pride, and financially benefit diverse members of each community. As many responsible tourism providers around the world are creating opportunities to support and advocate for the social wellbeing of local communities during COVID-19, large scale tourism companies have laid off exorbitant amounts of workers with little recourse. Unfortunately, these actions will have long term detrimental effects- potentially shaping the violence, crime, and poverty within tourism dependent locations for decades. By prioritizing social wellbeing in tourism development agendas, host communities can better protect themselves from these unintended negative consequences and future disruptive events. 

Global tourism is often the first industry to demonstrate economic decline in response to world events. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is not the first incident to negatively affect the industry, and it will not be the last. Practicing responsible tourism can help decrease the negative effects associated with boom and bust economies, while increasing stability in both rural and urban communities across the world. Most importantly, responsible tourism supplies actors with greater agency, providing them with the capability to react, plan, and recover from extreme economic shifts. As the world returns to travel in the coming months, it is important for tourists to think about where they will visit and why, as your financial contribution in the next year will be one of extreme importance to communities around the world. By using this time to reassess our tourism practices, travellers and tourism operators can employ a responsible tourism lens to mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19 and facilitate global recovery from this unprecedented crisis.

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