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Driving Tourism Forward: Balancing Sustainability and Economic Growth

By Dr Rebecca Sta Maria Urubamba, Cusco, Peru | 14 June 2024

Striving for a balance between economic growth and sustainability of the environment can be a challenge, but a strategic plan should guide policymakers and industry players on the best way to succeed in having both. 



Since ministers last met in Bangkok in 2022, the Tourism Working Group and member economies of APEC have been doing much to ensure that this sector maintains its growth trajectory, incorporating lessons learned as we recovered from the pandemic.


Most of the projects undertaken since we last met are aligned with the APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040 which calls for strong, balanced, secure, sustainable and inclusive growth. Projects also took further the Policy Recommendations for Tourism of the Future: Regenerative Tourism to which ministers agreed in 2022. Included in the projects undertaken these past years were community-based tourism; sustainable tourism evaluation tools for visitor and destination; green recovery strategies in rural tourism; youth involvement to the development of sustainable and safe tourism; and sustainable development of tourism vocational education.


In addition, a community-based tourism website was launched in May 2023 that digitized the business and product data of a network of rural micro, small, and medium-sized tourism businesses operating in the APEC region.


The new Tourism Strategic Plan 2025-2029 will be our blueprint for the future of tourism that is sustainable and inclusive. On sustainability, it is important to recall that when APEC economic leaders met for the first time in 1993, they committed to protecting the environment. This call has been reiterated by leaders over the years.


That said, striving for a balance between economic growth and sustainability of our environment can be a challenge for policymakers and industry players alike. Tourism, for example, is often seen as a double-edged sword: On the one hand it opens up the beauty, historical and cultural wealth, and supports economic development of the local and rural communities. On the other hand, if not managed effectively, it can affect the very beauty and community that we want to preserve: herein is the challenge of promotion versus preservation and conservation. On this score we have much to learn from Peru.


Appreciating the complex relationship between sustainable tourism and development means that it shouldn’t be whether we can have both sustainable, environmentally conscious tourism and economic development. The strategic plan should guide us on the best way to succeed in having both.


On the impact of climate change, I must reference the 2023 USA-led project, Assessing the Impact of Rising Sea Levels on Travel and Tourism in APEC Economies. A key part of the project was a survey that was shared with Tourism, Emergency Preparedness, Small and Medium Enterprises, and Oceans and Fisheries Working Groups to determine the understanding of climate change impact and what APEC tourism SMEs can do to deal with such impacts.


On inclusion, the tourism sector to a large extent, is characterized by low-skills and a high degree of informality. Peru’s call on us to raise awareness and increase the visibility of informal tourism workers is indeed timely. Informal workers, including street food sellers, souvenir vendors, drivers, freelance tour guides, and artisans, are the backbone of the tourism supply chain. Yet, they are often excluded from industry discussions and face significant vulnerabilities. Women, who constitute over 50 percent of the tourism workforce in our region, are predominantly found in lower-paid and informal roles. The same can be said of indigenous entrepreneurs and people with disabilities. This collective group are particularly vulnerable during crises, as they often lack social protection and job security.


Inclusion also means that accessible tourism has to be integral to our tourism policies and initiatives; that barrier-free tourism has to be a deliberate part of our planning and policies and included in our Tourism Strategic Plan 2025-2029. For this we need not reinvent the wheel as we have many examples from member economies as well as the findings of a project implemented by Australia and co-sponsored by Malaysia and Peru, People Living with Disability: Best Practice Guidelines for Tourism MSMEs in APEC, as a guide. Further, in a 2022 survey of cities that people with disabilities found most travel accessible, cities from seven of our APEC member economies made the top 10 list. This is encouraging but we can do more in this regard.


Last week, members considered the important aspect of helping our tourism workers transition to the formal economy. In their interventions, members highlighted the challenge of access to finance; the need for capacity building in the requisite digital and financial skills; access to digital tools and platforms and health and social protection policies. APEC provides the opportunity to tap into the expertise of a wide range of practitioners. As such, we must do more to ensure cross-fora collaboration as we work to better serve our constituents, for example working with the APEC finance ministers process, the Small and Medium Enterprises Working Group, the Digital Economy Steering Group, the APEC Business Advisory Council, as well as international organizations.


Dr Rebecca Sta Maria is the executive director of the APEC Secretariat.

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