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Balancing tourist growth and sustainability

Lucerne, the touristic heart of Switzerland and host of the second World Tourism Forum Sonderegger

Delegates at the World Tourism Forum Lucerne have heard how tourism, like the energy industry, is increasingly a question of not just growth but of sustainability.

Tourism in Switzerland is divided into hundreds of small enterprises. As a result the sector is economically greatly underrated. This is in contrast to the watch industry, for example, which is dominated by a few large brands known around the world.

Worldwide, however, tourism is by far the biggest consumer industry. Resistant against global crises for decades, it has seen stable growth rates for many years.

Sustainability has actually been integrated into tourism advertising for a while, but this doesn’t always come across as credible.

The three-day event in Lucerne, which finished on Friday, brought together 230 executives and experts from business, government, academia and finance from 30 countries to discuss the extent of sustainability in tourism and how the issue could be taken more seriously.

Developing demand

“How to prosper without growing has yet to be discovered,” Jürg Schmid, director of Switzerland Tourism, said in the podium discussion.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the South African minister of tourism, agreed, pointing out that the growing number of consumers in developing countries would continue to yearn for conventional travel for many years.

According to Schmid, demand was particularly great for trips to well-preserved yet accessible nature reserves, such as those offered by Switzerland.

But with this, a certain level of growth could not be avoided, he said. “How could we in Switzerland create sustainable tourism if the length of each guest’s stay decreases?” he wondered.

Schmid added that on this scale it was hardly possible to have an influence, but the nationwide advertising was an attempt to increase the number of guests in order to neutralise this effect.

Political will

Tim Jackson, a member of the British commission for sustainability and a government adviser, explained that what one gains in efficiency through saving energy and reduced carbon dioxide emissions would be diluted by the constant expansion of hordes of tourists.

In other words, technological efficiency doesn’t contribute to effective sustainability – even if this is advertised.

Michel Rochat, director of Lausanne Hotel School, told that he was less sceptical.

“History shows that humans have previously faced similar challenges. From experience, one first has to realise that a problem exists before technical solutions can be sought really intensively,” he said.

In the 19th century, London almost suffocated in smog before the introduction of vehicle which ran on electricity.

Rochat believes ultimately it lies with politicians. “They must channel research funds in the right direction – i.e. into the sectors of sustainability, clean tech and so on.”

Open to suggestion

In addition to targeted research, the conference in Lucerne saw further ways of giving more weight to sustainability in tourism.

One of these is the pricing policy – from flights to hotel services. Experts recommended the renewal of global agreements, such as the Convention on International Civil Aviation, also known as the Chicago Convention.

This establishes rules of airspace, aircraft registration and safety. It also exempts air fuels from tax.

Other suggestions included a faster handover between generations at a decision-making level – because young people think more environmentally – and the establishment of sovereign wealth funds, as in Norway, which are invested in sustainable projects and support green tourism.

Tourism is a key industry in Switzerland, ranked third in the export sector.
It generates an annual income of around SFr15 billion ($16.8 billion) for hotels, ski lift companies, restaurants and other service providers.
In comparison, the leading chemicals/pharmaceuticals and engineering sectors had income of SFr72 billion and SFr58 billion respectively in 2009.
The fourth place watch industry reported income of 13.2 billion.

In March Switzerland was ranked first for the second year running on the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness report.

The report measured the competitiveness in the travel and tourism sector of 139 countries by examining indicators such as regulations and the business environment, human, cultural and natural resources, and safety and security.

(Adapted from German by Thomas Stephens)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR