Sustainable Tourism Panel: How Should Travel ‘Build Back Forwards’?

Four leaders in sustainable tourism share their views on how the industry must respond to ongoing health, social and climate crises.

30.10.2020 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Sean O. on Unsplash
Photo by Sean O. on Unsplash

In 2020, international travel has all but stopped.

This has presented a unique opportunity to think about how we’d like to create a tourism industry fit for purpose.

The climate crisis—and air travel’s fundamental role within it—are going nowhere. Excessive tourism levels have collapsed major destinations, gentrified communities and turned peoples’ homes into sites “of cheap beer and endless entertainment.

An increasingly mainstream movement within the industry has fought to change travel—to bring it into harmony with local people and local environments. We’ve referred to this trend as “sustainable tourism”; others have preferred the terms responsible, regenerative, or green tourism.

Global Shakers asked four thought leaders in sustainable tourism for their views on how travel should recover and adjust in the coming months and years. Specifically, they responded to this question:


‘This decade will be crucial for addressing ongoing health, social and climate crises. How should sustainable tourism ‘build back forwards’ in the coming years?’


Here are their answers.


Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation and Chair of the Future Of Tourism Coalition, UK


Jeremy Sampson

Credit: The Travel Foundation


“We’ve got to start by moving away from growth in arrivals and revenue as the sole measures of success across tourism businesses and destinations. The sector needs to better understand and address its impacts and costs, while presenting better evidence for its positive contributions towards sustainable development. This would go a long way towards creating a real paradigm shift, enabling the industry to transparently address, and perhaps even lead, in critical areas like decarbonisation, equitable distribution of benefits, and genuine diversity and inclusion.

“Most importantly, local communities need to have a stronger voice at the centre of decision-making, ensuring that residents’ quality of life and the resources they depend on are well protected. As the industry recovers and old habits return, destinations will need to recognise and heed the early warning signs of emerging imbalance. This will mean stewarding adequate human and financial resources to invest in meaningful management interventions, ensuring the costs of servicing demand do not outweigh the benefits, and taking steps to significantly improve the overall visitor experience. Now that would be a good step forward for travellers and residents alike.”


Lebawit Lily Girma, travel journalist, photographer and founder of See The Caribbean


Lily Girma

Credit: Lebawit Lily Girma


“I would describe it as ‘building forward’ or moving forward when discussing future sustainability efforts. The past is gone and we can only do better from this point on.

“Climate change, environmental conservation and shaping a tourism industry that benefits communities while making a positive social impact are issues and topics that have existed for a long time, particularly for the Caribbean region. We just didn’t do enough about them beyond discussions. In the Caribbean, we were at a turning point pre-Covid and now we’re at a critical junction, thanks to the global pandemic.

“As a region, we must come up with innovative solutions in creating the kind of tourism that benefits local economies more than it does foreign conglomerates; we must stop the destruction of natural resources at the expense of development, and we have to think beyond tourism and find ways to support SMEs.

“To find a way forward we will need innovative collaborations, locally, regionally and across sectors beyond tourism. There needs to be space at the table for experts in all disciplines, to come together and propose actionable ways to grow sustainable tourism to the next level. We need to start talking to those we’ve never talked to in the past for fresh ideas and innovation in our sector – from the media to the community leaders on the ground and the NGO leaders in the “global North”, the tour guides and the technology experts. We need all backgrounds, races, and expertise.

“With See the Caribbean, I’ve been working on identifying and reaching out to experts and colleagues across the region to put our heads together and come up with a concrete plan and ideas– both consumer facing and organisational-facing. We need to unite and share, because each of us has something to contribute and each of us has a solution to the numerous issues that we’ll need to solve to build forward. It won’t happen within the four walls of government, or just the private sector. It’s going to take all of us.”


Kelley Louise, founder & executive director of Impact Travel Alliance, US


Kelley Louise

Credit: Impact Travel Alliance


“The pandemic has essentially brought tourism—the world’s largest industry—to a standstill. The reverberations have been felt across the globe, and while its effects are devastating, the truth is that the industry wasn’t in such great shape prior to the coronavirus plaguing our headlines and world.

“Travel has the beautiful potential to empower local communities and protect our environment—but only when done so mindfully. The flip side of the narrative is an industry that exploits locals and underrepresented communities, as well as exacerbates the climate crisis. Look no further than a quick Google search on tourism leakage, overtourism and tourism’s carbon footprint to understand the array of problems.

“A realistic optimist, I am hopeful for the future. The pandemic has given us a moment to reflect on which version of the travel industry we want. Solutions exist, and a brighter future is within reach.

“As we set out to reset and rebuild, we have an opportunity and responsibility (both as travelers and as an industry) to create a stronger, more sustainable, resilient and inclusive industry. It will take dynamic ideas, bold action and unparalleled collaboration to bring a better industry to the mainstream. In particular, I’d emphasise the importance of including women and underrepresented communities as part of the conversation to rebuild.

“Our work is set out for us, and it will be a long and winding road to recovery, but we will be rewarded with deeper connections with humanity, more immersive and memorable experiences, and the opportunity to improve our world through something as universally appealing as travel.”


James Nadiope, CEO & Founder of Justice Tourism Foundation, Uganda


James Nadiope

Credit: GOOD travel blog


“First and foremost, we need to THINK SUSTAINABLY. The need to conserve and protect the environment, respect wildlife, flora, biodiversity, ecosystems and cultural diversity, and improve community livelihoods should be our priority if we want to see our tourism industry thrive back forward. Travelers should be educated on how to aid ecological conservation, economic development, cultural promotion, developing local communities and much more.

“Local people, especially those living around tourism destinations, should be included in the tourism-chain process because they are the engine for both wildlife and environmental conservation. Hence community-based tourism should be the basis if tourism is to thrive back forward.”

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