International Mountain Day: Rebuild more sustainable mountain tourism for people and the planet | Expert network | Future Planet

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The mountains of the world have long attracted visitors for their scenic beauty, sporting opportunities and rich cultural heritage. For many high-altitude rural communities, tourism is a lifeline, as it can increase family income, improve employment opportunities, and revitalize local traditions. This is especially important when we consider that one in two rural mountain people in developing countries is at risk of hunger. However, tourism in alpine areas can also come at a cost.

For many rural mountain communities, tourism is a lifeline, as it can increase family income, improve employment opportunities, and revitalize local traditions.

If poorly managed, it can negatively affect fragile mountain ecosystems, endanger biodiversity, fail to ensure that local populations benefit from income, or even threaten the identity of the communities themselves.

The coronavirus disease has hit the tourism sector like an earthquake. Before the pandemic, mountain tourism accounted for up to a fifth of tourism worldwide. In 2020, the numbers of international visitors fell by 74% globally and the mountain destinations that depended on them suffered serious economic losses.

The joint study prepared by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) and the Secretariat of the Mountain Partnership suggests that the pandemic also offers us the opportunity to rethink this type of tourism. To help the Alpine regions recover from the crisis caused by COVID-19, it is necessary to adopt short-term and longer-term measures that go beyond the tourism sector. We have an urgent responsibility to restore it in a more sustainable and equitable way so that it offers future benefits for its inhabitants and those around them.

The mountains have much more to offer than snow sports in winter and hiking in summer

We must act promptly. Many governments have responded quickly to support the recovery in tourism. Most countries have adopted stimulus packages for the entire economy and support for employment. Georgia, for example, announced that the payment of property and income taxes for companies in the tourism sector would be deferred and that banks would restructure the debts of those individuals and companies working in the tourism sector.

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We must also transform our agri-food systems to be more efficient, inclusive, resilient and sustainable, improve livelihoods and ensure that local communities fully participate in and benefit from mountain tourism. In particular, destinations must be innovated and diversified to attract new markets as the sector emerges from the shadow of the pandemic.

Creating a year-round mountain tourist destination can generate additional income and is becoming increasingly essential as the effects of the climate crisis are reducing the length of snow seasons. The mountains have much more to offer than snow sports in winter and hiking in summer. The archaeological, cultural and spiritual sites, the picturesque villages, the thermal baths, the specialties and gastronomic routes and the rare species of animals and plants represent opportunities to diversify it.

The Cordillera region in the Philippines is a good example. The country’s Ministry of Tourism, the Mountain Alliance Secretariat and Slow Food launched a project in the area in 2018 to connect tourism service providers with small-scale farmers, helping visitors discover high-quality mountain products such as typical rice, in turn increasing the income of these communities.

At the same time, we cannot ignore that climate change is likely to increase the frequency of natural hazards such as floods and landslides. Strengthening crisis management capacity and health and safety standards will be critical to building the long-term resilience of mountain communities and the tourism sector in these areas.

Furthermore, in anticipation of the return of large numbers of visitors to the mountains, consideration must be given to reducing environmental impact and ensuring sustainable tourism. This implies addressing the problem of the large amount of plastic generated by the sector, which harms the health of animals, humans and ecosystems. The recent Mountain Waste Survey (Alpine Waste Survey), supported by the United Nations, confirmed that plastic waste is found even in remote areas, such as the Himalayan peaks. It is of the utmost importance to work to eliminate single-use plastic products in the sector.

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Finally, we must ensure that tourism plays a key role in valuing, respecting and protecting the natural and spiritual heritage of mountains as well as the cultural diversity and traditional practices of the communities in these places. We have a collective responsibility to choose ethical travel options, expect wellness destinations and tourism companies to respect the environment, and hold them accountable if they don’t.

We have a collective responsibility to choose ethical travel options, expect wellness destinations and tourism companies to respect the environment, and hold them accountable if they don’t.

Sustainable mountain tourism is the theme of this year’s International Mountain Day, which is celebrated annually on December 11. We should commemorate it as a reminder that for it to flourish, urgent action is needed to ensure that no one is left behind. More specifically, this means supporting vulnerable groups, particularly women, youth and indigenous peoples, who are the custodians of these majestic but fragile environments from which we all benefit.

Sustainable mountain management will drive better production and nutrition, a better environment and a better life for all and contribute to the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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