Tourism: Committed to Preserving Life below Water

By Taleb Rifai

When we close our eyes and think about holidays, we dream of islands and seaside destinations, since such places have traditionally been depicted as the ideal locations for a perfect trip.

Indeed, the demands of tourism are strongest in coastal areas, particularly on islands. As a result, the world’s coasts have the greatest concentration of investment and facilities. As the tourism sector continues to expand—1.2 billion international tourists travelled the world in 2016—we need to address the challenge of achieving sustainable development in coastal and island destinations, particularly with regard to climate change and biodiversity, while maximizing the potential of tourism to contribute to the so-called 'blue economy' and create much-needed jobs.

Oceans are extremely sensitive and fragile, and land, fresh water and other natural resources are often scarce on coasts. This is due, in part, to the pressure of development and other activities in these areas, including tourism. It is, therefore, imperative that policy frameworks be strengthened and effective governance provided to support sustainable coastal tourism. Such sustainability can be further enhanced by integrating planning for tourism into a wider coastal management context, strengthening the assessment of tourism development projects, improving the monitoring and management of tourism enterprises, and pursuing greater benefits for conservation and local communities.

Concerted efforts from the public and private sectors, civil society and international development agencies are required to support sustainable forms of coastal tourism. With such efforts in place, tourism can be instrumental in protecting the unique marine and terrestrial biodiversity of coastal areas and islands. These natural resources serve as a key source of economic income and employment for local communities and provide necessary financial resources for the protection of coastal areas.

Without a thorough evaluation of the impact of tourism development on coastal areas, however, it will not be possible to identify appropriate policies and business strategies. In this regard, the International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories, operating under the auspices of the World Tourism Organization, can function as an effective instrument to monitor the environmental, social and economic impacts of tourism. Only by understanding the relationship between tourism and the environment can we improve existing sustainable tourism initiatives and ensure that tourism continues to work for both local populations and destinations as a whole.

Tourism could become one of the best tools to further the protection of oceans and seas globally, and the private sector could play a crucial role. Hotels could sponsor campaigns raising awareness about the fragility of the oceans and foster initiatives informing travellers about marine life and species such as dolphins, whales and coral reefs. In addition, civil society coalitions could form to promote sustainable practices in seaside areas. These are but a few examples.

The year 2017 has been declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. This is a unique opportunity to advance our efforts to place the tourism sector at the core of coastal management and ensure that the conservation and preservation of marine and terrestrial ecosystems are put at the service of the 'blue economy'.

Sustainable Development Goal 14 is aimed at conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. Its target 14.7 explicitly calls on the international community to "increase the economic benefits to small island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism" by 2030. The tourism sector has committed itself to working towards the protection of the seas and oceans so that future generations can enjoy them, while recognizing that the long-term economic potential of tourism depends on the development of sustainable practices, and ensuring that further human impact on marine ecosystems is minimal.

As we approach the Ocean Conference, to be held from 5 to 9 June 2017 in New York, we call upon the tourism sector to demonstrate its pledge to sustainable development through voluntary commitments, and to take the lead on this common challenge for humanity.