A few days ago a colleague asked me how I felt about the future of tourism.
It’s a question making the rounds in the industry as tour operators sit on the precipice of collapse, destinations wait impatiently for borders to reopen, and colleagues attempt to claw their way back into business.
A World Tourism Organization report from May noted that as many as 120 million jobs could be at risk. Seventy percent of travel agencies in the United States are on the brink of closing if they don’t receive federal assistance. Tourism spending is not expected to rebound until 2024.
Airlines are attempting to stay afloat by selling flights to nowhere. Poachers moved in when tourism moved out, putting wildlife at risk. And the climate emergency is accelerating at such an unprecedented rate that there might not be a planet where anyone can even fathom the idea of traveling in the not-so-distant future.
So how do I feel about the future of tourism?
Despite this exceedingly difficult time in the tourism industry and the legitimate crisis emergency we all face, the way I feel can be summed up in a single word: Optimistic.
It isn’t because we are finally acknowledging the outsized role tourism plays in accelerating the climate emergency or due to the subsequent creative solutions implemented by individual companies and mandated by (a few) governments to start mitigating the problem.
It isn’t because we’re seriously starting to rethink this idea of the “bucket list” or the more promising future for (some) wildlife or how the industry can move past being exploitative to one that actually, meaningfully adds value to local communities.
Certainly those are all good reasons to find a spark of optimism in these incredibly difficult times that we find ourselves in. But that’s not why optimism keeps me afloat.
I feel optimistic because it is the only way we can afford to feel about tourism’s future.
Look around at the world today: It is defined by chaos and confusion, doom and gloom, high anxiety and sleepless nights. We live and work in a world mired in violence, exploitation, discrimination, racism, and oppression — all laced by a global pandemic that shows no signs of slowing. Regardless of where we turn, we are bombarded by messages of hopelessness and helplessness.
People have every reason to feel angry, frustrated, sad, lost, and utterly overwhelmed. If you feel this way, your feelings are valid, legitimate, respected, and completely okay.
But the world we find ourselves at this moment is the perfect recipe for fatalism. With so much bad news and so many things out of our control, it often feels like we’re fighting a battle with our eyes covered and hands tied behind our backs. Just getting through the day takes all the effort we can muster up. Some days we ask ourselves: Why bother trying to do and be better if everything is just going to continue spiraling out of control?
I return to this: Optimism.
Our world is in desperate need of leaders who put people and the planet before profits. We need to live and work with an intentional focus on sustainability so that it becomes the default condition in our world. It must become a priority to dismantle the oppressive and racist foundations that countries and companies are built upon and the tourism industry operates in.
This all requires policy changes and a commitment of change from those who benefit the most from the systems that are destroying the environment, our communities, and our livelihoods. Many advocates say that pinning climate action, in particular, on individuals encourages big businesses and governments — those bodies that must take action — to deflect responsibility while placing undue stress on people.
And yet, I’ve long been a believer of the “Yes, And” mindset, and there’s a good reason for that.
Why? Because if we don’t believe that picking up garbage from the beach helps protect marine life or that our single vote makes a difference … then why should we bother doing anything at all?
When we lean into negativity, helplessness, and fatalism, we lean into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we are convinced there’s no way to stop this downward spiral, then there is no reason for us to stand up against destructive tourism sectors and practices, have hard conversations that lead to action, build meaningful relationships, amplify social impact work, fight for diversity and inclusion, collaborate with each other, and actually put the effort in to build back better. There is no reason to push so hard toward the positive when everything threatens to wash us into a sea of negativity.
But if we adopt a mindset that there can be a better, brighter, healthier, safer, more equitable future — both within the tourism industry and for the planet as a whole — then we have a reason to work toward it.
If those working in the tourism industry believe they can make real changes that have a positive and lasting impact — that their individual and collective actions matter — then they can and they will. But we must believe it is possible.
We must embrace optimism with every ounce of our personal and professional belief systems.
Because, quite honestly, we can’t settle for anything less.