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How COVID has changed tourism – We are capable and therefore accountable

According to Dr Alex Gertschen, Head of “Tourism for Sustainable Development. A Global Initiative for Public and Private Sector Executives”, we have witnessed that we are more capable of action and therefore more accountable than we (prefer to) believe.



How to survive in the short run without neglecting the destination’s or company’s long-term resilience and sustainability? The Tourism Recovery and Resilience Dialogue took up this question in order to provide orientation and inspiration to decision-makers. It consisted of three virtual events between November 2020 and January 2021, brought together 15 executives from the public sector, business and civil society as panellists, and had an audience of more than 1500 people from all over the world.


The Dialogue – organised by the Global Compact Network Switzerland & Liechtenstein, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the UN World Tourism Organization, the University of Applied Sciences of the Grisons and the World Economic Forum as part of their common initiative Tourism for Sustainable Development – brought about several conclusions that are relevant for this blog series:



1. COVID-19 is more of a driver for than an obstacle to a sustainable transformation of tourism


The COVID-19 pandemic has made tourism actors more aware of the sector’s and society’s vulnerability. According to the panellists, this has translated into an enhanced awareness of the importance of a sound environment and a more sustainable development in different dimensions. Examples are:

  • Guests have come to appreciate detailed and objective information on safety and hygiene measures as a basis for their decision-making; in the future, they will increasingly ask for such information also on a destination’s or company’s sustainability;

  • Employees’ engagement and contentment must be actively encouraged as they are key for providing meaningful guest experiences;

  • Local businesses as well as natural and cultural assets form the basis of tourism and must be increasingly strengthened, protected and supported.


Even though safety and hygiene have become the industry’s top priority in the short-run, the above-mentioned changes will likely boost its sustainable transformation in the long-run.



2. Destinations have to evolve in their understanding and measurement of “success”


Destinations have not yet a conceptual understanding of what a successful tourism beyond the generation of investments, income and jobs means. The challenges are:

  • To better understand the economic costs of tourism, including opportunity costs;

  • To better understand the benefits and costs in the socio-cultural and ecological dimension.


The panellists called for a new definition of what success means, and for key performance indicators that allow to measure it. Moreover, they agreed on two things: that the COVID-19 context, in which hitherto unquestioned assumptions are being discussed, can be fruitful for collective processes towards a more balanced tourism; and that such processes have to be “close to the people”, i.e. local and inclusive.



3. Sustainability reporting is key and should be made mandatory


When asked whether reporting on destinations’ and businesses’ ecological and social performance should be mandatory, an overwhelming majority of the audience said yes. Only 17% were not sure or against it (see graph). The panellists said that a useful reporting was not just desirable, but also feasible. Most data as well as technical support for smaller businesses and destinations are available. In order to make the reporting relevant to the customer, it should lead to a comprehensive labelling and afterwards certification of tourism actors, in particular of tour operators and destinations. At the moment, this is only common for accommodations.


According to the survey of the third event of the Tourism Recovery and Resilience Dialogue, only 7 out of 41 responses were ambivalent or negative towards mandatory sustainability reporting.




In my personal opinion, there is one more fundamental conclusion to be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since its outbreak, society has proved – at the local, national and global level –, just how capable it is of reacting to a pressing and massive challenge. What seemed impossible, even unthinkable, was done virtually overnight.


In tourism – like in other industries – it is common to refer to the market or other circumstances to explain the gap between what should be and what is actually being done in terms of sustainable development. The COVID-19 experience has made us aware that what is considered “context”, and therefore outside of our scope of influence, need not necessarily be so. As individuals and collectives at all levels, we are more capable of action and therefore more accountable than we (prefer to) believe.




If you agree with the author’s conclusion and are interested in making the tourism sector, your destination, or your business more sustainable and competitive, you should participate in the Distinguished Education Course. Like the Recovery and Resilience Dialogue, this exclusive course is part of “Tourism for Sustainable Development. A Global Initiative for Public and Private Sector Executives”, co-produced by the Global Compact Network Switzerland & Liechtenstein, the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, the UN World Tourism Organization, the University of Applied Sciences of the Grisons and the World Economic Forum.



Dr Alex Gertschen, Head of “Tourism for Sustainable Development. A Global Initiative for Public and Private Sector Executives”

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