A recipe for resilient destinations

By Jeremy Sampson, CEO of The Travel Foundation

In these times of uncertainty, resilience - our ability to confront, adapt to, and recover from the challenges and risks ahead - is more important than ever. With the COP27 climate conference in Egypt shining a light on the climate emergency this month, now seems an appropriate time to reflect on what DMOs can do to build their resiliency and secure their future through climate action.

Whilst the tourism sector as a whole has been slow to get started on tackling this issue, it is clear that the momentum is now building. A year on from the creation of the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, more than 700 tourism organisations, including DMOs, tour operators, online travel agencies and more, have committed to taking action and there is a growing sense of urgency. Most tourism organisations want to be a part of the solution. However, for many, the questions of where to start and what to prioritise with limited resources remain challenging and the need for practical, useful guidance is paramount.

Earlier this month, as part of our activity for COP27, the Travel Foundation co-hosted a webinar with UNWTO, in which leaders from the travel industry, destinations and supporting organisations described how they have built mitigation, adaptation and resiliency measures into their plans, giving advice and tips on how to overcome the barriers and accelerate action. The result was a truly inspiring and reassuring insight into what is possible and while not all those who participated in our breakfast briefing workshop at this year’s City Nation Place Global will count themselves as leaders, nonetheless we found the experience similarly inspiring and illuminating.

Whilst climate action planning may sometimes feel daunting, our speakers highlighted that it does not have to be complex, and the process can often bring wider benefits and opportunities to join forces. Below are five key take-aways from our sessions, all key ingredients in a recipe for resilience.

1. Collaborate

Climate change is a big (the biggest!), all-encompassing challenge. Your role as DMO is of course to represent your complex, multi-faceted industry, but also to connect with those representing the wider place-based needs of the destination. We all need to be open to working together towards a common goal, perhaps this already exists in the form of a Climate Action Plan or specific initiatives and commitments for your city, state, or region. Public-private community collaboration is needed like never before, and DMOs can build on their experience in this space to be an essential part of that system. Shannon Guihan from The Travel Corporation (TTC) highlighted the importance of their work with VisitScotland, as the two entities seek better ways to reduce ‘scope 3’, or supply chain, emissions in the destination. Despite its size, this large tour operator acting alone is not able to effect the change needed to transform its supply chain (which accounts for over 80% of its emissions). “Destinations need to be involved,” Shannon explains. At the same time, DMOs can integrate their own work with other sectors and departments, finding out what else is happening in the destination around climate and connecting with wider plans, commitments, targets and initiatives.

2. Prioritise

There is only so much that DMOs can do, so it is important to seek out the quick wins. Look for where are you likely to have greatest impact and where tourism can provide a catalytic effect that would support climate action across other sectors in your destination. Patty Martin, Science Consultant for the Oregon Coast Visitors Association highlighted the importance of creating a scheme for prioritising the most impactful actions that you can take. “Don’t wait until all the pieces of the puzzle are in place,” suggests Patty. None of us has all the answers or all the knowledge, but you don’t need this to act. This is particularly pertinent advice for those destinations that have yet to fully measure their carbon footprint, which is among the most technically challenging aspects of building a plan. Taking action where it is a clear necessity, and tracking the success of what you are implementing, can be a useful way to have an impact while your footprint measurements are underway and avoid action paralysis.  

3. Act as a catalyst.

One of the most important roles for any DMO is to nurture and accelerate action across the destination, particularly amongst SMEs. Judy Kepher-Gona, founder of Sustainable Travel and Tourism Agenda (STTA), a Pan African sustainable tourism organisation, highlighted that awareness raising is still key. In many destinations, businesses still don’t understand their role and responsibility for climate action. Raising awareness, often requiring us to repeat our messages over and over again, is important. “We use education to change mindsets,” Judy explains. Vicente Ferreyra Acosta, Director General of Sustentur, a tourism consultancy based in Mexico, highlighted that there is still a long way to go before the tourism industry is fully aware of the importance of the Glasgow Declaration and of becoming part of a global effort. Once organisations are onboard, supporting them to take action and building their capacity will be key. Cristina Nunez, Director at NECSTouR, a network of European regions, highlighted the value of providing examples and case studies. This serves to inspire and empower people and also to show that they are not alone with the challenges they are facing.

4. Get the language right

Patty Martin talked about the importance of framing climate action through the lens of resilience. This de-politicizes the message and allows businesses to engage. “Effective communication is the cornerstone of engagement,” Patty explained. A point reiterated by Judy Kepher-Gona who agreed that businesses want to hear how to make their operation more resilient and by Juan Marambio, from South American hotel group, Explora, who highlighted that there is a reluctance to change due to the economic crisis, but that the action we need to take now is about resilience for the future. Those who adapt and innovate now will be the winners in a decarbonising world.

5. Apply a climate lens to everyday thinking

Climate action is not a tick-box exercise, or a separate strategy, but a central part of day-to-day thinking and decision making. Often, existing plans and activities just need a few adjustments to align then with your climate and resiliency goals. For example, incorporating your plans for coach and car-based tours into wider bids for electric vehicle infrastructure investment, promoting low carbon activities such as hiking or kayaking, and leveraging funds for SME capacity building. It can also feed into which markets to attract - prioritising those that will deliver the greatest value for the destination with the fewest carbon emissions. Mitigation and adaptation strategies can also bring wider benefits to the destination, helping to address other persistent issues, such as visitor management, reducing economic leakage and seasonality, rewilding ecosystems, and building brand equity in new and meaningful ways

The Glasgow Declaration can help to raise awareness and create alignment across the sector, and the tools and resources associated with the initiative is forever growing.  The Declaration represents an opportunity to come together and maximise efforts to make a real difference for a resilient and profitable future for our destinations. And if there is one message, more than any other, you can take away from the various discussion at COP and CNP Global, it’s this: the time has come to demonstrate leadership and take meaningful action. 

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