Incorporating More Equity into Sustainability, and More Sustainability Into Tourism

Tourism, as Jonathan Tourtellot likes to say, is the fire that either cooks your food or burns your house down. More people are traveling than ever before in human history. Tourism comprised $7 trillion of global GDP in 2016, representing more than 10 percent of the world’s economy. One in ten jobs in the world is related to tourism. Given this increased demand for travel, how can we both ensure that local communities share in tourism’s benefits, and protect tourist destinations from being overrun?

Over the past few months, Reinvent has interviewed a number of sustainability experts about their visions and recommendations for sustainable tourism, and for sustainability more broadly. If there is one through line in these conversations, it’s that holistic and equitable sustainability is never a happy accident. To make tourism work better for destinations and for communities, we need to make a concerted effort to change our policies and behaviors.

Making Sustainability Equitable

Julian Agyeman, a professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University, discussed the demonstrated links between a society’s inequality, advertising revenues, and carbon footprint. Societies with more inequality tend to have higher advertising revenues, because people want to keep up with the Joneses. This leads to increased consumption, which generates greater carbon footprints. In other words—inequality is the enemy of sustainability. This also implies that the better that societies treat their people, the better they treat the environment.

Agyeman questions whether it’s desirable, or even possible, to have environmental sustainability without an equitable and just society. “I could envisage us having very strong green legislation and legislating for environmental protection and cleanliness,” said Agyeman, “but if our society wasn’t more socially just, with a greater commitment to equity, would it really be sustainable?” He thinks that cities need to do a better job of facilitating interaction across different groups of people. “The city of the future, the successful city of the future, will see itself as a shared space, and will develop policies, plans, zoning approaches, and visions that take into account the need to create these spaces of engagement where we are in the presence of openness,” said Agyeman, citing contact theory as evidence that such interaction could help facilitate more equitable and sustainable societies.

Agyeman believes that the sharing economy has a ways to go in terms of embracing equity. “Very few people I talk to in the sharing economy really have come to grips with this idea of difference,” Agyeman said. As an example, he shared a story about being asked to consult for a company that designed a bike sharing service without considering lower-income and minority communities, and later wondered why they had so few users from these communities. “It’s very difficult once you have a bike share scheme that is up and running to then retrofit social justice and equity as an afterthought,” Agyeman said. “I want to see more cities helping out, perhaps through things like platform cooperatives, to create platforms for minorities and low income groups to develop sharing enterprises themselves.”

Nikki Silvestri, Founder and CEO of Soil and Shadow, shares Agyeman’s conviction that equity and sustainability can’t be separated. She believes the very concept of sustainability is distorted when equity is taken out of the equation. “The way I learned the definition of sustainability was that it was ecology, economy and equity together,” said Silvestri. “That it was a three-pronged definition and that taking one of those three pieces means that it’s not sustainability that you’re talking about. You’re talking about something else.”

On the topic of the sharing economy and sustainability, Silvestri emphasized the importance of design and intention. “The more exposure that I’ve had to the gig economy and the sharing economy,” said Silvestri, “it’s for folks that were not super on the edge anyway, folks that maybe were lower-middle class who are trying to get to middle-middle or upper-middle class, who have time, who have assets, who don’t have a ton of debt, who are then able to get access to existing infrastructure because they have a bank account.” Silvestri questioned whether the sharing economy should work for everyone—farming doesn’t work everywhere, she pointed out—and argued in favor of viewing the sharing economy as part of a “suite of economic development solutions.”

Making Tourism Sustainable 

Megan Epler Wood, the director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Harvard School of Public Health, believes in the potential of the sharing economy to incorporate a greater number of people into the tourism industry. “The sharing economy is creating a greater distribution of revenue to more individuals who were never in the tourism economy before,” said Epler Wood. “That could not be contested. The question is, is that economically beneficial? I would argue yes, because many of these people are doing it on a part time basis. That’s always good for economic development if you can augment your income and also put that towards, say, your children’s education or something.”

But everyone know that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and this certainly can hold true for tourism—especially when the tourism doesn’t meet certain sustainability benchmarks. Epler Wood argues that tracking systems are one of the most critical and undervalued components of sustainable tourism. “If you are not using an IT system that’s effective and encourages people to use it, then you won’t have the metrics,” said Epler Wood. “Then you are absolutely unable to manage those sustainability indicators.” Epler Wood believes that rethinking the distribution of tourism income is another important part of making tourism more sustainable. If the majority of revenue dollars from tourism are going to market these designations, and not benefiting local communities, then that is neither sustainable nor equitable.

According to Epler Wood, filtering some of the tourist demand to home sharing platforms can mitigate the need for new hotels. Jonathan Tourtellot, the CEO of Destination Stewardship, thinks that this potential is particularly salient in rural locales. “We’ve got rural areas that people are leaving because there aren’t enough ways to make money now there,” said Tourtellot. “Tourism is one way to help them succeed.” He shared his ideas for making tourism more sustainable, including certification program for high-volume travelers, and a governing body invested in the long-term wellbeing of both destinations and local communities. “The recommendation that we have been making—and by we, I say not just me but other people working in sustainable tourism and sustainable destinations—is that you need some kind of entity that looks at the whole, and it’s got government at the table, but it can’t just be government, it can’t be all political,” said Tourtellot.

We need to take the real dangers of overtourism into account before it’s too late, Tourtellot argued, and acknowledge the strain that tourism can cause on popular destinations. He used as an example the Greek islands of Santorini and Rhodes, in which the demand for services like sewage treatment, power, and water, skyrockets during peak tourist seasons. Understandably, locals don’t want to be stuck paying this bill. Tourtellot believes that the primary antidote to overtourism is incentivizing longer stays and deeper travel. If we want to preserve today’s most beloved destinations for generations to come, there isn’t much time to waste.