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Sustainable tourism in the post-pandemic era: lessons learnt and new directions from UNESCO

Sustainable tourism in the post-pandemic era: lessons learnt and new directions from UNESCO

On this year’s UN International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction (13 October), sustainable tourism is on its way to recovery and innovation in the post-COVID-19 era.

Feng Jing's photo

By Dr Feng Jing

Chief of Culture Unit, UNESCO Bangkok

The COVID-19 pandemic has had grave impacts on our regional and global economies, not least of all to the cultural industries and tourism sector. In 2021, UNESCO and partnering UN agencies conducted several studies to assess financial losses in the global culture and tourism sector – and the numbers alone illustrate the terrible situation we all went through together. 

To provide just a sampling, in 2020, 89 per cent of UNESCO World Heritage sites were closed. In 2021, 50 per cent of these remained so. This contributed to an 87 per cent drop of income in airline and hotel businesses. We also saw a 30 per cent drop in GDP of many Pacific islands whose economies rely largely on tourism, while 78 per cent of World Heritage sites globally reported similar serious impacts to their local communities.

Statistics of impact of COVID-19 to the cultural sector and tourism sector

It was not only World Heritage sites that were closed during the height of the pandemic, but also another 104,000 museums across the world, accounting for an 80 per cent income loss for them, as well as a rise of unemployment, especially among youth with entry-level jobs. This condition applies also to other cultural and creative industries, such as film, art fairs, artist royalties, concerts – all dropped over 60 per cent. Just as sobering, 12 per cent of all artists in the world quit being artists altogether.

We can say that all these things happen when you take people away from cultural places, or when tourism is suddenly missing from the local economy.

But this is not the first time in history that heritage sites or major travel destinations have been in trouble. In fact, valuable heritage sites have endured threats and damages, both natural and human made, for decades. Catastrophic events, such as the earthquake and attending typhoon that struck the Central Philippines in 2013, and the arson of South Korea’s Namdaemun, or Great South Gate, in 2008, and even recent bushfires in Australia – all are vivid reminders of our constant need to prepare for, and to recover from such events.

According to a recent Asia-Pacific reporting exercise on the state of conservation of UNESCO’s famous World Heritage sites, we see that the most frequent threats in Asia and the Pacific are not sudden, shocking disasters. In actuality, the top 4 factors for irreversible loss of tangible heritage are natural weathering, social and cultural activities conducted at heritage sites, local building and land development, and pollution. This suggests that proper infrastructure for the public and for managing tourism is what we should be concerned about, certainly more than wars, terrorism and potential climate change-induced disasters.

Threats to heritage sites/travel destinations

UNESCO advocates putting culture and community at the heart of tourism recovery. In practice, this entails protecting and promoting our heritage, creativity and cultural diversity, and supporting the recovery of communities whose livelihoods depend on World Heritage and living heritage practices. If tourism is mainly about bringing people to places, the COVID-19 pandemic took away that essential part of the equation. Now as visitors come back, business is gradually getting on as usual. But what if the older and sometimes less dramatic threats already mentioned can one day irreversibly damage these marvelous places? There is no coming back from that kind of outcome. 

With this in mind, we need systematic and cutting-edge tools that can help us build back together in a better version of ourselves, especially in terms of promoting and implementing tourism and related economic activities. Here is where UNESCO can put to effective use some lessons learnt from being active in the field for over a half century.

I can summarize UNESCO’s experience by sharing 3 key lessons.

The first lesson goes roughly like this: it is always better to work with friends than to go it alone. This is why UNESCO encourages intersectoral collaboration among governmental agencies, the private sector and civil society. The most recent partnership model we are endorsing goes by the ‘4Ps’ and merits greater consideration: Public-Private-People Partnerships.

Now more than ever, we need to exercise our sense of humanity, namely our compassion and empathy, in everything we do, especially in all policy-making and implementation. How socially and economically destructive the world can be when there is strict compartmentalization among different authorities and agencies!
We all saw that sense of humanity at work across preconceived disciplines in the early phases of the pandemic, in 2020. In fact, a tourism business that is truly sustainable should have already achieved the 4Ps model. Indeed, you cannot say that you are sustainable if you don’t respect and provide benefits to indigenous peoples and local supply chains. Similarly, you cannot say that you are sustainable if you insist on, whether directly or indirectly, causing destruction to nature and heritage.

VMAST platformUNESCO has developed a tool that can help in assessing one’s level of achievement in regard to upholding sustainable tourism: the UNESCO Visitor Management Assessment and Strategy Tool, or VMAST. This tool was created and is run by our partner, World Heritage Catalysis, and hosted by the Zegeba digital platform. 

This web-based assessment and strategizing tool helps any heritage site – natural or cultural – pinpoint exactly what is missing in its conservation and tourism management plan. Although it was developed originally for World Heritage properties, it is applicable to non-World Heritage sites, as well as sites that are currently on the Tentative List of countries aspiring for their site to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. 

