Transforming Tourism to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals

Sustainable tourism supports the SDGs, revives the environment, and boosts communities. Photo credit: ADB.

Instead of recapturing the tourism of the pre-pandemic era, countries should strive to create a new kind of tourism that is more closely aligned to the SDGs.


Tourism has become a key driver of socioeconomic growth in Asia and the Pacific. It employs roughly 150 million people in the region and provides opportunities to strengthen communities and ecosystems. However, in the absence of robust governance and planning, tourism growth threatens to overburden communities and ecosystems while overlooking opportunities to foster inclusive and sustainable development.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has halted many forms of tourism, creating major impacts on associated industries and communities. This pause presents a window to reflect on the pre-pandemic tourism system—its trends, vulnerabilities, and opportunities. More so, it provides opportunities to transform tourism(link is external) and to ensure it generates better sustainable development outcomes (United Nations 2020).

Research by the United Nations (UNWTO and UNEP 2017) suggests that pre-pandemic, the tourism system was most equipped to support three specific Sustainable Development Goals(link is external)—SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), and SDG 17 (Partnerships).

A report by the Asian Development Bank(link is external) identifies six pathways for the sustainable development of tourism post-pandemic, aimed at enhancing tourism's contribution to all SDGs. The recommendations involve a value-driven approach, decarbonization, tourism-led regeneration, diversification, improved governance, and sustainable finance. These are intended for policy makers but are also of interest to commercial stakeholders and development partners.

COVID-19 Impact and Response

In 2019, there were about 1.5 billion international tourists worldwide and Asia and the Pacific was one of the fastest growing for tourist arrivals. From 2006 to 2019, international arrivals(link is external) more than doubled to 364 million, and growth was particularly strong from 2018 to 2019 as countries in the region (including Maldives and Myanmar) recorded double-digit growth (UNWTO 2021).

However, in April 2020, 90% of the world implemented full or partial travel restrictions because of COVID-19, leading to the steepest decline of 1 billion international arrivals. The UNWTO estimates that this translated to a loss of $1.3 trillion in revenue. Asia experienced a bigger loss in international arrivals at 84% compared with 74% worldwide.

The pandemic exposed the region’s dependence on the tourism sector. It has disrupted virtually all aspects of the industry, reducing international travel and producing cascading effects on businesses, governments, and communities.

Global and regional organizations relevant to tourism have coordinated responses through a range of measures. Most of these focus on immediate crisis response rather than long-term planning to increase the contribution of tourism to the SDGs. They reflect different timeframes at which response outcomes are targeted—making it through the crisis, adapting to the new normal, and cultivating resilience (Twining Ward and McComb 2020, WTTC 2020).

Unfortunately, relatively little thought has been given to strategic changes in tourism. Measures focus on securing health and safety and providing either fiscal or monetary support. While short-term financial support is critical for successful crisis response, it is not sustainable in the long term and present the risk of prolonging inevitable bankruptcies.

Medium- and longer-term policy responses(link is external) that involve skill and capacity building programs include retraining workers to find employment in different industries (Barkas et al. 2020). Several governments have also shifted from international to domestic tourism, repositioning destinations and investing in assets. Few policies have taken a long-term focus, such as including sustainability criteria in financial support packages, extending social protection, and redesigning tourism systems (UN 2020).

Policy Recommendations

COVID-19 has highlighted tourism concerns in Asia and the Pacific, such as overdependence, limited control over sector growth, external costs, and labor market challenges, including skills gaps and limited rights of workers. The pandemic presents a unique opportunity to evaluate sector progress and address its most pressing issues.

The term “build back better” is often used when describing the recovery of tourism. Asia and the Pacific, however, should not seek to recapture the tourism of the pre-pandemic era but rather “build forward better.” This requires creating a new kind of tourism that is more closely aligned to the SDGs.

Sustainable tourism is not a particular kind of travel, nor is it limited to ecotourism or tourism that is self-sustaining. All types of tourism can become more sustainable, for example, if they contribute to achieving the SDGs, revive the environment, or help communities thrive.

Transforming tourism so that it genuinely contributes to achieving the SDGs will require a mix of incentives and disincentives, targeting action across the public and private sectors. Among the most pressing barriers to sustainable tourism in the region is the lack of good governance structures to support long-term planning, collaboration, and management. Establishing more inclusive and sustainability-oriented governance frameworks and using them to strengthen coordination and stakeholder management will be necessary for tourism development in line with the SDGs. Implementation will depend largely on financing.

Six pathways can foster systemic change in the tourism industry and each offers recommendations on how policy makers can guide tourism to contribute more effectively to the SDGs. Many of the recommendations will also be relevant to the private sector and development partners.

  • Focus on quality and yield by attracting visitors that spend more and who wish to interact genuinely with the communities and destinations.
  • Manage the carrying capacity of destinations and communities.
  • Leverage uniqueness of place through appropriate at-place design of infrastructure and experiences.
  • Measure and report on the holistic contribution of tourism to development efforts in a transparent manner.
  • Design and implement decarbonization pathways that include clear targets and leverage economic instruments for climate mitigation.
  • Take a collaborative approach to develop sustainable aviation fuels.
  • Raise awareness and build carbon literacy of businesses, government officials, and visitors.
  • Support low-carbon industry practices through regulatory requirements.
  • Foster ecological restoration by encouraging visitor and industry contributions.
  • Protect communities and preserve cultural traditions and practices.
  • Ensure tourism is inclusive and supports health and subjective well-being by designing experiences that connect people with nature and implementing proactive risk management and health and safety standards.
  • Empower local communities and small businesses by training entrepreneurs and encouraging their participation in tourism activities.
  • Diversify tourism markets by revising marketing strategies and potentially discouraging unsustainable ones.
  • Diversify products and encourage those that support giving back, engage local stakeholders, and localize supply chains.
  • Support workforce diversity and provide skills training.
  • Foster economic diversification.
  • Integrate tourism policy considerations across sectors, including promotion of cross-sector collaboration in government and industry.
  • Foster cooperation and public–private collaboration by leveraging framework agreements to encouraging data sharing and joint monitoring and evaluation.
  • Invest in strategy, marketing, technology, and human capacity to drive a transformation in tourism markets and encourage more sustainable behavior.
  • Build capacity in disaster risk management and adaptation through training in disaster response and investments in early warning systems.
  • Seek new revenue sources that can be reinvested into sustainable management of tourism, such as entry costs to national parks.
  • Enable smaller-scale green finance to support tourism development by improving access to smaller firms and encouraging crowdfunding and microdonations.
  • Include sustainability criteria in assessing tourism projects for green funding.
  • Integrate sustainable tourism considerations into other initiatives, such as transport or urban infrastructure projects.

Since country contexts and tourism sectors differ substantially, not all recommendations are equally relevant for all. Governments may focus on the pathways and recommendations that align best with their tourism and development strategies.

Overall, establishing a more sustainable trajectory will require intervention across all elements of tourism, including the visitor, industry, community, and environment dimensions, as well as collaboration across the public and private sectors, development partners, communities, and destinations.

This was first posted on the Development Asia.

Last Updated: 30 March 2022