January 27, 2020

Why is smart land planning critical to sustainable tourism?

Resilient Communities

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After coming back from the holiday season and witnessing thousands of people pack into the airport to visit relatives or escape from the cold, I started to reflect on the real impact and footprint that travelling and tourism has on the communities and places we visit.

The holiday season is, without a doubt, one of the busiest times for travelling. In the US alone, statistics predicted that over 47 million people would travel by air, and another 4.3 million people would travel by car during this time. Worldwide, statistics found these numbers will grow by the billions in the next decade, prompting a need for investment in more fuel-efficient technologies to reverse the effects of climate change.

However, while there remains a critical need for the aviation industry to transform its practices, at the same time, the rise in tourism demands a higher responsibility from us as travellers toward the environment and the communities we visit.

In 2012, members of the United Nations' (UN) Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, recognized and helped prompt the growth for better practices towards sustainable tourism. They identified "the need to support sustainable tourism activities and relevant capacity-building that promote environmental awareness, conserve and protect the environment, respect wildlife, flora, biodiversity, ecosystems and cultural diversity, and improve the welfare and livelihoods of local communities by supporting their local economies and the human and natural environment as a whole."

As urban planners, to accomplish the UNs' sustainable development goals, my peers and I need to focus our efforts into creating better solutions for developers and municipalities. This effort starts by introducing the touristic industry into the bigger picture when establishing policies for land planning, especially in protected areas or communities with higher tourist traffic.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to participate in a study trip to Mali to help a community in the village of Niongono in creating a strategy for sustainable tourism. I also helped design a shelter to host visitors and a program to educate as well as find opportunities to involve tourists in the preservation of the Dogon heritage. Back then, I pictured the shelter as a place where visitors and locals could share and exchange the knowledge and history of Mali.

Due to military actions in the country, we never completed the project. However, I did learn how planners in land development can help mitigate the footprint of overtourism on heritage sites and natural or protected areas in the long-term. Aspects to consider include:

Environmental assessments

Planning the territory for protection, restoration and preservation of natural environments and wildlife should be a critical component in every land planning process. Victor Middleton, a revolutionary in modern thinking about tourism, said: "Land-use plans should specify where tourism can be developed and to what degree, ensuring that appropriate types of tourism development are sited in [the] appropriate places".

Consequently, when introducing the touristic industry into the process, land planners and environmental engineers can work hand in hand to bring the best solutions for allocation and control of the surrounding habitat.

At Nadi, we are captivated by the work that AxisIMA, a consulting firm that specializes in providing public and private sectors with integral and innovative solutions in ports and coastal engineering, environmental management and renewable energy, has undertaken in Mexico.

From land reclamation to beach rehabilitation and monitoring of the ecosystem on the coast of Merida, AxisIMA shows that by having a bigger picture over the land and its physical needs, will help determine a better approach to development strategies and relevant design services.

Sustainable architecture

Once the policies for land planning are aligned, investors and developers can follow the architectural guidelines through projects that enhance the natural environment. We should take advantage of the best architectural practices to reduce our carbon footprints, including using energy-efficient systems and smart design for cooling LD and lightning, reducing and managing waste, and considering alternative sources of energy and water heating like photovoltaic panels.

The construction of new accommodations and services can also become a transformative and teachable experience for visitors. Azulik is an exciting and respectful project, also located in Mexico, that combines some of the practices described. The materials and architectural details merge the spaces with the surrounding nature, at the same time the offer on experiences that combine local traditions create a unique example of an eco-hotel. The creation of such eco-shelters, eco-villages or even bigger eco-touristic districts can turn temporary visitors into permanent conscious residents.

Community engagement

In every planning process, it's essential to involve the community and understand their needs to provide the best solutions. So, tourist development should not be any different. Community engagement helps residents retain agency in land development by participating in the establishment of strategies for the preservation of their natural and built heritage. Some of these strategies include restrictions of access to sacred places or closures of the facilities for periods. It also shares accountability with tourists who can positively contribute to the locals through wildlife rescue, coral reef restoration, among others. As the founder of Sustainable Travel International, Brian Mullis, shared at the World Economic Forum:

"When travel and tourism activities are planned and executed with the impact on communities and commerce in mind, tourism as an industry can live up to its potential as a great catalyst for economic, social and environmental prosperity".

Sustainable tourism involves not only the responsibility of the visitors and the respectful use of the services provided but also the municipalities to plan for the preservation of their local heritage. Through land-use planning, municipalities can create strict policies and regulations to control growth and deterioration.

Land planning for sustainable tourism can turn around the face of overtourism and shape it into a beautiful practice of travelling with a purpose while reducing the impact on the community and the wider region. In 2020, Nadi Design will continue our commitment to bringing sustainable solutions to our clients in all our areas of expertise.

What other aspects do you think should municipalities consider when land planning for sustainable tourism?