Comment: Is the tourism sector leaving its main resource behind?

Tourism is a people business. The quality of the touristic experience at a destination depends to a large extent on the welcoming atmosphere that the locals exhibit; how they protect or not the natural beauty; and how they deliver the services tourists look for – be it food, transport or a spa treatment. It is surprising therefore that the tourism sector is still lacking behind on social sustainability – especially when it comes to going beyond compliance, corporate giving and community projects.

One sign of this is the slow uptake of the business and human rights agenda in the sector. Yes, we can see advances. For example, in the protection of children from sexual exploitation in tourism. But still, membership of sector initiatives such as The Code is limited to a small number of operators. Beyond early movers, such as Kuoni in Switzerland and Studiosus in Germany, very few tourism companies have proactively embraced the UN Guiding Principles on Business & Human Rights and started the human rights due diligence journey.

And yet, the human rights challenges in the sector and the case for a due diligence approach are fairly obvious. To name just a few:

  • In the workplace: excessive working hours, non-payment of living wages, discrimination and the lack of adequate grievance channels can lead to low staff morale/health and ultimately affect service quality
  • In the broader value chain: precarious working conditions for contract workers and outsourced providers entail the risk of health and safety impacts for these workers and tourists (e.g. through over-fatigued drivers) with the reputational and financial damage associated when things go wrong
  • In the community: exclusion from the benefits of tourism development, negative impacts on land and water or the right to privacy can lead to tensions with the local community which can affect the tourists experience, and the long-term attractiveness of the destination

What companies in the sector need to do to address these and other issues is not rocket science. We at twentyfifty have tested and refined practical approaches for human rights due diligence in tourism and other sectors during our past ten years of consulting practice. To respond to the increasing expectations of society more broadly, and of governments and investors, tourism companies need to:

  • Make a commitment to respecting human rights,
  • Analyse the human rights impacts of their activities and value chain relationships and act upon these findings,
  • Track, monitor and communicate their due diligence activities, and
  • Provide for access to remedy where negative impacts occur.

This needs an integrated approach encompassing thorough analysis and prioritization, internal training and capacity building as well as proper engagement with external stakeholders and vulnerable groups – the so called rights holders.

With more than 1 billion people travelling each year and growing consumer awareness of and interest in sustainability issues, why are companies in the sector not paying more attention to what is simply good risk management, and leaving opportunities to distinguish their sustainability strategy unused? Isn't it time for tourism to embrace the concept of human rights due diligence and integrate it into business operations, relationships and future planning? 

We have therefore made it one of our four main focus sectors. We see signs of progress that will encourage further action across the sector, such as the Roundtable on Human Rights in Tourism in Germany; the integration of further labour/human rights criteria in the revised Travelife audit checklist; and the increasing focus on human rights at this year's ITB in Berlin. As we pack our bags for ITB, we look forward to interesting talks and supporting tourism companies in making progress towards a rights respecting business culture.