Even more important, VMAST is a work in development aiming to improve visitor management practices globally. It should be used as a tool to help site managers work better, and not as tool to grade any given site’s performance. Neither should it be employed as a tool to compare the overall quality of one heritage site to others.
Perhaps the most notable feature of VMAST is that it encourages site managers and local authorities to reach out to communities, the private sector, and other agencies in different government ministries, in mutually gathering reliable information about a site, and to make further assessments of the site worthwhile, instead of producing a beautiful and perfect report that means nothing to future actions.

That leads us to the second lesson UNESCO has learnt from many years in the heritage management sector: respectful communication to and about local communities is very important. Tourism has to move away from being primarily a nation’s means at pleasing temporary visitors or outsiders, in the process devaluing the lives of local people who otherwise enable these touristic services.

In early 2019, UNESCO, together with National Geographic, launched a long-term web-based project, World Heritage Journeys. This website provides the public with different kinds of information than what can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage website itself. The UNESCO website provides technical information, sometimes challenging to chew. Yet, the World Heritage Journeys website enables local people to talk to travelers who want to more deeply explore various world destinations. The Journeys project started off in Europe some six years ago, in 2016, but has since expanded to Asia under a World Heritage Buddha edition, thanks to the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (DASTA) of Thailand, Expedia Group, the Fine Arts Department of Thailand, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA).

World Heritage Journeys

For the Europe edition, there are already many participating sites. But for Buddha edition, which features religious tourism, there are currently only 5 sites, one each in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal, and two in Thailand. UNESCO looks forward to more Buddhist communities participating in this great programme in the near future. Take Sukhothai and Associated Historic Towns World Heritage Site in Thailand, for example. You will see that the kind of information provided visitors is culled from interviews with the local people, which has been gathered from the community by travel journalists and bloggers. In other words, the information is the community voice, conveying their firsthand recommendations. Furthermore, the suggested itineraries will give back benefits to a majority in the communities while providing formerly unseen experiences to travelers. Again, it will be nice to see more sites in various countries and communities participating in this programme soon.

Information from local people regarding Sukhothai

As for the third lesson gained by UNESCO’s work in the field, we have learnt that cultural diversity and biodiversity grow in the same direction, and to achieve true sustainability, we must safeguard both nature and culture together. 

Even as an intergovernmental organization, UNESCO has been trying to achieve this goal with the private sector, as we currently work with Expedia Group after initiating the UNESCO Sustainable Travel Pledge (STP) in 2019, which started off in Thailand.

The STP appeals to hundreds of hospitality businesses in Expedia's network to demonstrate that they are environmentally responsible tourism businesses, partly by their making attempts to reduce single-use plastics and to support local craft industries. 

Sustainable Travel Pledge

The programme has been very successful in Thailand, thanks to support from the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). And recently Expedia and UNESCO expanded this campaign to other countries in the world, leading to its current membership of over 700 hotel chains and local accommodations. Every business that signs the pledge receives a special badge on its Expedia web page, which lends it greater visibility among green travelers. It is a great example of our 4Ps effort to work with the private sector and civic society.

As an outgrowth of our expanding the network of sustainable hotels, UNESCO has further seized the momentum and developed an online course, ‘Targeting Zero Plastics in Tourism Businesses’, with the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) eLearning Platform. This self-learning course can equip businesspeople with the know-how in building company strategies for plastic reduction which can benefit both the nation’s economy and its environmental well-being. Of course, participants receive a certificate of completion endorsed by the three organizations.

Zero plastic

As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and squarely address its harsh impact on our sustainable tourism sector, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful. With new digital tools increasingly at our disposal, and with the development of new management capacities to make the best use of them – no less given the public’s interest in seeing them utilized for both the sake of heritage preservation and the planet – sustainable tourism is poised to become an integral part of our new reality. The UN Sustainable Development Goal 11 (SDG 11), Target 4, which aims to ‘strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world's cultural and natural heritage’ speaks directly to UNESCO’s steadfast intention: to support and partner with all stakeholders on innovating solutions that promise to get us there.

For more information on the International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction:

Dr Feng Jing directs and manages UNESCO Cultural Conventions, in particular the 1972 World Heritage Convention in the Asia and the Pacific region from the perspectives of both Member States (as a member of the World Heritage Committee in early 1990s) and of the Secretariat (as a member of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre/Paris since 1997). With profound knowledge of, and strong commitment to, UNESCO's mandate, vision, strategic direction and Programme priorities, he has extensive experience of heritage conservation and international organizations matters, with particular focus on promoting intercultural dialogue, cultural diversity and sustainable development among different communities. In addition, Dr Jing serves as the focal point on capacity-building related activities for World Heritage. He is also Coordinator of the Silk Roads World Heritage nomination project since 2005 and focal points for several UNESCO Funds-In-Trust cooperation at the World Heritage Centre. Dr Jing has published and co-authored several publications and some 60 articles on World Heritage and UNESCO cultural cooperation programmes. His PhD dissertation “Research on the Serial Transnational World Heritage Nomination of the Silk Roads Cultural Route” was published in 2015 and reprinted in 2019 by China Science Press (Beijing).