Can Tourism Be Sustainable?
By Mark Sissons
As my snowmobile raced across the open tundra, I entered a sea of snow ringed by pristine white peaks glistening under a cloudless sky. Reindeer grazed on a distant slope, camouflaged in their coats of winter white. Somewhere in the distance, polar bears – poster animals for climate change – roamed across this fragile wilderness located halfway between the northern tip of Europe and the North Pole.
It was late April and I’m in Spitsbergen, the largest island in the Svalbard Archipelago, a still largely pristine Arctic environment now infamous as the fastest warming place on earth. Experts from the Norwegian Polar Institute estimate Svalbard to be heating at six times the global average.
I was here in Svalbard’s capital of Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly town, and in Tromsø, gateway to the Norwegian Arctic, to attend the 2023 Tourism Cares with Norway Meaningful Travel Summit featuring an influential group of travel and tourism executives and decision-makers, including top tour operators, travel media, cruise lines, and industry associations.
Developed in partnership with Innovation Norway and Tourism Cares, a non-profit organization that aims to advance the tourism industry’s positive social and environmental impact, this year’s April 18-23 Meaningful Travel Summit was held for the first time in Europe.
It was no coincidence that we gathered in northern Norway, where climate change is accelerating at an alarming rate, and tourism is already feeling its impacts. In Svalbard, rising temperatures have already increased the risk of avalanches and landslides and shrunk pack ice hunting grounds for polar bears, making the impact of climate change on nature here palpable and raising alarm bells among environmental activists, governments, and international bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Elsewhere in northern Norway, popular tourist activities like dog sledding are becoming more difficult as temperatures rise. And the region’s indigenous Sammi people are struggling to maintain their traditional ways of life, including reindeer herding, as vital ecosystems collapse. Norway, like so many destinations worldwide, is struggling with how to balance the business of showcasing pristine wilderness and incredible natural wonders and experiences with the imperative of mitigating the tourism’ industry’s inherently negative impacts.
“We have to make travel more meaningful, we have to be responsible, and I think that’s what a lot of destinations like Norway are trying to balance” , said Greg Takehara, CEO of Tourism Cares. “Travel and tourism can actually be a force for good in solving these massive global challenges.”
Established in 2003, Tourism Cares works to promote responsible and sustainable tourism practices through grants, scholarships, and providing educational resources to individuals and organizations in the tourism industry who are committed to sustainability and social responsibility, and facilitates opportunities for industry professionals to participate in conservation and community development projects around the world. By bringing together tourism industry leaders and professionals, the organization hopes to foster collaboration and innovation in sustainable tourism practices.
As a signatory of the Glasgow Declaration, Tourism Cares is also committed to accelerating climate action in tourism. Its Meaningful Travel Summit creates a collaborative space for industry leaders to come together and create action plans around using travel to protect, conserve, and make substantial changes for the future.
For CEO Greg Takehara, the key challenge is trying to get people to understand that sustainability is not just a trend. “Climate change is dramatically changing the landscape of places like Norway and the impact on daily ways of life, Indigenous traditions and livelihoods, wildlife, and of course, the tourism product, is clearly evident,” he says. “We really have a lot of work to do, and this has to be a long, sustained effort.”
The 2023 Meaningful Travel Summit kicked off with three days of educational seminars, breakout sessions and in-community experiences in and around Tromsø, Norway’s gateway to the Arctic. Surrounded by mountains, fjords, and islands, Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights, and has a rich maritime history and culture, with influences from the indigenous Sami people and early Norwegian settlers.
During a series of presentations and breakout roundtables, delegates discussed industry challenges ranging from developing more sustainable product and supply chains and investing in greater stakeholder engagement to fresh strategies for addressing tourism’s significant impact on climate change. The consensus was that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“It’s about preserving the present for future generations, and allowing for future generations to be able to have the same range of choices and opportunities that the current generation and previous generations have had,” said Graham Miller, professor of sustainability in business at the University of Surrey, who facilitated many of the summit’s workshops and educational presentations.
Successes, failures and frustrations were candidly shared in a spirit of open collaboration as topics like tourism’s often detrimental impacts on local communities, and in particular, indigenous cultures, were debated. Especially resonant was the panel of presenters from the Indigenous Sami community who shared their thoughts on how tourism can both positively and negatively affect Native peoples.
A common theme at the summit was to what extent truly sustainable travel – involving making travel choices that have a positive impact on the environment, local communities, and economies – was definable, let alone achievable.
“It’s complicated to change the way you do things and approach your business from a different way,” said Robert Drumm, president of the 65-year-old tour operator Alexander + Roberts. ”Nevertheless, the sustainability movement is growing. You can see it in the number of participants and the range of companies at conferences like this.”
Drumm added that his company is making concrete changes in itinerates designed to reduce carbon footprints, such as driving rather than flying between sites in Egypt. “It’s about communicating the notion of this is why we do it this way,“ he said.
While in Tromsø, delegates also had opportunities to explore the city and participate in local tourism activities like dog sledding. During two additional days in Svalbard, excursions included snowmobiling, exploring ice caves, touring a shuttered coal mine near Longyearbyen, the world’s most northerly inhabited permanent settlement, and a visit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the largest safety backup of the world’s crop diversity, buried 130 metres inside a mountain.
The Summit concluded with two additional days of bonding and bridge building under Svalbard’s magical midnight sun as delegates pledged to incorporate several key sustainable travel practices into their businesses. They promised, among other things, to promote hotels and resorts that have environmentally-friendly practices, participate in grassroots projects that support the local environment and communities, support local businesses and economies, respect local customs and culture, reduce waste, and use public transport whenever possible.
By making conscious choices like these and raising more awareness of the impact of our travels, this year’s Tourism Care’s Norway Meaningful Travel Summit agreed that tourism, despite its inherent contradictions, can still make a positive difference and help to ensure that travel is sustainable for future generations.
The Meaningful Travel Map
To drive long-term impact for communities in Summit host destinations, Tourism Cares has developed what it calls The Meaningful Travel Map, a product development tool that links global tour operators and travel advisors to community partners in Summit destinations. Launched during the inaugural Meaningful Travel Summit in Jordan in 2018, the Map features social enterprises, community organizations and nonprofits benefiting their local community and environments.
Mark Sissons has explored seven continents and dozens of countries on assignment as a travel writer and photographer specializing in adventure and family travel. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including Robb Report, National Geographic Traveler, the Globe and Mail, the San Francisco Chronicle, Men’s Journal, NUVO Magazine and the Dallas Morning News. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.