The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) framework, also referred to as Agenda 2030, is a schema outlining a set of 17 interconnected goals. The goals are supported by 169 specific targets aimed at addressing the world’s most pressing social, economic, and ecological challenges such as poverty, gender equality, clean energy, peace, and justice [1
]. The SDGs were created with the intention of building on the successes and addressing the failures of the Millennium Development Goals, thus guiding the world into a more sustainable future. While the Agenda set by the United Nations involved a 15-year plan for achieving all 17 goals, several contemporary crises, including health, environmental, humanitarian, political, economic, and care, have delayed progress. Such crises pose a serious threat to achieving the goals by the 2030 deadline. The aim of our analysis is to present a critical commentary on the SDGs and reflect on the essential role tourism may play in progressing the goals.
Preceding the pandemic, mounting concerns from commentators pointed to the lack of initiative and participation on behalf of all stakeholders, sectors, and countries, posing concerns about the successful realization of the SDGs. Such concerns led to an accelerated sustainability push emerging from the 2019 SDG Summit referred to as the Decade of Action
. This campaign emphasizes the urgency of collective action to accelerate sustainability solutions on three levels: globally, locally, and individually [2
]. The onset of COVID-19 following the Decade of Action
call necessitated the reallocation and redirection of funds. The ongoing challenges of the health crisis has set the date back for achieving the SDGs [3
]. Emerging from global inaction, and coupled with the global pandemic affecting progress setbacks, it has been suggested that a more realistic timeline for achieving Agenda 2030 may be 2092 [4
]. Clearly, critical action is needed immediately to progress the SDGs.
Based on contemporary circumstances, it is incumbent upon scholars to critically engage with the SDGs to ensure we are continually making sustainability progress, even in times of crises. The subsequent discussion examines the critical role of the tourism sector, building on previous Special Issues on the SDGs in our field [5
]. Specifically, we pause to reflect on some of the critiques of the SDGs because, currently, critical analyses of the SDGs are fragmented. To overcome such challenges, we must be able to recognize and overcome such concerns. The critiques we will reflect on here include a lack of understanding of the SDGs in terms of what each goal entails, division of power, the role of governance, stakeholders, and financial support required for policy and decision making, and addressing the misconceptions surrounding the implementation of sustainable approaches. Our commentary will begin with an overview of how the tourism sector has been recognized as an important sector to mobilize the SDGs.
2. Spotlighting Tourism to Progress the SDGs
Preceding the pandemic, the tourism sector was signaled as an important sector to attend to and progress the SDGs. Specifically, the United Nations deemed 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development and explicitly emphasized the role of tourism in three of the 169 SDG targets (including SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production; SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth; and SDG 14 Life Below Water) [1
]. With responsible planning and management, tourism has been recognized as having the potential to enhance job creation, incorporate social reconciliation, protect local heritage, conserve biodiversity, and create sustainable forms of livelihood to improve the well-being of individuals [9
]. The “multitude of links [tourism] has with other sectors and industries along its value chain, [tourism] can in fact accelerate progress towards all 17 SDGs [and] build a new culture of sustainability and peace” ([10
], p. 6). Indeed, many of the SDG targets are aligned with the tourism sector, which lends to the important role of tourism in progressing the SDGs (i.e., [11
]). The articulation of the SDGs, specifically their aspirational potential “to realize the human rights of all” ([12
], p. 5) has signaled opportunities for the tourism sector; however, it has also highlighted critiques, which we will reflect on here.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s report for 2020, the tourism sector accounted for almost 1 in 4 jobs created across the world, contributing to 10.4% of the world’s GDP in 2019 [13
]. Appreciating the strength of the sector has led to understandings of tourism as an economic powerhouse and the sector’s ability to promote the global economy and provide employment opportunities, thereby having a role in alleviating poverty [13
]. The role of the tourism sector in progressing the SDGs is somewhat surprising from a scholarly vantage point, given our understanding of the inimical impacts generated by the sector (i.e., [5
]). Accordingly, in taking up the recent advice of scholars (i.e., [18
]) calling attention to the importance of the halt in travel and tourism due to the global pandemic, we must re-evaluate priorities with sustainability in mind. This will require inspiring leadership and facilitation of stakeholders to bring about effective policies, and business practices in alignment with the SDGs.
