Sharing benefits and burdens of tourism in the era of climate crises

Initiatives from Latin America

[Translate to english:] Strand aus Vogelperspektive

Tourism is both, a cause and a victim of climate change. However, sustainable tourism is a promising way to achieve more climate justice for communities that are severely affected by climate change. One region notably increased its efforts driven by abundant biodiversity and its vulnerability to climate change: Latin America. This article sheds light on the Travel Foundation and Cuidadores de Destinos, both initiatives dedicated to fostering climate justice through tourism in South America and the Caribbean.

Putting communities first

The Travel Foundation collaborates with various stakeholders to foster responsible tourism, addressing environmental challenges, and promoting social and economic development in local communities. To understand the potential of tourism in promoting "Climate Justice" opportunities, the charity is currently producing a report together with partners such as Cuidadores de Destinos, Tourism Cares, the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), Expedia, and the University of Waterloo. The report is scheduled for publication this spring and underscores how climate change exacerbates existing inequalities in destinations by putting additional pressure on already stressed local resources, which are used by visitors and residents alike: water, energy and food security. “We have been listening to people from all corners of the globe where the needs of the tourism sector and visitors have often been prioritised at the expense of residents and the environment. We also have cases where tourism development and growth has exposed the host community to additional costs and risks,” says Ben Lynam from the Travel Foundation. Examining the impact of touristic activities in Latin America on human rights and livelihoods, the report illustrates cases where the economic interests take precedence over the needs of locals and the nature.

This creates challenges for many Latin American countries that are heavily reliant on tourism, but at the same time more vulnerable to climate change impacts: “Those economies will have to deal with mounting costs from disruption, adaptation and decarbonisation. As we showed in our report Envisioning Tourism in 2030 & Beyond, Latin America is behind other regions when it comes to the infrastructure that is needed for decarbonisation. While Europe, for example, is expanding its rail networks for high-speed trains places like the Caribbean are still particularly dependent on long haul, climate polluting travel.” A just transition, focusing on redistributing resources for adaptation and resilience can mitigate negative impacts. Such an approach needs to avoid extractive practices in favour of regenerative ones. Thus, it strengthens local communities to respond to climate challenges and other social and environmental injustices. The tourism sector offers a unique opportunity to achieve climate justice, says Lynam. “However, this means putting communities first and supporting their leadership”, he adds. Tourism allows for investment, partnerships, and the valorization of local knowledge and cultural assets like no other industry. Moreover, tourism's cross-cutting nature can catalyze wider change through shared supply chains and infrastructure. “For instance, introducing an electric vehicle (EV) charging network for visitors will also enable a faster and cheaper EV transition for the wider economy and residents. It’s easy to see how, if done well, tourism can promote greater equity and fairness.”

A good place to live will be a good place to visit

Cuidadores de Destinos is a consulting company that aims to empower Latin American destinations to achieve more climate justice on their own: “We are creating the conditions for local communities to manage tourism development in their home regions themselves. This way, the communities create a future worth living in their regions. This also benefits tourism: A good place to live will be a good place to visit,” says Marco Lucero, co-founder of Cuidadores de Destinos. Destination Management Organisations (DMO) are crucial to establish governance and shift resources towards climate-just tourism. However, the diversity of DMOs in Latin America creates challenges for advancing sustainable tourism. As there is no standardized model, the importance of DMOs has so far been barely recognised by both the public and private sectors. "A holistic approach is needed. Tourism is just one of many tools to tackle future challenges and achieve climate justice. The sector needs to diversify its offer, reduce dependence on long-haul flights, prioritise flights and airports that can supply aircraft with SAF and promote regional tourism. To achieve this, however, we need a standardized model of destination management organisations. Currently, DMOs are still managed differently from region to region, with a variety of budgets and competences.  As a result, many tourism stakeholders are not even aware of them,” Lucero points out. Using creative and innovative methods, the organisation invites communities to create sustainable tourism in their home region. The involvement of vulnerable groups is particularly important here. “For instance, we have involved children as a key part of creating a municipal tourism plan in Rapa Nui (Easter Island), a highly vulnerable island to the effects of climate change.” Further, transparency, accurate measurement, and honest reporting is crucial – also, to avert greenwashing, Marco Lucero states:  “Sustainability is for everyone. We must encourage all companies, regardless of their initial state, to progress on the sustainable path. It is not necessary for them to be climate neutral from the beginning. This would only foster greenwashing. Instead, transparency and reporting help to showcase and celebrate successful actions, no matter how small.”

Climate action in tourism: from niche topic to status quo?

Tourism in Latin America has a significant impact on climate justice – in the good and in the bad direction. It can bring economic benefits, but sustainable management is essential that thoroughly considers all impacts and prioritizes the well-being of the local population over tourism interests. Well-organized, professional DMOs are key to implement sustainable tourism that puts the local communities at the center and adapts touristic offers to their needs. Further, regulations for the tourism sector must set a frame to guarantee climate protection in all fields of touristic appearance and foster investments in expensive infrastructure needed for both, adaptation and mitigation. However, mandatory climate protection in tourism remains a niche that is hampered by a lack of global coordination, but regulatory trends are gradually pushing industries such as the tourism sector to reduce emissions. New regulations and ESG reporting requirements in the EU, USA and elsewhere make it increasingly necessary for businesses to manage and reduce their carbon footprints. Organisations like the Travel Foundation therefore urge tourism stakeholders to join the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, to get up to speed on climate action before regulation and public opinion mandates it.