How the tourism industry wants to define sustainability

The pandemic brought the global tourism industry to its knees last year. The sector in Switzerland was not spared. Travel restrictions saw a drop between 85-95% in overseas visitors, including short-stay Chinese, the Asian travellers the tourist industry had become increasingly reliant on. In the following article, Martin Nydegger, the CEO of the national tourism organisation, says the sector has learned its lesson and is now putting the accent on sustainability.

This content was published on May 13, 2021 - 10:00

If we are to succeed in making Switzerland the world’s most sustainable travel destination – a goal for which we already have many assets – we need a long-term strategy, common goals for all players, and a holistic approach for all three pillars of sustainable development.

Ever since the arrival of the first tourists who began travelling in groups – what we would describe as the beginning of “mass” tourism in the second half of the 19th century – nature, our mighty mountains and very diverse landscapes in a small area - have always been the dominant motivation for a trip to Switzerland. Wherever they come from, today’s travellers still expect to be fascinated, energised and soothed by nature in our country.

I’m no different. As a young tourism professional in the Lower Engadin Region (Engadin Scuol) in the early 2000s, I was acutely aware that when it comes to tourism, nature is our most important asset. This region, which is not known for its spectacular sites or bold marketing campaigns, has always been an inspiration and a model for sustainable tourism, a model for a fine balance between all three pillars of sustainable development (people, planet, prosperity). Tourism in Lower Engadin is based on authentic experiences: exploring the wonders of the nearby Swiss National Park, enjoying the therapeutic properties of its mineral water springs, and discovering the many facets of the Romansh culture. The region always focused on long-term objectives for a balanced development of tourism, ensuring prosperity and social equity, while protecting the environment. This shaped my understanding of a “healthy tourism” and became an enduring aspiration.

And still, over 15 years ago, raising awareness about the challenges to come was the priority to help tourism providers realise how much concerns for nature – namely climate change – could completely upset their industry in Switzerland. In 2008, on behalf of Switzerland Tourism (ST), as Head of business development, I initiated and co-authored a study with the University of Bern on the possible impacts of climate change for the tourism industry by 2030. This was a wake-up call to clearly explain how tourism business models – in particular in lower altitude winter sports destinations – would have to be reconsidered and reshaped in the years to come.

However, fighting climate change should not be our sole concern. Nowadays, all aspects of tourism need to be examined to find out where and how improvements in terms of a more sustainable development can be made. And this doesn’t mean that we should privilege one aspect of sustainable development at the expense of others. Let me give you an example on a national scale. In 2015, ST launched the Grand Tour of Switzerland, a 1600 km-itinerary across Switzerland, our very own “Route 66”. Does that really make sense, when fossil fuels are known to impact climate change? Yes, it does, since the vision behind the Grand Tour was to help give guests who travel to Switzerland by car – they still make roughly 60% of travellers – inspiration to discover new and lesser-known places. In other words, to guide automotive traffic to “new roads” and to open up new economic perspectives for peripheral regions. In addition, just two years after – in partnership with a major Swiss electricity provider – we launched the world's first road trip for electric vehicles – the whole route was equipped with over 300 charging stations for electric vehicles – this, in a country where they were not yet common at all. The same year, to boost touring Switzerland by train, the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland was introduced.

So, for ST, sustainable tourism is about finding solutions on a national scale to improve the balance between the three pillars of sustainable development. But challenges that can lead to an imbalance are multiple. This was true a decade ago, when Chinese tourists started exploring the world and began visiting Switzerland in great numbers. They were eager to discover places they had never seen before, and so, destinations in Europe had to rapidly adapt to a new demand of huge proportions. Finding the right balance for tourism takes a bit of time and a lot of flexibility.

Hence, we need to think in the long-term and how we want our industry to develop in the next 10 years barring unforeseen events which can impact tourism like the current pandemic. For several years now, we have thus completely focused our promotional activities in China on individual travellers: guests who want to stay longer and visit relatively unknown places, as opposed to tourism hot spots. This means that many more destinations can profit from this type of tourism. Travelling by plane such a long distance is not good for the environment but staying longer and travelling mainly by public transport once in Switzerland makes their entire journey more sustainable.

Importance of Chinese visitors 

Pre-pandemic, the Chinese (including Hong Kong and Taiwan) accounted for one in ten tourist arrivals in Switzerland, which placed them only behind Germans and Americans among foreign visitors. However, where Germans and Americans spent on average more than two nights in Swiss holiday accommodation in 2019, the Chinese stayed little over a day. Yet the strong growth in the sheer number of tourists arriving from China (accounting for a plus of nearly 400% in overnights between 2009 and 2019), coupled with the steady decline of overnights by European visitors (Germans –35% in the same period), kept China in the focus of tourism marketing activities as one of eight “priority markets”.

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Finding the right mix of guests is of utmost importance to ensure that local economies can still thrive and that tourism providers can invest in sustainable offers and infrastructure. Pre-pandemic, there was a balanced mix of visitors made of 45% from Switzerland, 35% from nearby countries and 20% from overseas. This shows how much tourism in Switzerland is dependent on its Swiss and European guests, a fact that will not change when international travel regains momentum.

I’ve been privileged to work in various countries (India, Africa, the Netherlands and, of course, Switzerland) and to travel in many others, collecting experiences on the development of tourism along the way. I am convinced that sustainable tourism can only stem from a holistic approach, which takes into account the fine balance between all three dimensions of sustainable development.

Sometimes great accomplishments are made to protect nature, but other aspects key to sustainability are often not taken into account. I was, for instance, deeply impressed by the strategic importance given to nature protection in Costa Rica. In 1948, the country abolished the army, but focused its budget on education, tourism and environmental protection. This had an enormous impact on preserving the natural habitat of plants and animals, but also on involving the population in caring for this habitat through education. Education in turn serves tourism, since providers in Costa Rica are extremely knowledgeable in nature conservation. However, in matters of mobility, development, at that time back was not so successful. Public transport was scarce and heavy truck traffic for the transportation of agricultural products clogged the road network. Still, empowerment of the population in terms of environmental protection is an aspect that I find extremely inspiring.

Indeed, I believe that change has to come from within. Learning, sharing experiences – successes as well as failures – making a whole community benefit from the knowledge at hand, is the only way to inspire and generate change. This is also the philosophy of the strategy for sustainable tourism we launched together with the Swiss tourism industry and the support of the SECO (State Secretariat for Economic Affairs) in February this year. This strategy – I prefer to describe it as a movement – called “Swisstainable”, aims at helping our country’s tourism industry in the implementation of sustainable solutions, while at the same time, showing our guests what suppliers have put into place in terms of sustainability. This is an ambitious programme – we hope to have 4,000 Swiss tourism providers on board by the end of 2023 – since all participating businesses make a commitment to take specific measures in terms of sustainability. With the Swisstainable movement, we share knowledge, create emulation among tourism providers and give our guests guidance on ways to travel more responsibly in Switzerland.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of SWI 

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