Wolfgang Strasdas, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development near Berlin in Germany, in this interview shares his thoughts on responsible tourism developments and trends in Germany, Europe and beyond.
- The origins of “responsible tourism” in Germany and how the topic has evolved since then;
- How the profiles of Sustainable Tourism master students have changed;
- How the tourism industry approaches sustainability;
- The business case of sustainability in tourism;
- “Overtourism”, and why protests against it are going to become more frequent, and louder;
- What tourism should look like in 2030, ideally..
Wolfgang, you have been working in tourism since 1991, have a PhD on the subject of “Ecotourism in developing countries” and have been teaching tourism and sustainability at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany since 2002. How has the perspective on sustainable tourism changed over the years?
In the German-speaking countries we already had the discussion about “soft” tourism in the 1980s. That’s how we called it at that time. Much of what we now call “sustainable” has been anticipated. But this was not noticed internationally, because it hardly went beyond the German-speaking area.
At the global level, the Rio Conference of 1992 was a decisive milestone that also influenced tourism. In the 1990s, the concept of ecotourism was at the forefront, that is, the question of how tourism can contribute to preserving biodiversity. At the turn of the millennium, social issues such as local participation rights, fair trade relations and poverty reduction were added.
Nevertheless, in 2002, when we launched the Master’s programme “Sustainable Tourism Management” in Eberswalde, we were still laughed at by many tourism professionals in Germany as eco-nerds. This has changed fundamentally in the subsequent years.
The tourism industry has now understood that an intact environment is an important capital and that without social legitimacy it will lose its future viability.
This unfortunately doesn’t mean that things have changed fundamentally. While sustainability is on everyone’s lips – and I also see that tourism benefits many rural regions and developing countries – it is mostly declarations of intent and minor changes that do not really require anyone to change their travel behaviour. What’s certain though is that awareness of sustainability has grown.
Has the number of students changed? Do you notice a rise or even a boom?
We enroll about 35 Master students each year. Our number of applicants has risen steadily until very recently, when consolidation has begun. This is due to a number of reasons that have nothing to do with sustainability, such as the negative population growth in Germany and the improved situation on the labour market, which means that even with a bachelor’s degree you can get a job today.
However, what has changed is the motivation of the students.
While we used to have many students from the region or from the environmental sector who were primarily interested in finding a job in tourism, today we mostly have students who already have a tourism background and want to change the industry towards sustainability.
For all those who successfully complete their studies, is there a job or do destinations prefer to send their employees for further training?
The “academisation” of the industry is progressing. Nowadays, tourism is under constant pressure to innovate. Successful tourism professionals must therefore be able to think and act strategically and be able to react to developments in society.
In addition to economic criteria, this includes social and ecological skills. I observe that our graduates are increasingly working in strategic management positions, which actually also deal with sustainability issues. This applies in particular to the destination level you are referring to.
Destination management in itself requires dealing with a large number of stakeholders and is about negotiating different interests.
In contrast to tour operators, destinations are spatially bound functional units that cannot simply “move” when their natural tourism resources are no longer intact.
On the subject of further training for tourism professionals in terms of sustainability, this is a difficult subject. Most destination management organizations have a very low staffing level and are primarily concerned with marketing.
There is little time left for further training, and if there is, it is spent on topics such as marketing techniques or digitization, because organisations are also under constant pressure to innovate in this respect.
We have learned from experience that training courses must be short and simple to be accepted, even if they are free of charge. This does not replace sustainability studies.
Do you think that the industry is open to sustainable tourism or do they see this trend as a necessary evil?
That cannot be answered unequivocally. In my opinion, there is a variety of trends, some of which run counter to each other. The tourism industry, especially the large corporations, tend to be opportunistic and only does what is absolutely necessary or where synergies arise, for example by cutting costs through increased energy efficiency or where social responsibility leads to a higher quality of service for the customer.
However, if sustainability entails higher costs, for example by paying fair wages, or if it requires more far-reaching behavioural changes – such as avoiding meat or frequent long-distance journeys – then limits of acceptance are quickly reached, both by the tourism providers and by the tourists themselves.
Especially in the field of transport, there is no progress towards climate protection, quite the opposite. And we have been experiencing a boom in cruises for years, a completely unsustainable form of travel.
