Some of the winners of a competition organised by the World Tourism Organization and innovation hub Wakalua, in collaboration with BBVA, share their thoughts on the key elements of tourism in the future and how they are currently working towards the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as explaining what led to them winning this award.
In the quest for a responsible and sustainable world, institutions and businesses have realised that one of the first sectors to modernise and reposition is tourism. It is an industry that is the economic driver of many countries – in Spain in 2019 it contributed 12.4% of GDP and accounted for 12.9% of total employment, according to data from the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE). At the same time, it was responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a study published in ‘Nature Climate Change’.
These are figures from before the outbreak of the pandemic, which has had a catastrophic effect on the sector – in 2020 tourism in Spain lost €106 billion according to data from Exceltur. In the mission to find a balance between travelling and rescuing tourism, and looking after the planet, many specialist companies have come to change their views, offering different proposals geared towards a more sustainable world.
This is where the World Tourism Organization (WTO) comes in. In September 2020, together with innovation hub Wakalua and organisations like BBVA, it decided to launch a competition that would shine a light on the tourism companies most committed to the environment, society and peace. The purpose of the competition was to reward the sector’s most promising startups and those that respect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to which they had to sign up in order to take part.
We talked to three of the award-winning companies: Climate Trade, Impulse Travel and Siliconbali. They are located in different countries and have varying outlooks on tomorrow’s tourism, but they share a common objective – to move towards a more sustainable model.
Established in Spain, this startup aims to decarbonise tourist travel using blockchain and an easy and intuitive marketplace. Focusing on SDG 13 (climate action), CEO Francisco Benedito explains that what sets his company apart from the rest is that their platform puts sustainable project developers directly in touch with companies that want to offset their carbon footprint, something that is very much in demand today in the field of tourism.
This CO2 offsetting market came about as a result of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and serves to allow the most polluting companies to compensate for their excess emissions by buying emissions rights or compensation credits through mitigation projects. Traditionally, this trade has been reserved for brokers who play with prices. Climate Trade’s solution is to generate a marketplace as a space where companies and other entities can choose how to offset their emissions and with which mitigation projects to do so.
As Benedito explains, the advantages of their marketplace are that it reduces costs, increases payment speeds by shortening waiting times and gets rid of intermediaries. Also, by using blockchain technology, the Climate Trade team claims transparency and traceability of payments, as all payments with their origin and destination are reflected in a blockchain system.
From Colombia, Rodrigo Atuesta runs a startup that is looking to heal “the open wounds of a country that for decades has been affected by mafia and drug trafficking”. He has found that the best way to do this is through tourism.
In Atuesta’s opinion, what differentiates his startup from other companies in the industry is the concept of community, and this is precisely what has allowed them to stay afloat in the greatest crisis the sector has known: “The sense of community is part of our brand. This means that Impulse is more than a project, it’s a movement that many people feel is their own. We offer unique experiences because the communities that we work with are unique. We offer community development and tourism.”
Unlike Francisco Benedito, Atuesta believes that the shift towards sustainability will come more from pressure from businesses and governments: “If we think that change is going to come from the consumer side, then we’re placing expectation in the wrong hands. I believe that the change has to come from the private sector and institutions, which is why these kinds of awards help companies that have the right perspective on the sector”.
On the subject of coronavirus, Impulse Travel’s team also believes that it has been a turning point for tourism, as it has introduced new dynamics that are now here to stay. For example, with remote working having become a reality, people will now be able to take longer trips, as they won’t have just a few days break before having to be back in the office. Instead, delocalisation will allow a Spanish worker to travel to Colombia for a month and keep working during the week.
In a country with such a complicated past and present, Atuesta argues that their SDG had to be 16 (peace, justice and strong institutions) in honour of those who are no longer with us and looking to those who will come, seen as the future will only change if we act here and now.
The last stage of this journey takes us to Portugal, where Siliconbali is located. This startup aims to get its customers into the communities of the destination they wish to visit. In the words of CEO Sevo Widodo, the strength of his company is that “it offers a much deeper and more immersive experience than other companies in the industry”.
When someone chooses Siliconbali it is because they want to be part of the community, to become just one more citizen, as Widodo explains: “Here we don’t want you to be just one more tourist, but to feel integrated into the society you visit.”
The immersion programmes currently being offered on travel portals around the world are often aimed at groups or retreats, usually at high prices and difficult to book. By contrast, Widodo’s vision is for Siliconbali to be a technological market based on attracting startups from across the globe to allow local communities to accommodate these experiences and achieve SDG 17 (partnerships for the goals).
The Siliconbali team shares the same opinion as others regarding coronavirus, as they consider the pandemic to be the axis on which their current business model has pivoted: “People now want to travel less, but for longer, and with greater meaning. That’s why our solution suits this new trend. Our idea is to reboot the tourism industry, bringing in a more sustainable model.”
Widodo argues that local populations could not even use public transport or visit that famous market in the city centre because of the tourism that clogged all the sights. As a result of the pandemic, ordinary citizens have once again found a part of their city that they believed was lost and that has opened their eyes. Widodo’s approach is to take advantage of this momentum: “We need to be able to restart the industry in a way that does not adversely affect the local destination. That’s why our solution is geared toward this kind of post-pandemic trip, which is more sustainable and more aware.”
Despite having different specific visions, the ultimate goal of the three startups is the same. Whether with a focus on the environment, peace and justice or the search for partnerships, the endpoint of the journey is the same – a different kind of tourism for a world that is no longer the same.