Who Are We Building Back Better For? Tourism’s Path to True Equity & Sustainability
Travel Can Be the Tool to Write the Future We Want — But We Must Do it Carefully
In the midst of our first global lockdown last May, actors from the BBC comedy series W1A created a hilarious parody of their initial lockdown meeting via Zoom, the inauguration of a so-termed BBC Covid-19 “Bounce Back” group to assess the future of television broadcasting as millions were confined to their homes. “What we know of course is that it won’t look anything like the old normal,” Ian Fletcher, one of five floating heads, chimes in. “Or as I think we can safely call it now—the past.”
Nearly a year on, this dry satire resonates almost too well with the rhetoric we have all been swimming in this past year: talk of building back better/greener/bluer/cleaner has dominated narratives from national stimulus plans to entire industries—tourism perhaps the first among them to adopt such language. “I’m a firm believer that every problem is a solution waiting to happen,” Fletcher says confidently to his fellow attendees, their phones held comically aloft as their gazes drift idly from the screen. “And I think we can say with some confidence that we’re looking at one of the biggest solutions any of us have ever seen here.”
A recent Bloomberg piece titled “The World Isn’t Building Back Better After the Pandemic” highlights that, out of $14.6 trillion in recovery spending announced by the 50 largest world economies in 2020, only 2.5% has been allocated to green activities. Money instead went largely towards rescuing existing corporations and businesses, with no innovation incentives or green strings attached. It is becoming clearer that, in many ways, we have squandered our opportunity to innovate and solve the problems that got us into this mess in the first place. Like Ian Fletcher, much of the world looked at the problem and expected the solution to present itself, so long as there was a catchy slogan to drive home the message.
Indeed, there is a much bigger crisis at hand with few solutions in sight. With 2020 officially tied for the hottest year on record, the public seemed to grow numb to the scale of destruction at our feet, from fires raging in the Amazon to mass coral bleaching events in some of the worlds’ most pristine reefs. Last year was not a good year for human health or the planet, despite understanding better than ever how these two issues are inextricably linked. Both of these crises require immense global cooperation and human ingenuity to solve; luckily, preventing future pandemics and climate disaster both share one core solution: protecting biodiversity.
As tourism practitioners and tourists ourselves, we understand the incalculable value of standing in the center of a rainforest at twilight, the air transformed into a dense curtain of sound, thrumming with heat and life. Around you grow untold numbers of medical cures to our present and future ailments, stored deep in the soil or in the smallest cell of a bright jungle flower. Cut down to clear the way for human ambition, these cells unleash their power against us, as diseases once contained within dense forest walls skip species and grind all we know to be “normal” to a screeching halt. We have spent a year witnessing the fruits of our destruction. But for everyone who has ever emerged from that jungle night, we too know the power that comes from our perseverance to protect it.
At Solimar we remain deeply committed to realizing this vision to “build back better” alongside our colleagues and communities across the globe, but we also know this cannot be done through rhetoric alone. The scale of the challenge is massive: we lost tropical forest cover the size of California between 2004 and 2017, representing biodiversity and livelihood opportunities we may never get back. Tourism, when it operates at its very best, represents one of the only viable alternatives to continued economic degradation. Community-based conservation activists, from Costa Rica to Cameroon, have shown what happens when this shift begins from the ground up. While Covid-19 has demonstrated the danger of overreliance on an industry easily susceptible to shock, ecosystems that have been sustained thanks in part to the tourism economy can now supply food to local people when visitors disappear, from marine reserves in Indonesia to regenerative agriculture farms in Mexico.
This fact highlights a crucial lesson learned this year. As tourism practitioners who advocate for conservation at the core of our projects, it is crucial that we ask ourselves: for whom are we building back better? Who gets to define “better” in the first place? If better means greater resilience and ability to adapt to change, why is it that local communities who have done the least to cause climate change must be “made” to be resilient to disasters beyond their control? As conservationists and policy practitioners, we must critically analyze the language we use in the everyday discourse of development, especially as we emerge from a year that has changed all of our lives irrevocably.
A recent graphic making its rounds on social media depicted the entire world in three colors: the wealthiest of nations, who would achieve widespread vaccine coverage by the end of this year; still wealthy others who would reach the target by the end of 2022; and the rest of the world, who would not achieve it until beyond then, if ever. As “vaccine passports” open up travel for the haves and tourist destinations for the have nots, we must be more vigilant than ever that we are not just “building back better” for those already better off. Covid-19, for the foreseeable future, is here to stay. We must put in the work to ensure that inequality does not stay with it.
As 2020 came to an end, reporter Gao Yu (高昱) wrote a letter that went viral across Chinese social media channels, as he expressed his despair at the state of affairs in China—but with a message that resonated deeply with how much of the world feels. One memorable passage, translated to English by the China Media Project, reads:
If we have failed then we have failed. I am a positive pessimist. Even if we have returned to the darkness, I won’t go and dwell on those days when light shone. If there is no light, then I must fetch fire. We don’t persevere toward the good things in the world because there is hope; our perseverance is what gives hope. Anything worth having is worth holding on to, and worth waiting for.
If there is one thing that 2020 has made clear, it is this: normal means nothing. Entire economic engines, ways of life and travel, and rules of international engagement have been written over and reworked in ways that no one could have predicted. We make no more promises to the future we expect—only the one we want. In the biting humor of Ian Fletcher, our mock-Zoom chat leader: “This is the time to think big thoughts, and to make the unprecedented into a precedent.” We have spent a year thinking big. It’s time we get to work.