On the other hand, we often see owner-managed companies that are ethically motivated. In southern Africa, for example, dedicated safari operators are doing great things for nature conservation and poverty reduction in remote regions.
BIO HOTELS in Germany and Austria, and the tour operators of forum anders reisen are further examples of sustainability in practice. And there is a lot going on at the level of tourist destinations, because they are the most exposed to any negative effects of tourism, as mentioned earlier.
In Germany and elsewhere, regions keen to embrace sustainability are currently being certified. Some of these projects, for example in the Uckermark and in Baden-Württemberg, were managed by myself.
What do you think would be the consequence if the complete tourism industry would not switch to sustainability?
Tourism cannot be seen separately from the rest of society, where we do not see any clear move towards sustainability either. But of course, not everything is bad. In my opinion, tourism already has many positive effects. It creates jobs in rural areas where there are few economic alternatives; it adds value to biodiversity, and I am also convinced that travelling broadens the horizon and creates more understanding for other people and cultures.
However, the transport problem and the challenges of climate change are largely unresolved. If tourism continues to rely on cars and planes as its main means of transport and fails to achieve a reasonable relationship between travel time and distance, it will sooner or later have to submit to drastic climate protection measures. And the increasing global warming would destroy many tourist resources.
Another complex problem is social legitimacy: If uncontrolled mass tourism only exploits destinations – the keyword being “overtourism” – without offering them sufficient advantages, for example in the form of participatory development or the promotion of the local economy, then it will make more and more enemies.
Do you think that in future we will have to prepare ourselves for more protests by the local population in cities and areas that are heavily frequented by tourists? Which concepts from this dilemma do you see as particularly promising?
Yes, we will. Tourism cannot continue to grow like this indefinitely. In cities such as Venice, Paris, Barcelona or Dubrovnik, where these protests have already taken place, the limits of growth have long since been reached or exceeded. This applies not only to classic mass tourism, but also to new forms of mass individual tourism, which are promoted by low-cost airlines and intermediaries such as Airbnb and penetrate into formerly residential areas.
On the other hand, there are regions and neighbourhoods that hardly benefit from tourism, although they also have something to offer. This could be remedied by a decentralisation strategy. For example, the city of Paris has recently begun to attract tourists to the multi-cultural outskirts of the city. Instead of always only Berlin it could be Leipzig; instead of New York Baltimore, and so on.
If it were in your hands, what should tourism look like in 2030?
Ideally, sustainable tourism would look like this:
- If they don’t have much time, people prefer to discover something new and interesting in the vicinity instead of getting on a plane and taking strenuous long distance journeys.
- Long-haul trips are again something special and exciting, which I prepare well and for which I take a lot of time. Instead of rushing from one place to another, travellers prefer intensive experiences in selected places, also with the help of local guides.
- Tourism transport becomes intermodal, that is, different means of transportation are combined with each other at the time of booking. This means, for example, that I travel with high-speed trains, even on medium-haul routes, and switch to new flexible public transport systems (including car and ride sharing in the countryside) at the destination. Very short distances are increasingly travelled by bike or on foot.
- Energy and transport prices reflect the true environmental and social costs. Until then, it may have been possible to develop synthetic climate-neutral fuels for aircraft and to equip automobiles with climate-friendly engines. Otherwise, greenhouse gas emissions will be offset by high-quality climate protection projects.
- Tourism is becoming more integrated into the regions it uses as destinations. It respects and promotes local cultures, strengthens the local economy and facilitates personal meetings at eye level.
- Mass tourism is an achievement of wealthy societies with a large middle class and therefore not a bad thing per se. It is managed wisely and in a resource-saving way within the ecological and social carrying capacity of tourism regions.
- Hotels are placing greater emphasis on intelligent resource management and renewable energies without sacrificing comfort. Fair wages are paid in the hospitality sector.
- Tourists eat fair and healthy food and are curious about local specialities. Sustainable gastronomy relies on short delivery routes, seasonality, environmentally sound and animal-friendly agriculture, less meat and fair prices for producers.
Admittedly, this sounds pretty rosy, but most of it is already possible today and is being practiced in many places. The biggest challenge is surely the transport of tourists. And consumer behaviour – if tourists demand and buy sustainable travel offers, then the tourism industry will certainly provide them.
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