In mid-2006, The Federation of Tour Operators (FTO) – the association that represents most of the UK’s largest outbound tour operators – produced guidelines for sustainable suppliers to the tourism sector. These guidelines aim to reduce their adverse environmental impact and improve their local social and economic impact.
From 4th to 11th December, I was invited to join an FTO pilot project in Egypt, aiming to promote these guidelines to FTO suppliers in Sharm-El-Sheikh and Hurghada on the Red Sea and Luxor on the River Nile. My trip was part-funded by the Travel Foundation, a charity aiming to enhance the impact of tourism on destinations, funded by tourist and corporate donations.
I was impressed by the tremendously strong and positive local response to this initiative, with between 70 and 120 private sector suppliers involved in each of the three events held; mainly hoteliers but also excursion service providers (i.e. dive centres) and local agents (ground handlers). On the other hand, the response from the public sector was disappointing. Even though the guidelines align closely with government policy priorities and tourism in Egypt employs 2.7m and represents 27% of national exports, invited representatives from the public sector stayed away in droves.
Each event consisted of a morning plenary session about the FTO Guidelines, the Travel Foundation, and practical steps that could improve suppliers’ environmental and socio-economic performance at the destination. The afternoon comprised a series of smaller, interactive workshops exploring in more detail how to implement positive change. These workshops made it clear that the interest in enhancing the environmental and socio-economic impact of tourism at the destination is not matched with knowledge about the practical steps to achieve this impact:
- Suppliers are very interested in learning from real examples of how, for instance, hotels elsewhere had reduced energy consumption or developed local agricultural supply networks. This reflects a particular interest in environmental measures – in part because these promise to enhance the impact of tourism while simultaneously making financial savings and also because the sector is more familiar with environmental initiatives than social or economic ones.
- On the socio-economic front, the initiative illustrated the power of implementing change along a buyer-driven value chain, as the powerful purchasers of tourist services in the form of international tour operators recommend changes in operating practice to their suppliers in the destinations.
It seems to me that the FTO guidelines could reflect that some kind of ‘tipping point’ is underway in consumer attitudes to a range of environmental and social issues in the source markets. Even a year ago, it would have been unthinkable for the FTO – a trade association representing an industry with a short-term interest in negotiating the cheapest possible rates from suppliers – to identify ‘best practice’ such as this (the recognition of trade unions by employers in the tourist sector and paying tourist staff packages that exceed the statutory minimum conditions).
So, we may be seeing a hitherto unknown coalescing of interests in developing tourism in a way that counts for local communities and the poor in particular. There is obviously a need for research into practical ways to do this (the ODI Tourism Programme’s recent toolkit, How can governments boost the local economic impacts of tourism?, offers this for government policy-makers) but the low public-sector turnout in Egypt suggests that the focus must include the key private sector actors, especially tour operators, to be effective. A focus on value chains for tourism provides an important, and exciting, new focus to ODI’s Tourism Programme. It is a focus which we will be making a lot more of – with Briefing Papers, Opinions, public meetings to come. 2007 will definitely be an important year for the ODI’s work on Tourism – could it also be a defining year for that most global of industries?