The dizzying growth of the Middle East and North Africa region’s economy has created enormous opportunities for its tourism sector, with mega-resorts such as Dubai’s Palm Jumeirah capturing global attention and positioning the region as a “must-visit” destination. However, if the region is to reach its full potential, it must fuel its growth sustainably and lead global efforts to implement environmentally conscious tourism.
With concerns over climate change continuing to mount, the number of environmentally conscious tourists is on the rise. They are calling for “green” destinations, with major global travel distributors and communities like Thomas Cook and National Geographic Traveler increasingly using sustainability as a key measure in ranking and recommending destinations. A number of destinations across the globe, from the Maldives to Costa Rica, have responded by branding themselves as “green.”
In response, destinations must invest in the preservation of their natural assets. Those that squander their most precious resources by allowing tourists free rein are chiselling away at their ecological and economic foundation, trading long-term health for short-term gains.
By seriously committing to a long-term, holistic approach to environmental sustainability — one that goes beyond empty marketing promises and a series of piecemeal quick fixes — destinations can keep pace with the growing demand for sustainable tourism and stake a competitive claim in the green playing field.
In doing so, they can bolster their “double bottom lines,” preserving their natural assets while profiting economically. By implementing a transformational greening strategy, they can reap significant financial rewards. With that in mind, destinations must rigorously assess four key components of their environment to understand the true implications of environmental degradation on a destination’s economic sustainability.
Carbon emissions: Carbon mitigation efforts are a critical aspect of green policy. The tourism industry is currently responsible for around 5 percent of global carbon emissions, largely as a result of air travel and accommodation. A recent global study from the World Economic Forum and Booz & Company estimates that these emissions will double by 2035 if left unchecked.
Since emissions result from both technological and human activity, any mitigation strategy must include comprehensive behavioral and technological change throughout the tourism sector. Destinations can dramatically reduce their carbon footprints by investing in green technologies and implementing best practices. These include renewable fuels, solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, compact fluorescent lighting, energy-efficient appliances, building insulation, sustainably sourced materials and carbon sequestration from trees. Guests should be encouraged to choose energy-efficient transport and activities, such as hybrid vehicles, bicycles, sailboats, horses and camels.
Biodiversity conservation: In the past two decades, tourism to biodiversity hot spots has increased more than 100 percent. Although profitable in the short term, human activity can ultimately cause irreparable harm to fragile natural assets such as coral reefs, mountain trails and beaches. The preservation of these assets is therefore a critical component of sustainable tourism and a high-yielding investment in the future. Destinations should regulate access to fragile areas, protect indigenous species, develop national parks and control pests.
Water supply: A healthy water supply is crucial to a destination’s long-term environmental sustainability. What’s more, water provision and desalination typically guzzle energy and create emissions. Tourism places an even greater demand on the MENA region’s already scarce water supply, making conservative water policies more critical than ever.
Destinations should implement innovative conservation practices and technologies to optimize water use. They should also introduce technology to conserve water, such as sensor-operated taps, low-pressure showers and timed sprinklers. Finally, by cleaning and reusing wastewater, a destination can increase its potable water capacity and reduce sewage, pollution and clean-up fees.
Waste management: As a major pollutant, waste affects both water quality, land health and negatively influences a destination’s image. Effective liquid and solid waste management is therefore a “green imperative.” Destinations should follow global best practices for waste management by reducing potential waste streams, minimizing the amount of waste that ends up in landfills and incinerators, and recycling whenever possible. Cutting-edge methods such as waste-to-energy conversion can enhance a destination’s ‘green’ credentials and attract potential investors, in addition to bolstering environmental sustainability.
Finding the path to sustainability
Of course, none of these components exists in a vacuum. On the contrary, they are all interconnected and interdependent, much like the ecosystems they aim to protect. For this reason, a holistic approach to sustainability is key. To successfully address environmental sustainability, and generate significant improvement to the components discussed above, destinations must take a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach to transformation. This green transformation roadmap should include:
Regulations and governance: Successful implementation of a green strategy is largely dependent on having the right laws and regulations in place and the governance to oversee their implementation. Legislation should protect the environment, limit potentially harmful activity and encourage healthy behavior, while encouraging sustainable tourism as an opportunity to refuel demand and capture new tourism segments. A successful sustainability program should be sponsored by the highest levels of government and spearheaded by an independent local entity that facilitates its implementation.
Stakeholder participation: Any truly holistic sustainability program requires the active engagement of many different stakeholders. At the government level, national tourism ministries and local authorities should collaborate with the entities responsible for the environment, energy, transport, health and finance to steer policy and spearhead environmentally friendly efforts. For example, policymakers can establish an accreditation program that recognizes sustainable accommodation and services and provides incentives to green businesses in the tourism sector.
As the stakeholders with the most direct access to tourists, the private sector plays a key role in protecting the environment. For example, hotel owners can reduce their carbon footprints and implement policies regarding sustainable waste, energy conservation, and water usage. Tour guides can act as ambassadors for environmental awareness, influencing tourists to choose energy-efficient transportation and activities as well as rotating exposure to fragile ecological sites. In addition, non governmental organizations and universities can provide critical research and advocacy.
Funding and financing: Investing in green programs such as energy-efficient technology often yields positive financial returns. Many initiatives that require private funds pay off quickly through savings in operating costs, which can then be recycled into other green projects. In addition, destinations can often generate green funding by better leveraging their own resources, through introducing variable demand-based fee schemes to visit protected sites.
However, although many greening strategies indeed bolster the double bottom line, not all are financially profitable. In addition, destinations are not always able to generate revenue through their own resources. In these instances, external funding can provide seed capital for long-term sustainability efforts. Such funding includes global financing schemes such as clean development mechanisms, public-private partnership financing models, biodiversity conservation funds and international tourism development funds. Other key elements to consider include educational and capacity-building campaigns, which must be introduced to train local stakeholders about best practices and encourage them to implement and promote green policy. Simultaneously, strong public relations and marketing campaigns should raise awareness about upcoming changes, encourage stakeholder participation, and attract ecologically minded tourists and potential investors.
Many popular tourist spots in the region have a lot of catching up to do in order to become successful green destinations. Given the global trend toward green tourism, MENA destinations need to start their environmental transformation process sooner rather than later. The implementation of green strategy is no easy task, and it cannot be accomplished overnight through a series of quick fixes. Green initiatives should not be approached as a marketing campaign but rather a serious, holistic, long-term effort to become environmentally sustainable.
With its dizzying rate of growth and appeal to a growing number of travelers, the MENA region has a powerful opportunity to nurture its tourism sector’s sustainable practices.