Goal 15: Life on Land | The Agenda 2030 and Tourism
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    || The 2030 Agenda and Tourism > Goal 15: Life on Land
    Glimpses of its implementation at the mid-term point of the 2030 Agenda


    By Cornelia Kühhas/respect_NFI | Naturefriends International

    Beautiful landscapes and the designation as a World Heritage Site, Biosphere Reserve, National Park or Nature Park are among the main reasons why tourists visit a destination. According to the World Travel Tourism Council (WTTC), 80 % of travel and tourism goods and services directly or indirectly rely on nature’s resources and functioning ecosystems (WTTC, 2021). In short, natural ecosystems and biodiversity are important tourism assets.

    To protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, manage forests sustainably, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss is what SDG 15 wants to achieve. However, the road to implementing these targets has been bumpy so far, as the United Nations notes in its “Sustainable Development Goals Report 2023” (UN, 2023) – a mid-term review of the 2030 Agenda, so to speak: "Despite some progress in sustainable forest management, protected areas, and the uptake of national biodiversity values and natural capital accounting, most improvements have been modest." It is also up to the tourism industry to contribute more here.


    Lack of funding

    The SDG Report 2023 also emphasizes that the conservation of terrestrial ecosystems is not only essential for the survival of humankind, but also an important economic factor, contributing to more than half of the world's GDP. As the WTCC points out, nature-based tourism generates annual revenues of over 600 billion US dollars, supporting millions of jobs and providing opportunities for countries to grow and diversify their economies while protecting their biodiversity and natural heritage. The United Nations estimates that for every US dollar spent on nature restoration, between three and 75 US dollars in economic benefits can be generated from ecosystem goods and services (UN, 2020). However, between 598 and 824 million US dollars were lacking for effective nature conservation even before the pandemic, according to the World Bank. It therefore recommends governments to promote sustainable tourism in protected areas as part of their post-pandemic economic recovery strategies to achieve a triple win: recovering from the economic consequences of the pandemic, addressing long-standing development problems and conserving biodiversity (World Bank, 2021).

    Tourism´s pressure on nature is growing
    Often, it is fragile natural areas that attract tourists due to their beautiful landscapes, such as mountains, forests, wetlands or coastal regions. Protected areas receive an average of 8 billion visitors per year worldwide (World Bank, 2021). Thus, the pressure on these sensitive areas is great, and there is an urgent need to focus on their effective protection.

    Mountain tourism, for example, represents between 9 and 16 % of international tourist arrivals worldwide; this corresponds with 195 to 375 million tourists in 2019 (UNWTO, 2023a). And the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly given mountain tourism a boost, as the desire to spend time and engage in exercise in nature – with its benefits for human health and wellbeing – has significantly increased. This is also reflected in the fact that many mountain sports clubs have seen their membership numbers increase in recent years (ÖAV, 2022). However, this also means that more people are out in the mountains and the pressure on nature, which is particularly vulnerable in these places, is increasing. This pressure must be alleviated through visitor guidance, awareness-raising, the extension of the seasons and the expansion of the tourist offers.

    Lack of data

    In order to implement this effectively, data – in addition to funds – are needed on which the appropriate measures can be taken. However, relevant and significant data – such as visitor numbers, impact measurement, etc. – are often not available or not of sufficient quality, as the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) and the UNWTO state: "The lack of reliable tourism data and indicators in most mountain destinations worldwide significantly challenges the monitoring and evaluation of the positive and negative impacts of tourism activities, especially in developing countries"( FAO & UNWTO, 2021). Data is also needed “for further research on tourism development, demand and impact in mountain regions” (FAO & UNWTO, 2023).

    (Plastic) waste – tourism is littering its own livelihood

    Littered beaches, as well as rubbish along trekking routes and tourist hotspots reveal another massive threat to nature: plastic pollution. The tourism industry produces tons of waste – and thus damages its own capital: an intact, livable nature and environment. In many destinations, the waste infrastructure is completely overloaded with the amount of waste generated by tourism, often there is no money for waste treatment.

    According to the UN Environmental Programme, 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic waste leak into aquatic ecosystems every year, polluting lakes, rivers and seas (UNEP, n.d.). WWF Germany states that the financial damage to the tourism industry from plastic pollution in the Mediterranean alone amounts to 268 million Euros per year (WWF, 2019).

