Collaborating with local farmers and food manufacturers to create engaging and meaningful food experiences is one opportunity to make tourism more sustainable. Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The tourism industry is in trouble but what if a new, more sustainable narrative for tourism rises from the ashes?

Travel has filled my life with unforgettable experiences and memories over the years. It has helped me escape frosty Nordic winters, find exhilarating adventures around the world, make new friends and return home again to see my family.

I feel devastated seeing the travel and tourism industry crumble as flights are cancelled, airlines collapse and millions of jobs in the sector are cut. What will tourism look like once travel resumes?

Although I am crushed by the thought of not travelling overseas to see my family anytime soon, I can’t help but imagine a new narrative for tourism. One that does not include dying coral reefs, endangered animals, graffitied walls urging tourists to go home or locals struggling to afford to live in their own hometown. I want a tourism industry that we can all be proud of.

Unfortunately, the system is flawed. The performance of the tourism industry is predominantly measured by economic indicators – expenditure, arrivals, investments and employment. It is based on a system of excessive, unsustainable production and consumption and lacks a positive correlation between tourist numbers and the social and environmental wellbeing of the destination.

For tourism to thrive, the industry needs a balance between the “ecological ceiling and the social foundation of the destination” (from highly recommended reading about the doughnut model by Kate Raworth).

It requires a systemic approach to measuring its impacts. The circular economy can provide a new economic model for a more restorative and collaborative tourism system, and promote social cohesion and efficient use of resources in our destinations.

It enables us to design multifunctional tourism infrastructure that encourages social interaction between local residents and tourists and reuses materials in building and renovations.

It allows us to create a waste-free food system that promotes meaningful tourist experiences with our regional farming communities, and regenerates agricultural soils. It enables us to develop a smart and green public transport system for the benefit of both residents and tourists.

Tourism’s relationship with the food, the built environment and mobility systems opens excellent opportunities to collaborate with other sectors and create novel tourism products. For example, hotels and restaurants can enable a circular food system by:

  • Collaborating with local farmers, fishermen and food manufacturers to create engaging and meaningful food experiences. Promoting hands-on, authentic farm experiences will increase visitor awareness and appreciation of where food comes from and how it is produced. It also encourages visitors to travel and contribute to regional areas.
  • Turning food waste into new products for visitors. Surplus food generated during food production often ends up as waste. Hotels and restaurants can collaborate with food producers to find ways to turn surplus food into something more valuable. Fruit scraps could be dehydrated and turned into healthy minibar snacks, and leftover bread turned into a local beer.
  • Sending unavoidable food waste to farmers to regenerate the soil. Anaerobic digestion can turn organic waste into compost which helps to restore agricultural lands. It can also generate biogas to fuel farming machinery or local transport system in regional areas.
  • Integrating food growing and production on hotel premises. Besides generating economic activities for the hotel, onsite rooftop gardens and urban agriculture can encourage residents to visit hotels, foster social interaction between visitors and residents, and provide a healthy food supply for local neighbourhoods.
  • Collaborating with residents to create unique local dining experiences for visitors. Promoting dinners with local hosts could help generate additional income for local residents and foster social cohesion.

The tourism industry presents many opportunities to apply circular economy principles in various systems and to raise awareness of social and environmental impacts of our production and consumption.

However, we need to better understand the material flows and the industry’s interdependence on other systems. What does a thriving tourism industry mean for residents and tourists? What does it mean for local businesses and the natural environment?

Once we can pinpoint where the system is overloaded or falling short, we can start to design holistic tourism experiences.

Systemic data can also provide more accurate measurements of the tourism industry’s overall performance and drive investment in sustainable tourism development. The industry needs more innovative business and investment models that can enable tourists to contribute more equitably to the destination for the benefit of the whole community.

Regardless of whether international travel will ever go back to “normal”, we have an opportunity to rethink tourism. And if there is anything that COVID-19 has proved to us, it’s how creative the tourism industry can be when finding solutions to help their communities.

I genuinely believe in a new narrative for our tourism industry. As we look for ways to create a more prosperous tourism industry, I would turn to our communities and the natural environment for answers.

Margit Robertson is a consultant at Coreo.

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