January 24, 2019
12.26.2010 - 08:50PM
By Mitchell Beer
There was a certain poignancy late last month in watching some of the world’s most environmentally vulnerable countries promote themselves as top-flight conference destinations, while global climate negotiations lurched toward only limited success in Cancún.
The occasion was EIBTM, one of the leading annual trade shows on the meetings and incentive travel circuit, where representatives of convention bureaus and upscale hotels from 90 countries gathered with conference and event planners to do business.
Conferences deliver powerful benefits to host communities—EIBTM calculated that its 2009 show generated €40 million in participant spending and local event bookings in Barcelona alone. But the conference venue also underscores the global challenge that brought delegates together for the 16th UN Climate Change Conference (COP 16).
Citing The Associated Press, The Wonk Room reported on the tons of sand that had to be sprayed onto Cancún beaches to “maintain the semblance of normalcy” for visiting COP 16 delegates.
“Rising sea levels and a series of unusually powerful hurricanes have aggravated the folly of building a tourist destination atop shifting sand dunes on a narrow peninsula,” the AP reported. “Hotels built too tall, too heavy and too close to the shore, as well as beaches stripped of native vegetation to make them more tourist-friendly, have contributed to the massive erosion.”
Yet meetings and tourism are among the better ways to deliver on the promise of sustainable economic development that will lie at the heart of any future climate deal.
Tourism is one of the world’s largest industries, and meetings are an important part of that volume. A 2008 economic impact study by the Canadian foundation of Meeting Professionals International found that nearly 70 million delegates attending 673,400 meetings and events accounted for 222,900 jobs, C$23.8 billion in economic activity, and C$5.5 billion in government revenue.
Face-to-face meetings also carry a convening power far beyond their economic impact. Geoffrey Lipman, assistant secretary general of the UN World Tourism Organization, stressed the role of tourism in bringing people and cultures together.
“The first thing that happens after a war, when countries sit down and say, ‘What can we do to understand each other, to start relationships?’—it’s tourism,” he told a symposium last year.
Yet this is the same industry whose ability to bring participants onsite depends on commercial airlines that have no clear strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, notwithstanding unfounded happy talk that air travel will be carbon neutral by 2020.
Mexico has been campaigning to position itself as an international meeting destination, while maximizing local benefits from hotel development in destinations like Cancún. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on the things that have to be done to make tourism sustainable,” said Eduardo Chaillo, the Mexico Tourism Board’s executive director, meeting industry.
When Cancún was built 40 years ago, “the idea was to develop something where there was nothing,” Chaillo said. “It was important to develop a region and bring employment to that part of the country.”
Since then, newer resorts in nearby Riviera Maya have incorporated stronger sustainability practices. Chaillo said the facilities take care of nearby mangrove forests and deliver economic benefits by using local foods and materials.
“Tourism works when the visitor experience coincides with the quality of life of inhabitants,” he added. “If both parts of the formula know that, it will endure, because it works for everyone.”
There is also some evidence that one large conference with a strong sustainability agenda can set a destination on a path to permanently reduce the environmental footprint of future meetings. After Copenhagen hosted COP 15, Visit Denmark and its partners parlayed the experience into the Copenhagen Sustainable Meetings Protocol, a “flexible, umbrella framework that can be used to organize large, complex meetings in a more sustainable way.”
But that kind of initiative doesn’t close the loop between the rigor of a meeting’s sustainable design and the impact of the conclusions that participants reach—or, if it’s another UN climate meeting, fail to reach. As long as the COP conferences fall short of a comprehensive deal, even the best local action will fall short of what’s needed to make meetings and destinations truly sustainable.
About Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repackaging conference content.
Talkback readers: Do you think tourism can be made environmentally friendly? How does it fall on the balance scales of “good for/bad for” sustainability?
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