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Decarbonizing the Tourism Industry

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employer.

As tourism booms around the world, destinations are struggling to balance the economic benefits of visitors with the social and environmental costs. From over-tourism to carbon emissions, the negative impacts of tourism can be significant and long-lasting. But what if there was a way to harness the power of digital technologies to create smarter, more sustainable tourism destinations?  What if everything around you, from the energy-efficient buildings to the electric shuttle buses, is designed to minimize environmental impact and maximize sustainability, and to create a smart tourism destination?

What is a Smart Tourism Destination?

This term “smart tourism destination” may sound futuristic, but it’s becoming a reality in many parts of the world. As the tourism industry grapples with the challenges of climate change, over-tourism, and resource depletion, smart tourism destinations are emerging as a promising solution. By leveraging digital technologies and data, these destinations are able to optimize energy use, water consumption, waste management, and transportation, while also enhancing visitor experiences and supporting local communities.

The pertinent question then is, what exactly is a smart tourism destination?

At its core, a smart tourism destination is a place that uses innovative technologies to enhance the quality of life for visitors and residents alike, while also reducing negative impacts on the environment and society.

How are Smart Tourism Destinations using Technology?

A wide range of initiatives is already in place or being developed by the tourism industry in the race toward achieving net zero.

  • Energy-efficient buildings: These buildings use renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power, and smart meters that allow for real-time monitoring and management of energy use. The Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru, a natural UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, has been using solar panels to power the entire resort, reducing their carbon footprint by over 90%. The resort is also using smart building technologies, such as motion sensors, to optimize energy efficiency by 70%.
  • Digital platforms: The city of Amsterdam has implemented a digital platform called “I Amsterdam” that allows tourists to plan their trips and book experiences online. Innovations like these are enabling real-time monitoring and management of tourism flows, visitor feedback, and local community involvement, and they also allow for personalized and immersive experiences for tourists. The initiative is also being used to guide users towards a more sustainably conscious approach when visiting the city’s attractions.
  • Sustainable transportation: Options such as electric shuttle buses, bike-sharing programs, and carpooling services that reduce traffic congestion and emissions are emerging as a one-stop solution to achieving net zero by the tourism industry. Barcelona’s government has implemented a bike-sharing program called Bicing, which has over 500 stations and 7,000 bicycles. The program has been successful in reducing traffic congestion and emissions and has become a popular option for tourists and locals alike.
  • Waste management: No touristic city has ever realized the dream of being zero-waste. But systems prioritizing reduction, reuse, and recycling, and using smart sensors and analytics to optimize collection and disposal are the one-stop solution to the emissions in the waste disposal sector. The city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has implemented a waste management system that is set to convert 1.9 million tonnes per year of residual solid waste into sustainable energy.
  • Water conservation: Strategies like rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse, and efficient irrigation systems have the potential to minimize water consumption and maximize water quality. The city of Singapore has implemented a comprehensive water conservation strategy that includes rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse, and efficient irrigation systems. The city has been successful in reducing its water consumption and improving water quality, even as its population has grown. By 2065, Singapore’s water demand is expected to almost double with economic and population growth, and with almost 7 million tourists visiting in the post-pandemic recovery phase of 2022, this multi-faceted conservation strategy seems to be the perfect answer to the crisis.

A tale of two cities: Barcelona and Bonaire

While the road to successful smart tourism destinations may sound like a Herculean task, some cities are already “living examples” of this concept. In recent years, Barcelona has become a leader in sustainable tourism, with a focus on reducing carbon emissions, improving air and water quality, and promoting social equity. One of the city’s flagship initiatives apart from Bicing is the “Superblock” program, which aims to transform 500 city blocks into car-free zones by 2030 and create more green spaces and public amenities for residents and visitors. In the words of their website, the plan is to create “a city prepared to take on climate change, with cleaner air and less noise. A city where talent and big investments in technology are welcome, as they help us to improve the environment.” The program uses data analytics and digital platforms to monitor traffic flows and public feedback and has already reduced traffic by 21% and air pollution by 38% in pilot areas.

The island of Bonaire in the Caribbean has implemented a smart tourism destination strategy focused on energy efficiency and conservation. The island’s tourism industry is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity generation and transportation, but in recent years, the government and private sector have invested in renewable energy sources and smart grids to reduce emissions and costs. Bonaire now generates over 40% of its electricity from wind and solar power and has introduced electric buses and bicycles for tourists. It plans on moving to a 100% sustainable energy supply based on a 40-60% split of wind power along with biodiesel power.

Challenges to developing a Smart Tourism Destination

While these examples highlight the potential of smart tourism destinations to drive sustainable growth and decarbonization, while also enhancing visitor experiences and supporting local communities, there are also challenges and limitations to consider. One key challenge is the high upfront costs and complexity of implementing smart technologies, which may deter some destinations from pursuing sustainable tourism strategies. Additionally, there is a risk of over-reliance on digital solutions and neglect of social and cultural factors, which could undermine the authenticity and inclusivity of tourism experiences.  An important lesson from the above cases is the importance of collaboration and stakeholder engagement, with the involvement of residents, businesses, and civil society groups in the planning and implementation process. Another lesson is the need for long-term vision and commitment, as smart tourism requires sustained investment in infrastructure, technology, and human capacity building.

To realize the full potential of smart tourism, it’s also important to address broader challenges such as policy frameworks, financing mechanisms, and digital literacy. Governments, international organizations, and the private sector can play a critical role in creating an enabling environment for smart tourism, by providing incentives for innovation, promoting knowledge sharing and capacity building, and supporting public-private partnerships.

Sustainability needs to be at the forefront of tourism development in the 21st century because a “business-as-usual” approach would result in a significant surge in energy consumption (154%), greenhouse gas emissions (131%), water consumption (152%), and solid waste disposal (251%) by 2050 for this sector. Smart tourism destinations offer a promising pathway to achieve net-zero emissions and sustainable growth in the tourism industry. By leveraging digital technologies and data, destinations can optimize resource use, enhance visitor experiences, and support local communities, while also reducing negative environmental impacts. With the right strategies and partnerships in place, smart tourism destinations can lead the way toward a more sustainable and resilient future for the tourism industry and the planet.

By Palak Sharma, Co-founder, Green Governance Initiative;

Sustainable Development Program Officer, Verra


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