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Opinion
Jan 5, 2022

Rebuild More Sustainable Mountain Tourism for People, Planet

Qu Dongyu/ Zurab Pololikashvili
Tourists enjoying at the Himalayas. Image File: Inside Himalayas
Tourists enjoying at the Himalayas. Image File: Inside Himalayas

For many rural mountain communities, tourism is a lifeline, contributing in particular to SDGs 1, 2 and 8.

However, mountain tourism can also negatively affect fragile mountain ecosystems, endanger biodiversity, fail to ensure local people benefit from revenues, and even threaten the identity of mountain communities themselves.

In anticipation of the return of large numbers of visitors to mountains after the COVID-19 pandemic, consideration must be given to reducing environmental impacts, including by addressing tourist-generated plastic waste, and ensuring sustainable tourism, such as by developing a year-round tourism destination in mountains as climate crisis shortens snow seasons.

The world’s mountains have long attracted visitors for their scenic beauty, sports opportunities and rich cultural heritage. And for many rural mountain communities, tourism is a lifeline. However, mountain tourism can also come at a cost.

Tourism can increase household incomes, enhance job opportunities and revitalize local traditions. By doing so, it contributes to many of the Sustainable Development Goals including those on poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2) and decent work (SDG 8). This is especially important when we consider that one in every two rural mountain people in developing countries are at risk of hunger.

But when poorly managed, tourism can negatively affect fragile mountain ecosystems, endanger biodiversity, fail to ensure local people benefit from revenues, and even threaten the identity of mountain communities themselves.

COVID-19 has hit the tourism industry like a seismic shock. Before the pandemic, mountain tourism accounted for up to a fifth of tourism worldwide. In 2020, international tourist numbers declined by 74%  globally, and mountain destinations that relied on international visitors have suffered serious economic losses.

But the joint study “Mountain Tourism-Towards A More Sustainable Path” by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the Mountain Partnership Secretariat suggests that the pandemic has also presented us with an opportunity to rethink mountain tourism.

Helping mountain regions to recover from the COVID-19 crisis requires actions in the short and longer term that extend beyond the tourism sector. It is our urgent responsibility to rebuild the industry more sustainably and equitably, in ways that provide long-term benefits for mountain peoples and their environments.

Many governments have responded quickly to support tourism recovery. Most countries have adopted economy-wide stimulus packages, along with job support measures.

It also needs to transform agro-food systems to be more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, for improved livelihoods and to ensure that local communities are fully engaged in, and benefit from, mountain tourism.

In particular, mountain destinations need to innovate and diversify to attract new markets as tourism emerges from the shadow of the pandemic.

Developing a year-round tourism destination in mountains can generate additional income, and is increasingly vital as the impacts of the climate crisis are reducing the lengths of the snow seasons. Mountains have much more to offer than snow sports in winter and hiking in summer.

Archeological, cultural and spiritual sites, picturesque villages, thermal baths, specialty products and gastronomy trails, and rare species of plants and animals all represent opportunities to diversify tourism. 

Strengthening crisis management capacities and health and safety standards will be critical to build the long-term resilience of mountain communities and the mountain tourism sector. 

In addition, in anticipation of the return of large numbers of visitors to mountains, consideration must be given to reduce environmental impacts and ensure sustainable tourism. 

This includes addressing the large quantities of tourist-generated plastic waste in mountains, which causes harm to the health of animals, humans and ecosystems.

The recent UN-supported Mountain Waste Survey confirmed that plastic waste is found even in remote areas, such as the Himalaya Summits. Working towards eliminating single-use plastic products across the tourism industry is of key importance.

It also needs to ensure that tourism fosters respect and protection for the natural and spiritual heritage of mountains, and the cultural diversity and traditional practices of mountain communities.

Sustainable mountain tourism is the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day observed annually on 11 December. For sustainable mountain tourism to prosper, urgent measures are required to ensure that nobody is left behind. This means supporting the vulnerable groups in mountains, including women, youth and Indigenous Peoples, who are the custodians of these majestic yet fragile environments from which we all benefit. The sustainable management of mountains will support better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all, and contribute to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Credit: IISD/SDG

(Qu is a Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and Pololikashvili is the Secretary-General of the UN World Tourism Organization)