Antonio López de Ávila

Sustainable tourist destinations

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) defines sustainable tourism as tourism which “meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support systems.” This definition dates back to 1993 and remains fully valid.

The paradigm of sustainable development rests, therefore, on ensuring balance between economic growth (which does not always mean sustained continuous growth, as it must be limited by the so-called “carrying capacity” of regions), the preservation of the environment, and the respect for the societies and cultures that receive the traveller. Only in this way can a tourism that is fair, diverse and respectful of the region and its inhabitants be created, which not only preserves but also permits the progressive incorporation of innovation at energy, environmental, cultural and economic levels, with the aim of increasing the quality of life of the local population while improving the visitor’s experience.

It is therefore necessary to begin to analyse sustainability with a holistic vision that includes all its variables: the social aspect; that of local residents, who if they do not perceive that tourism benefits them will invariably take a stance against it; the cultural variable, which requires the creation of new strategies to unlock the value of the history and local culture and facilitate the visitor’s immersion into it, while ensuring the protection of local identity authenticity; and the economic variable, which requires sustainable business models that generate resources for the residents.

Meanwhile, the gradual incorporation of ICT into the sustainable management of tourism regions already enables us to have valid, reliable, representative and useful information about any territory at a reasonable implementation and maintenance cost, and provides a solid foundation for decision-making both for the public and private sector, thus enhancing efficiency. Some highly seasonal regions are particularly hard to manage, as tourism can produce drastic variations in terms of population size (many towns double and even triple their population in peak season) and therefore demand for services (water, energy, waste management and recycling, mobility, trade, etc.). In this respect, when processing large volumes of structured and unstructured data, it is very important to consider the monitoring power offered by tools such as sensor systems, WiFi and WiMax networks, online data capture and, above all, the management of “Big Data/Open Data”.

We are already able to capture strategic information about what is happening in the region systematically and automatically and, with these tools, we can put into effect specific measures to help to achieve sustainability. This is the new tourist destination model for the 21st century: the smart tourist destination.

At the environmental level, it is necessary to optimize the use of renewable energies (solar, water, biomass, wind, etc.) and commit to the “circular economy” as well as municipal policies that opt for more efficient and sustainable management of energy and water.

From the economic point of view, smart tourist destinations encourage new niches for employment, countless opportunities to launch new tourism products and services, and the development of the potential of local traditions, trade and small industry (artisan, agricultural, etc.) as key elements in differentiating destinations.

In the socio-cultural sphere, it is essential to create strategies to facilitate the respectful immersion of the visitors into the host society, into its traditions and into the history of each region. It will be necessary to create new spaces for visitors to meet the local population, by following models of mutual enrichment, as well as unlocking the value of the cultural and architectural heritage in order to preserve it and take care of it for future generations.

The development of sustainable tourism, therefore, is present in all smart destination management plans. Investment in R&D by companies, universities and research centres in the region is also necessary in the search for more efficient, competitive and sustainable solutions in all areas.

The goal is to make sustainability become part of the DNA of the regions where there is tourism and to reinforce the destinations’ absolute responsibility for the long-term protection of the general interests of all the players involved. In 2012 in Spain, the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Tourism, pioneering in the implementation of the smart tourist destination model, fostered a series of measures and initiatives through SEGITTUR to transform the traditional Spanish tourism model into a model linked to the “Smart” concept, innovation, the necessary public-private and private-public cooperation, and innovative entrepreneurs and business people from the new digital economy. This new model is already having a direct impact on the improvement in the international perception of Spain as a destination and in the visitor’s experience, on reducing the seasonal nature of tourism and enhancing its geographical distribution, on more efficient decision making by public administration and on greater profitability for companies.

SDG talks

Good practices