    In January 2020, the “Global Tourism Plastics Initiative” was launched under the auspices of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UNWTO in cooperation with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (UNWTO, n.d.). The initiative is part of the “One Planet Sustainable Tourism Programme”. It aims to build a global alliance to combat plastic pollution in tourism, to support the tourism industry and to define concrete roadmaps to prevent and reduce plastic waste. So far, more than 100 leading tourism companies, suppliers, trade associations, non-governmental organisations, consultancies and certification schemes have joined.

    Sustainable food supply supports biodiversity

    One sector that plays an important role in tourism is food. At the same time, it is precisely in the organisation of food supply that accommodation facilities and gastronomy have an important lever for nature and biodiversity protection in their hands: Local, seasonal and organic agricultural products have a small ecological footprint, foster biodiversity and also support the regional economy.
    “One visible aspect of the efforts to make the agriculture sector more sustainable is the raise of organic agriculture, the main feature of which is its avoidance of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides”, states the FAO in its Statistical Yearbook 2022 (FAO, 2022). Organic agriculture also produces fewer greenhouse gases than conventional agriculture – currently, global agriculture is responsible for about a quarter of climate-relevant emissions (WRI, 2018).

    According to FAO (2022), in 2020, the agriculture area under certified organic status was 75 million hectares – out of a total of 4.74 billion hectares worldwide. As an important sector of the economy, the tourism industry has the potential to strengthen organic farming through an increased offer of organic food in restaurants and hotels and thus an increased demand for organic agricultural products.

    In 2020, 337 million tonnes of meat were produced worldwide, 45 % more than in 2000. About 70 % of agricultural land is used for animal husbandry in the form of pasture and arable land (FAO, 2022). An important contribution to the ecologisation of nutrition can be made by the increased offer of vegetarian and vegan meals in gastronomy and the hospitality industry.

    Nature tourism raises awareness

    With all the challenges that sustainable tourism poses in nature (conservation) areas, nature tourism has great potential to raise awareness and sensitize visitors to nature conservation and environmental protection, and to encourage them to act sustainably in their everyday lives. Because, as the late Konrad Lorenz said: "You only protect what you love, you only love what you know." However, this requires an appropriate infrastructure, such as guides, well-maintained trail systems, visitor information, visitor guidance measures, and good management to ensure the financing.

    During the pandemic, we were clearly shown the negative impact that a lack of revenue can have on protected areas. One example is the "Bwindi Impenetrable National Park" in Uganda, which is visited by numerous tourists from all over the world because of its gorilla population, and where many locals earn their living as guides. When the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, the park was locked down in March 2020, leaving many people without jobs and income from one day to the next. Shortly after the lockdown, poaching in the national park increased, as local people hunted wildlife either for food or for income (Mongabay, 2021).

    Set the framework!

    In order to advance the achievement of the goals of SDG 15 – and this also applies to all other SDGs – a (legal) framework and concrete “roadmaps” for achieving the goals are urgently needed. Recently, some international legislative initiatives have been launched that also have the potential to promote sustainable tourism development and, in particular, nature conservation and to reduce negative impacts on biodiversity.

    As examples, the EU Supply Chain Law (Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence and amending Directive) and the EU Nature Restoration Law can be mentioned. The EU Supply Chain Law (also see the article on SDG 12) obliges companies operating in the EU internal market to ensure compliance with international environmental and human rights standards along their entire value chain. The European Union´s Nature Restoration Law now obliges all EU member states to restore destroyed nature to a good ecological condition, thus safeguarding the stocks of pollinators, natural resources, clean air and clean water.

    At the COP15 in Montreal in December 2022, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance presented the “Nature Positive Travel and Tourism Initiative” (WTTC, n.d.). Signatories from the travel and tourism sector pledged to protect biodiversity, reduce CO2 emissions, use resources sustainably and protect and restore nature and wildlife.

    Initiatives by the tourism industry like that are an important step in the right direction, but now the declarations of intent must be quickly followed by concrete action!

    The fight against the climate crisis is the top priority

    Success in maintaining an intact environment with rich biodiversity stands and falls with the successful tackling of the climate crisis. This year, we have been made particularly aware of how threatening climate change is: devastating forest fires, hurricanes, floods, extreme heat and drought have claimed hundreds of lives and destroyed natural areas, forests and coasts all over the world. Just as in the promotion of biodiversity, the tourism industry holds great responsibility and potential to actively contribute to the fight against climate change (see the article on SDG 13).