Travel’s “under-tourism disaster” has cost 197 million jobs and affected some of the world’s most vulnerable people, a WTM Virtual sustainability panel declared.
Matthew Upchurch, chairman and chief executive of US luxury agency Virtuoso, said the industry had “pivoted from the challenges of overtourism to the disaster of under-tourism” during Covid, which was affecting communities globally.
Speaking on a WTM sustainable tourism panel, he said a total shutdown of tourism would mean “the worst environmental disaster in the history of the planet” because of the knock-on effects on communities, wildlife and the landscape.
Fiona Jeffery, founder and chairman, Just a Drop, said under-tourism had a knock-on effect on the charity’s work, with falling tourism income in developing countries meaning less investment for basic infrastructure.
“With us, it’s become even more critical; the thing being asked of people is ‘wash your hands’. When you deal with communities across the world that do not have easy access to do that, your role becomes even more imperative.”
Upchurch said sustainability did not just mean conservation of natural resources.
“When you talk about sustainability a lot of times people only think about the environment and yet we have three pillars for sustainability; the environment, the preservation of natural cultural heritage but also the benefit to the local economy.
“We are really trying to put a face on this under-tourism disaster, whether it’s poaching in Africa or economic disasters all over the world where tourism is such a protector. When we talk about 197 million travel jobs being evaporated this year, we need to put a face to that.”
Upchurch described “the new narrative” that David Attenborough and others had brought and said any effort at sustainability in travel, however small, should be encouraged.
He asked: “How do we make sure that in this forced shutdown we come back in a way that’s not driven by desperation and making up for lost time?”
James Thornton, Intrepid Travel chief executive, said commercial businesses “can make a real positive difference to the world – the two are in combination and don’t have to fight each other.”
He added there were signs of a change among consumers post-Covid.
“People are not asking where to go in 2021, but how to go. People are wanting to go into the wild more, they have been stuck at home. They want to go deeper, not to 15 points in a two-week holiday.”
However, Brett Tollman, The Travel Corporation chief executive, disagreed.
“Behaviour over the summer told us some people have not changed at all. We see it with the garbage on the streets and so forth. I think there will be more people that want to travel responsibly, but also a percentage that don’t care about it.”