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Tour operators and the UNSDGs

The potential of a global framework to create nuanced, bespoke sustainable tourism plans


Are the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals relevant to tourism? I would say yes, and there is a movement towards using this global framework when creating strategies. This week, I attended the TTG Fairer Travel Week Sustainability Forum where most speakers discussed the goals. With big players like Audley setting targets and creating impact reports aligned with the SDGs, is it time to learn more?


More and more, I see the UNSDGs being considered when looking at sustainable tourism strategy. This excites me as my months of research into their use by adventure tour operators were well-spent! Before I release the results of my research into the world, I will explain what they are and a few of their pitfalls.


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals were introduced in 2015 to promote the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. There are 17 UNSDGs with 169 targets attributed to them - that’s a lot to think about, let alone implement. We are seven years away from them reaching maturity; some acceleration is needed if we can take them seriously.


Within these targets, three goals use tourism as an industry that can actively aim to achieve them – 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, 12: Responsible Consumption and 14: Life Below Water. However, tourism can positively impact all the goals - I can already hear you saying, ‘Where’s ‘Climate Action’? Surely that one relates to tourism?’. Each goal is relevant across our industry, and the UNWTO acknowledges this with ideas on where we can make an impact. So far there has been a lack of engagement at the tour operator level and it is mostly DMOs that have adopted the goals as a form of strategy.


While the goals can be overwhelming, we can create an impact by visualising them as a web of goals that relate to the tenets of sustainability (environmental, socio-cultural and economic). Soon you will realise they shouldn’t be displayed as a set of tiles as they are all interconnected. If we work towards protecting biodiversity (Life on Land) and our oceans (Life Below Water), we achieve Climate Action. Similarly, from a social perspective - empowering women and enhancing opportunities for decent work can also contribute to Climate Action. A good starting point is to select which ones are relevant to your business and products and create a plan around them.


My recommendation would be to start with the ones that are most relevant to your business and your products and set some goals around the themes. For example, I’ve been working with a client who chose 'Gender Equality' as a goal important to them as their business model is based on getting women into adventure activities. We set a target to increase female mountain leaders on their challenges (whilst not dismissing their male allies), and this year they have already delivered two adventures 100% female-led. In a country (the UK) where only 25% of mountain leaders are female, this feels like a big win!


If you want to know more about how the UNSDGs can be used for sustainable tourism strategy, sign up to receive my report


To discuss how I can help you create a sustainable tourism plan based on the UNSDGs, send me an email.







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