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Building back better: How the tourism sector can deliver sustainable growth

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Building back better: How the tourism sector can deliver sustainable growth

“It’s absolutely critical,” says Fiona Jeffery, the founder of charity Just a Drop, when asked about the importance of sharpening the focus on sustainable tourism as part of recovery from the pandemic.  

“I think it is a moral responsibility,” she tells Holyrood. “I think it’s a social responsibility. I think it’s an environmental responsibility... I think it’s one of the biggest responsibilities that businesses in the tourism sector have, alongside offering really good experiences for travellers and running successful businesses, so all three of them have to play their part.” 

Jeffery, a languages alumnus of Edinburgh University and social entrepreneur, has no shortage of experience in tourism, having held a range of roles and responsibilities in the sector – she was previously chair of the World Travel Market and of the Tourism for Tomorrow awards. 

“We talk about the triple bottom line: being economic, social and environmental, and I think people have prioritised the economic for the last 20 to 25 years,” she says. “They largely ignored the environmental and when it comes to the impacts of the pandemic, suddenly, it’s made people realise the social importance and the responsibility that we carry. So, I would say, yeah, mission-critical for me.”

The pandemic has caused disruption and devastation globally, creating a crisis that has affected people’s lives, jobs, freedoms, and movement. COVID-19 has impacted everyone. However, with the spread of the virus has come a heightened sense of social responsibility and although issues such as climate protection and overtourism existed before the outbreak, they are matters which will be placed firmly under the microscope as we look to combat a different emergency.

Jeffery adds: “I think the pandemic has actually had such a global impact at such a personal level for everybody that I think it has seeped into the consciousness. I think there is a real opportunity for governments, for societal organisations, for environmental groups, not to raise an atmosphere of fear, but raise awareness and understanding of, actually, this is the way we now need to behave and build that into our modus operandi.”

While just last month, it experienced the humbling setback of missing its target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions for a third year in a row, Scotland is aware of its duty in tackling the climate emergency and doing so in the tourism sector.  

In March 2020, Scotland Outlook 2030 – a responsible tourism strategy – was launched at the Scottish Tourism Alliance Signature Conference and endorsed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The 41-page document signalled the country’s vision to be the leader in 21st century tourism, focused on sustainable growth, and said success was more than numbers – it was about enrichment and prosperity. And while progress may have been interrupted by the pandemic – which saw countless flights cancelled, holiday accommodation left empty and travel curtailed – Sturgeon reaffirmed her commitment to that vision in March of this year.

But what does sustainable tourism look like? Ultimately, it’s about slowing down. Dr Anna de Jong, a senior lecturer in tourism at Glasgow University, tells Holyrood: “Ideally if we’re really talking about sustainable tourism, we’re talking about fewer trips – maybe not even once a year – but when you do go on that trip, you take longer to get there, because you don’t fly or you don’t necessarily drive. 

“You spend a longer amount of time in that place, learning about the place, learning about the culture, meeting the people, experiencing the food, all these sorts of things, but not necessarily doing that tick-box approach where one day, you’re over here, the next you’re over there, trying to consume as much as possible. That’s where sustainable tourism is at the moment.”

The unlocking of Scotland last summer saw a growth in popularity of the staycation, with people being encouraged to make the most of the destinations on their doorstep. Many holidaymakers who would usually travel abroad chose to explore their own country.

There are obvious benefits from a sustainability perspective, avoiding air travel and perhaps even using public transport. But the appropriate infrastructure is needed to support increasing visitor numbers to rural and coastal communities at home, where littering and access to public toilets can quickly become a problem.  

The risk of overtourism in tourist hotspots, such as the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides or Edinburgh, existed before the pandemic but has come to the fore as people have revalued green spaces, having been restricted from leaving the urban areas they call home. 

A staycation boom is expected in the Highlands this summer amid suggestions that a record number of visitors are to hit the road on the North Coast 500, Scotland’s answer to Route 66. The 518-mile trip has divided opinion in local communities, which have benefitted from the economic boost but have often been left to deal with congestion, pollution and mess left by so-called dirty campers. 

Professor Richard Butler, an expert in tourism management at Strathclyde University, believes the NC500 emphasises why pre-planning is so important in tourism. He explains: “I think that’s a success story, but it should warn people that if you are successful, you’re going to have all sorts of implications, probably beyond what you thought of initially and be ready to handle that.

“Tourism is a bit like a wave. It does build up. It does have a force of its own. We’re awfully good at starting tourism and developing it and promoting it. Overall, tourism as a whole – academia, industry, everything – we’re not very good at controlling it. It’s started, it develops, it grows and then it’s the job done. It isn’t the job done, it’s the job just beginning because if you don’t control it, manage it, direct it, you can end up with overtourism very easily and a lot of resentment.”

One of the solutions to overtourism is arguably increasing the promotion of lesser-known destinations and attracting people from hotspots to hidden gems. As de Jong explains: “This over-representation, this continued cycling of the same images of the Highlands and Skye for example, that has come about through social media, of people wanting to go to very specific places over and over again and have those same experiences, is perhaps something we need to move away from… to kind of spread that movement of domestic travellers a bit more broadly throughout Scotland. So, it’s not one major impact on any one area. The south of Scotland, for example, isn’t as well known for being a nature-based destination, for a place to take your campervan or to go wild camping.

“I think there’s definitely an issue of overtourism that becomes even more pronounced through the pandemic and what people are searching for at the moment. But there are ways that we might be able to reimagine that. So, it’s not such an impact on very small geographic areas.”

The challenges are well-known to industry leaders and government but there is an opportunity for the tourism sector to build back in a way that is not only better, but more sustainable. 

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