Why experts are considering sustainability rather than reigniting growth, to restore tourism.

After a lost year for tourism, governments seem compelled to restore the sector which was pivotal for economic growth. Closure of tourism businesses, and massive job losses, meant a reduction in income tax revenue for African countries heavily dependent on tourism. Should we therefore restore tourism at all costs, just not to lose out tourist dollars?

In her opening remark at the recently held Sustainable Tourism Africa Summit (STAS 2021), Judy Kepher Gona, a distinguished consultant for tourism boosted development, cautioned that “it is time for responsible restart of tourism, as the sector has strong connections with development in many parts of Africa. Only a responsible restart will meet commitments to steer tourism towards resiliency.”

As the trend to grow visitor numbers seems the need of the hour, country policies may be tempted consider the traditional growth model, as this will keep tourism businesses running. According to Prof. Ljubica Knezevic, statistics show that tourism has 6 times more extensive growth, than that of the global economy. This trend before the pandemic prompted questioning whether the sector could handle 600million more tourists in additional 5 years, as economic and social systems continue empowering tourism to grow and grow more.  Prof. Ljubica, who has worked on sustainability for 20 years, and is part of advisory team to European Parliament on relaunching transport & tourism in EU after COVID-19, is of the opinion that “Where we were was possibly the dead-end street, and we can do it smarter,” and further quips that “Even before the pandemic, we had the perfect storm scenario. The pandemic accelerated it.” She acknowledges that recovery strategies in front of us, even now with resilience building, will set up the growth model in essence, as tourism is a sector of extensive growth.

Sustainable tourism professionals who spoke at STAS2021, believe an alternative path to support orientation of tourism to sustainability is viable as the sector gears up for recovery.  The preoccupation with growth aside, it is quite feasible for a gradual sector recovery with non-negative profits. But if we need same levels of revenue as the pre pandemic period, then tourism recovery must bring to the equation the growth built in the industry, in the past 6 decades. A key highlight in the overall messaging at the conference, was that there is every possibility for sustainable tourism to be a reality in Africa. We summed this up, in 5 commitments that industry needs to make.

  • Challenge capitalist systems that drive tourism growth at the risk of environment and wellbeing of places. Tourism is largely defined by inequality on supply and demand sides. Prof. Ljubica Knezevic, University of Ljubljana
  • Enrich cultural events for resiliency. Diversification is very important when it comes to cultural products. Without diversification, Africa’s tourism stays far from its full potential.

Dr. Violet Cuffy, University of Bedfordshire

  • Address climate change. Rose Mukogo, Climate Friendly Registry, Zimbabwe
  • Think quality alongside sustainability and transporting them as value-based characteristics. Marco Giraldo, TourCert
  • Lead with purpose. Start by reconsidering how we do tourism, and how we evaluate its success. Industry must be open to degrowing tourism, think about centering host communities in tourism, and care more for sustainable future. Karla Boluk, University of Waterloo

We must make commitments to transform tourism to realize its sustainability potential. At the end of the day, “We are all in the tourism value chain and have a role to play to be agents of change,” says Dr. Ann Katherine Zschiegner, of The Long Run Foundation. In practical terms, we need not restore tourism to pre pandemic levels at all costs. Governments should curtail temptations to restore the sector to pre COVID 19 growth capacities, even with current economic disruptions.