The tourism industry is working withgovernment and communities to manage social and environmental impact

The Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism, launched at last year’s Cop26 conference, has inspired more than 500 travel-related businesses to sign up to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) initiative.

Set within the framework of the One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme, its goal is to increase sustainable consumption and production in the sector, ultimately halving emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero by 2050.

Of particular significance is the focus on five pathways: measure, decarbonise, regenerate, collaborate and finance – all in a spirit of collaboration.

It’s a mission statement being heard loud and clear in Scotland, with the national tourist board VisitScotland in the vanguard for positive change.

“Sustainable tourism is about maximising the positive impacts of tourism, such as how it creates jobs, sustains communities and enriches our wellbeing, while minimising its negative impacts, including challenges such as over-tourism and emissions,” says Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland’s chief executive.

“The principle of responsible tourism is that we, the tourism and events industry, work with government, communities and visitors to manage that economic, social and environmental impact and respond together.”

According to Roughead, Scotland’s communities and natural and cultural heritage are central to the country’s attractiveness as a destination. He believes visitors are increasingly mindful of their impact on the world, socially and environmentally, which makes it imperative for the tourism industry to recognise that tackling climate change can not only reduce costs in the longterm and build resilience, but also help meet increasing consumer demand for responsible and sustainably focused businesses.

VisitScotland’s vision is for Scotland to develop as one of the world’s most economically, environmentally and socially sustainable destinations. There are, however, significant obstacles to overcome.

“The current crisis around the cost of living is a major challenge for tourism in the short term,” notes Roughead. “However, we’ve found behaviour change and affordability are among the main obstacles to overcome when looking at sustainable practices.

“Our own research shows there is a great deal of agreement on the importance of tackling climate change but limited willingness when it comes to changing future travel behaviours. Around two thirds of Scots say they’ll try to reduce energy consumption while on holiday, while less than a third feel green credentials are important when choosing accommodation.”

Roughead believes the industry needs to make it easier for visitors to choose more sustainable options, so this becomes the norm and isn’t something they must seek out. “The industry, we know, is aware of this and responsible tourism is a key focus. Our own research last year revealed this, with eight in ten businesses ensuring they operate as sustainably as possible, with seven in ten prioritising a reduction in their carbon footprint.”

VisitScotland has long been an advocate for regional and seasonal spread of visitors, promoting Scotland as a year-round destination and highlighting lesser-known destinations to ease pressure on ‘honey pot’ areas.

It manages the Rural Tourism Infrastructure Fund on behalf of the Scottish Government to improve the visitor experience in rural areas facing pressure on infrastructure or negative impacts due to rising visitor numbers. To date, £14.5 million has been awarded to 60 projects across Scotland, including Doune Castle, Glenfinnan Viaduct and parts of the Fife Coastal Path.

Through Destination Net Zero, a partnership programme between VisitScotland and Scotland’s Enterprise agencies, it is also engaging directly with the industry on transitioning to net zero.

Despite such initiatives, Roughead admits more can be done by tourism businesses.

“Our research shows attractions and activity providers are making progress on moves to become net zero but we must acknowledge there are barriers. For many it comes down to cost, the practical constraints to make changes to a property and the limitations of the business.

“Our sustainable fact sheets offer businesses advice and guidance to make changes that could bring both financial and environmental benefits down the line. Businesses can also consider joining a green scheme by organisations such as Green Tourism or Green Key.”

With challenges come opportunities and Roughead is personally optimistic the future of tourism in Scotland can be both successful and sustainable. “Absolutely! There’s no doubt tourism is going through one of the most challenging times in living memory, however the industry is resilient and there is a general acceptance we all have a duty of care to protect the natural, social and cultural assets so vital to Scotland’s brand and its future prosperity.

“There is a real opportunity now for both businesses and visitors. I firmly believe embracing responsible tourism and events makes our country a better place to live and visit. Scotland is recognised on the global stage as taking a leadership role on climate action in tourism and that means continuing to play a leading role in the development of Scotland as a globally recognised responsible destination.”