The Future of Preservation is Sustainable Tourism

Jan 2, 2020 5:40 PM ET

Lately, there have been several news items about cultural heritage sites that are either under siege by tourists or the environment. Venice is under water. The Louvre is overrun by visitors seeking a selfie with the Mona Lisa. Pompeii needs saving after its just-completed extensive restoration. Machu Picchu is under threat from a planned international airport in the Sacred Valley. 

Preservationists decry the absence of proper management of visitors and the negative impact on local economies for certain heritage sites, and environmentalists point to deteriorating coral reefs and green spaces due to climate change. Activists encourage lower carbon forms of transportation and cleaning up the huge amount of plastic waste in our oceans and waterways. But, people love to travel.

According to The World Bank, international tourist arrivals have increased from 524 million in 1995 to 1.3 billion in 2017, and they are expected to reach 1.8 billion by 2030. The tourism industry represents 10 percent of the global gross domestic product (GDP) and approximately 11 percent of the world’s employment. Tourism is an important economic activity as well as being a source of education and enjoyment. But, up to 80 percent of tourism dollars can be siphoned away from local economies in some places. 

While there are no easy answers to the environmental, economic and social challenges faced by increasing demand for destination-based travel, it’s clear that the future of the world’s most important and cultural sites and tourism destinations should be considered through the lens of sustainable tourism.

But, what exactly is that?

Many writers and activists speak of responsible travel or sustainable travel, but the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

The UNWTO goes on to state that sustainable tourism should:

  • Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
  • Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
  • Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.
  • Maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.

Tourists can help reduce the impact of their travel in several ways:

  • Informing themselves of the culture, politics and economy of the communities they visit;
  • Anticipating and respecting local cultures;
  • Supporting the integrity of local cultures by favoring businesses that conserve cultural heritage and traditional values;
  • Supporting local economies by purchasing local goods and participating in small, local businesses; and
  • Conserving resources by seeking out businesses that are environmentally conscious, and by using the least possible amount of non-renewable resources.

Sustainable tourism then is not about discouraging travel and tourism. It’s about refocusing it and helping to ensure a balance between the obvious benefits to visitors and local communities with the inherent liabilities to the environment and the tourist destinations themselves. To the extent that preservationists can embrace the ideals of sustainable tourism so that important and iconic cultural sites can be open and sustainable for future generations, the world’s treasures will more enjoyable and lasting places to experience.

American Express has supported a number of sustainable tourism efforts over the years, including a project to relieve crowding and lessen the impact of tourism at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the development of a sustainable visitors center on Easter Island, the creation of interactive educational content for visitors to the historic district in Mexico City, and an economic impact study for the numerous museums and cultural sites along Route 66 in the western United States. Stay tuned for an announcement of our new sustainable tourism initiative in the new year. 

Portions of this blog post first appeared on Forbes.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

CSR Now! Is a weekly blog by Timothy J. McClimon, president of the American Express Foundation, designed to get at what's happening in corporate social responsibility today -- from the point of view of a corporate practitioner.

Rohan Ramsay
American Express
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