More than two years have passed. Where are the new metrics tourism desperately needs? How will this industry actually treat nature and communities as equal beneficiaries? Is tourism ready to demolish its neocolonial mindset? Those are the pressing questions facing the industry. For now, it’s mostly talk and no walk.
Alongside tourism’s biggest bounce-back yet since 2020, sending consumers rushing back to overcrowded destinations, the travel industry continues to dig for ways to avoid a return to business-as-usual — and it is doing so by pushing forward the concepts of sustainability and regeneration.
But rather than espousing nebulous principles that few consumers understand and for which few businesses are offering solutions or acting on beyond words, global tourism must rethink its influential role as a business: avoid a blanket use of “sustainability,” embrace locally-led and locally-designed solutions, define new success metrics, undo the problematic entanglement between tourism and conservation, and do away with the western mindset that plagues the industry.
Those are the recommendations of Dr. Mordecai Ogada on how tourism must “build back better.” A Kenyan carnivore ecologist and the co-author of The Big Conservation Lie, Ogada will be presenting at Skift Global Forum in New York City this month.
“Sustainability is being used even in scientific literature like a technical term, and we forget that it is just a subjective adjective; it’s like loveability—are you loveable? That subjectivity creates a problem, especially for tourism,” Ogada told Skift.
Ogada’s initial encounter with the tourism industry’s extractive powers took place when he was the manager of the Kenya Wildlife Trust in 2008, a then-non profit governmental organization formed in partnership with luxury safari camping brands. It’s a page-turning story he shares in his book.
Today, Ogada’s work with Survival International focuses on the impact of conservation activities on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in Africa, bringing a boots on the ground, no holds barred perspective at a turning point for the tourism industry coming out of the pandemic. In the next decade, travel and tourism’s annual growth rate is projected to reach 5.8 percent — more than double the estimated growth rate for the global economy. But global inequality and social pushback are also at their highest.
Through the example of tourism’s undue influence on Africa’s host communities and their livelihoods — from conservation practices to “artistic impressions” a-la-Lion King suited to lure western travelers — Ogada lays out key principles that must guide global tourism’s path forward as an influential industry.
1. Tourism Must Avoid “Sustainability” Unless Locally Defined
Sustainability has long suffered from elitism, but if the industry is to move towards a more positively impacting form of business, it must take into account local solutions as to what sustainability means for a specific host community.
“Someone might think a guy herding his goat is destroying the environment,” said Ogada, “but the same person saying that thinks a tourist flying from New York with a huge carbon footprint to come and sit here and see elephants and drink champagne that’s refrigerated, is sustainable.”
This subjective nature of sustainability is also what drives some of the nonsensical solutions that have emerged, such as carbon offsets, Ogada said, adding that sustainability therefore should be avoided unless expressed by the person in situ.
Tourism must work around what locals determine is their sustainable way of life, and tourists should be prepared to see locals in their traditional environment because ultimately, tourism as a business is not a sustainable endeavor.
“It’s been pushed for so long that tourism is a viable alternative to agriculture or other livelihoods, and then the pandemic hit,” said Ogada. “What we can learn from that is that tourism is like haute couture, it’s fashion that changes every day and it’s very vulnerable to a pandemic or to a financial crash. Tourism is a good livelihood, but it should be additional, not alternative.”
This is an excerpt from an article by Lebawit Lily Girma, originally published by Skift.