Sustainable Tourism after COVID-19

September 25, 2020

By Anja von der Ropp, Senior Program Coordinator, WIPO GREEN, and Lidia Kleshchenko, Associate Program Officer, Global Challenges Division, WIPO

As travel restrictions have been implemented around the globe in response to COVID-19, WIPO GREEN explores the environmental challenges faced by the tourism industry and the potential of green technologies to provide sustainable solutions.

(Photo: GettyImages/SolStock)

Since 1950, the number of international tourist arrivals rose from 25 million to nearly 1.5 billion in 2019. The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) estimates that by 2030, that number will exceed 17 billion for international and domestic tourist arrivals combined. As of 2016, the number of transport-related emissions generated by the tourism industry was estimated at almost 1,600 million tons, a figure that is expected to grow by 25% by 2030.

The tourism sector is a complex system, one that includes industries of transportation, building and construction, food and waste management, among others. Tourism transportation produces an estimated 75% of all emissions of the tourism sector, contributing to 5% of all man-made emissions and over 20% of all transport-related emissions. Although tourism transportation emissions are relatively easy to measure accurately, emissions generated from other parts of the tourism sector – including building and operating hotels, food production, tourism-related waste management, and the service sector—are more difficult to quantify and measure.  According to a 2018 study, the combined emissions associated with tourism across nine industries including transport, goods, food and beverage, agriculture, services, accommodation, construction, mining and hospitality, accounts for nearly 4.3 billion metric tons emitted per year.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has witnessed a considerable decrease in CO2 emissions, most notably within the transportation industry, including tourism-related transportation. Daily global CO2 emissions over all industries decreased by an average 17% by early April 2020 compared with 2019 levels. Simultaneously, the pandemic also caused severe economic loss for the tourism industry in general, as well as popular tourist destinations.

As the situation develops, how can the global community ensure that the tourism industry not only recovers from the COVID-19-caused crisis, but also incorporates lessons learned and becomes more sustainable in the future? WIPO GREEN discussed this with Mr. Dirk Glaesser, Director of Sustainable Development of Tourism at the UNWTO.

What are the current trends in sustainable tourism?

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the tourism sector to shift its focus to resiliency, sustainability and interconnectedness among diverse stakeholders in the sector. The UNWTO recently published strategic guidance for a responsible recovery of the tourism sector, recommending ways to support a responsible recovery from the current situation and to build better tourism. It outlines six lines of action: public health, social inclusion, biodiversity conservation, climate action, circular economy, as well as governance and finance. The diversity of these topics illustrates the major trend in the sector: recognition of the necessary coherence and cooperation between representatives of different social and economic sectors related to tourism.

The tourism sector’s cross-cutting nature means that sustainability trends present in any relevant industry can – and should – be applied to tourism. That is why the global trends of clean energy, green buildings and sustainable waste management, for example, are also reflected in tourism. At the same time, consumer demand for sustainable practices in tourism is inevitably growing, prompting the sector to respond. However, studies show that consumer behavior is still difficult to predict when it comes to tourism, which is definitely something the industry should work to improve in the coming years.

What are the most daunting challenges for the industry and the biggest opportunities for green technology innovators?

Technology development and transfer play an underlying role in making the tourism sector more sustainable. In general terms, the sector lacks the means to collect timely evidence of its impact, especially environmental impact. Technologies helping to produce this evidence are therefore in high demand and could accelerate the shift towards a more sustainable sector. For example, technologies to monitor and report CO2 emissions from the sector’s operations across the value chain are necessary not only to assess impact but also to encourage stakeholders to set concrete and quantifiable indicators to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as to allow consumers to make informed decisions based on such data.

Furthermore, as previously mentioned, tourism-related transportation is a particularly important field for the tourism sector. It is a daunting challenge, but one that could provide a great opportunity for those developing methods of low-carbon tourism transportation and green infrastructure.

Finally, inventions that contribute to the establishment of a circular economy, such as those advancing resource efficiency in the value chain, could make a big difference in the tourism sector. Technologies focused on the sustainable use of water, energy and food resources, and those applying the principles of reuse and recycling in plastic packaging and waste are only a few of the technical solutions the industry requires.

How can innovators reach out to the sector if they have new inventions related to tourism?

In parallel to technological challenges, the tourism industry also faces policy and financial challenges as the many small- and medium- sized enterprises require technical and financial support for the transition to greener operations.  To support them, the UNWTO launched the SDGs Global Startup Competition in July 2020, to ensure that fresh ideas receive the assistance required. Until October 10, 2020, eligible candidates can submit their applications for the competition to compete for an opportunity to pitch their idea at a UNWTO Demo Day. The winners will gain access to technological support and connections with 90+ venture capitalists and top corporations from 150+ countries and participate in a curated mentorship programme from Amadeus, ClarkeModet, Google, IE University, Mastercard, among other corporations. UNWTO also plans to launch a pilot project with private sector collaborators and institutions for the winning innovation.

Tourism-related technologies in WIPO GREEN

The WIPO GREEN database, comprising over 3,000 sustainable technologies, contains innovative green processes relevant to the tourism industry under several technology categories: transportation, land use management in the farming and forestry category, buildings in the building and construction category, and others.

Below are a few examples of technologies uploaded to the WIPO GREEN database that are directly or indirectly related to tourism:





WIPO GREEN is a global marketplace for sustainable technology, supporting global efforts to address climate change. Through its online database and regional activities, WIPO GREEN connects green tech seekers and providers in order to catalyze green innovation and accelerate green tech transfer and diffusion.