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Difficulties in sustainable tourism

According to the U.N., 2017 is the “International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development,” a year dedicated to changing the ways people go about tourism.

The resolution adopted on Dec. 22, 2015, is the latest in a long line of international years that bring light to specific worldwide issues, as declared and observed by the U.N. since 1959.

At the most basic level, this international year focuses on five areas: inclusive economic growth, employment and poverty reduction, resource efficiency and environmental protection, cultural values and diversity, and mutual understanding and peace.

Still in its starting stages, this international year began with an opening ceremony in Madrid, Spain, on Jan. 18, and a website currently lists recommended activities for any group that wishes to take part in the initiative. The year will guide many of the actions of the U.N. itself as well.

This international year is an important one in many people’s eyes, especially when taking into account their own travels abroad. The unsustainable nature of tourism in the economic sector is oftentimes most prominent.

“There were areas we visited in the country that didn’t have running water, had homes constructed out of not sturdy materials, paved roads were not very present, so definitely a lower standard of living compared to our standards,” said Katie Claggett, a sophomore who studied abroad in Belize over January term. “It was certainly present juxtaposed to areas where tourism thrived.”

Considering areas where change is needed, the questions to ask are whether or not the U.N. will be able to live up to the expectations it has set with the resolution and whether or not the impact of the international year will be a powerful one.

For some, the answers to these questions surrounding the resolution are hopeful. In terms of impact, the mere naming of the international year is a powerful act that should have positive global repercussions.

“By the U.N. declaring this a year of international sustainability and development for the programs that support that, it sends a message that the world is a global place,” said Daniel Diaz, director of study abroad & international student advisor.

For others, there is reason to question whether or not the international year will truly move the world towards more sustainable and developed tourism. While not opposed to the idea of the U.N. resolution, many are looking at it critically and asking questions which have answers that are hard to predict.

“One of the questions about sustainability is, ‘sustainable in what way?’” said Eric Mortensen, associate professor of religious studies and coordinator of international studies. “Is it sustainable for the environment, sustainable for the local people’s maintenance and transmission of cultural identity? Or, is it sustainable for the people making money off of tourism?”

While the language of the resolution does make it clear that the environment, cultural values, diversity and heritage are a high priority for sustainability, there remains the question of whether this language will be met with action.

It is a difficult situation, given how much the tourism industry currently lacks in cultural sustainability.

“… (I)nternational tourism tends to reproduce and enhance asymmetries between world regions,” said Maria Amado, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, in an email interview. “Tourists not only bring capital to the places they visit, but also unexamined privilege and the entitlement that derives from the power to consume both commodities and images.”

All these uncertainties boil down to whether or not the U.N. will be able to meet the expectations set by its own resolution. While many are critical of the tourism industry generally, as well as the U.N., there is also a lot of hope among everyone that it will make progress in the right direction.

“I think sustainable tourism is probably a more hopeful concept than non-sustainable tourism, so why not?” said Mortensen. “Any effort to focus on sustainability seems, to me, to be a good idea”

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