As much travel remains paused, the tourism industry has an opportunity to rethink how we do business
No doubt 2020 will go down in history as one of the most challenging years for tourism post World War II. In the spring, tourism ground to a virtual halt. The economic effects can’t be overstated. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, “Travel & Tourism is responsible for 330 million jobs, or one in 10 jobs globally, and 10.3 percent of global GDP (USD 8.9 trillion).”
However, as the travel industry, and travelers, look forward to a day when virtually unrestricted travel again becomes the norm, now is a good time to look at the effects of both tourism and lack of tourism.
“Tourism is wonderful when it’s in balance,” says Sven Lindblad, founder and CEO of Lindblad Expeditions. “But it’s not so wonderful when it overwhelms destinations and the sense of place actually disappears.” And he notes, today we’re seeing the opposite extreme—when lack of tourism brings both unexpected benefits and problems.
“In Dubrovnik, residents can play soccer in the streets, you can occasionally see the Himalayas from Delhi, and dolphins have been seen in the Douro River in Portugal,” Lindblad says, noting just some of the surprising bonuses of a world with fewer tourists. But on the flip side, the lack of tourists and the oversite they provide by default has also led to an increase in incidences such as rhinoceros poaching in Africa and the largest fleet of Chinese fishing boats seen in years just outside the territorial waters of the Galapagos Islands.
“The travel industry as a whole has a huge opportunity to make a difference,” says Lindblad. “We need a confluence between industries, governments and travelers to help protect our world. Post-pandemic, governments are going to be even less capable of doing these things because resources are going to be so stretched. So it’s up to us in this industry to lead these efforts.”
Finding the Right Balance
This concept of protecting the places we travel to is certainly not new. In 1993, for example, Lindblad addressed the International Symposium on Tourism, Ecology and Municipalities gathered in Mazatlan, Mexico. At that time, he was talking about the challenges of balancing the economic opportunities of global tourism with the accompanying threat to natural resources and the environment—the very same challenge we see today.
In fact, in his talk Lindblad went even further back—to 1958, when his father Lars-Eric Lindblad debuted Lindblad Travel. Speaking of his father, Lindblad said, “He knew without a shadow of a doubt that the world was a fragile place, that tourism could be highly destructive if accompanied by rampant, thoughtless growth.”
With that kind of legacy, it’s no surprise that responsible tourism has always been a hallmark of Lindblad Expeditions, and even more so today. “We are all dependent on the health of the nature, culture and history of the places we visit,” he says. “Ultimately in one form or another, that’s why people travel. And it’s in all our interests to protect these places and their precious legacies.”
For Lindblad Expeditions, one of the ways to help support conservation is by making it easy for guests to contribute, such as the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, which currently supports 30 projects in more than 16 countries, with a mission to understand and protect the world’s oceans, restore critical marine and coastal habitats, and foster environmental stewardship in the regions visited by their fleet and beyond.
“We raise about $2 million per year from our travelers to support conservation,” says Lindblad. “Guests love the opportunity to contribute and our personnel love the fact that they can work with integrity towards sustainability.”
Lindblad notes that while Lindblad Expeditions’ formula “doesn’t work for everyone, we all have a real opportunity to make a difference—even more so now, while our world is so stressed and challenged.”
He speculates, for example, what would happen if every visitor to Venice—4.7 million people in 2019—would drink one less glass of wine and contribute that money to conservation. “Just imagine what we could do with 47 million euros a year! We could truly make meaningful change.”
In the meantime, he calls on everyone in the industry—from travel advisors to suppliers to associations, and of course, travelers themselves—to think about ways we can all use this time as an opportunity to “create meaningful change and create a pact between the industry and our travelers to support a greater level of care for the nature, culture and history of the places to which we travel. We used to view tourism as a form of cultural exchange—a way to broaden our understanding, which is so critical to making our world a better place. We can do that again, with tourism serving as an accelerator of understanding and a protector of our natural resources. It’s our responsibility as an industry to create these big, bold ideas that will have meaningful results.”