3. Reflecting on the Critiques of the SDGs & the Role of Tourism
The aim of the SDGs is to ensure a sustainable environment for promoting sustainable practices, and the inclusion of fair economic practices, along with the attainment of human rights for everyone; however, commentators have expressed a myriad of concerns. Disquiet regarding the lack of awareness of the SDGs, comprehension regarding what the goals entail, the ambiguous language in which many of its goals are described, governments using the goals as a front for their self-serving interests, the voluntary nature of engaging with the SDGs, the challenges in tracking progress made, understandings regarding how to advance the goals, financial inequities, power divides, and a lack of leadership have been signaled as key concerns delaying progress. Each concern will be discussed in turn below.
The broadly defined and universal SDGs fail to define what the role of each stakeholder is in the attainment of goals. This has led each country to infer their own interpretations at national and/or local levels regarding their facilitation of the goals [20
]. While this flexibility provides countries and sectors with the autonomy to create policies and build their own ecological and social plans, the understanding of what role each country and sector is taking towards implementation remains unknown [20
]. To effectively meet any goal in a team setting, responsibilities and undertakings are collectively agreed upon and explicitly specified [21
]. The lack of direction in the collective progress of the goals remains blurred. Hence, countries working towards the attainment of the SDGs must share the same understanding in terms of what the goals stand for, and what their role is in achieving them [21
]. Due to the voluntary nature of participation in this agreement, there is an unfair division of labor to attain the goals related to humanity, mainly due to the lack of awareness as to what the goals entail [21
]. Given that the tourism sector has been centered as an important sector in SDG progress, businesses in destination communities should be required by local governments to report on their SDG progress.
The language that has been used for several goals, especially those directed towards social and ecological improvement, has been critiqued as ambiguous and confusing [22
]. The aspirational use of language in the SDGs by frequently using phrases such as “We will work towards…”, “We will strive to…” and so on vaguely direct political decision making and are often impractical to apply given the power divide between countries [22
]. For example, SDG 1 aims to eradicate poverty in all its forms, but there have been concerns about the language in which the moral objectives of human rights have been presented within the goals, which contradicts the current reality and governmental divide in pushing resources, and appropriate policies for this realization [24
The nature of participation in the attainment of the SDGs is voluntary for countries and sectors. As such, the voluntary nature leads to an overall imbalance in the division of labor and responsibility in working for change that affects everyone. This is particularly concerning for the tourism sector given the global emphasis the sector continues to receive is its profit generation potential and the widespread attention regarding the lack of sustainability progress (i.e., [5
]). With governments focused on expanding profits under the influence of capitalist markets and multinational and privatized organizations, there is clearly an uneven allocation and distribution of resources. This impacts an unfair disadvantage on local businesses and organizations out of decision-making roles, as they are not deemed to have financial potential [6
]. Governments in tourism communities should mandate SDG participation and require annual reporting to monitor sector progress. Overseeing annual reports could draw attention to SDG progress and draw attention to critical areas requiring attention.
Governance decisions that focus on refining a country’s financial goals by improving income gains for the top 1% may help with the national income distribution and overall economic growth of a country; however, it further widens the gap between rich and poor in the same country [21
]. This draws attention to the impetus in addressing public awareness and motivation, along with increasing accountability for governments to help facilitate priorities for decision-making, especially among emerging and middle-income economies and countries [25
The division between countries based on their economic status, along with governments pursuing their own interests for the sake of emerging economies, opposes the main ideology of partnerships across different sectors laid out by the SDG framework. While the framework has guidelines to ensure fair practices and the inclusion of all stakeholders, the privatization of resources across sectors and the exclusion of Indigenous and feminist perspectives (i.e., [5
]) challenges the notion of inclusivity. Specifically, it is imperative that key stakeholders are included in dialogue about tourism policies that may affect them. There is a need for ensuring fair partnerships across all levels of organizations including public, private, regional, national, or international.
The financial support required to achieve the SDGs has received limited attention. Specifically, most emerging economies depend on financial and technological aid from more developed economies. According to the 2018 Sustainable Development Solutions Network Report, the achievement of the SDGs requires a global annual capital expenditure ranging between USD 5 and 7 trillion to bring about the desired societal transformation in the fields of education, health, energy systems, urban planning, agriculture, and technology [30
]. Most emerging and middle-income countries do not have the financial power to invest capital to make necessary changes required for the attainment of SDGs and turn to foreign aid or depend on donor organizations to meet the investment gaps [31
Increasing local taxes and private financing of infrastructure may help bridge the gaps but will eventually strain the economic system of emerging economies [32
]. With the financial inequities coming to light, particularly in the pandemic, the need for sustainable pathways for leveraging and providing equitable sources of financial aid is particularly important if we are to actualize the SDGs. Improving and strengthening domestic financial systems may address a lot of the problems faced by these countries, thereby reducing the risk of debt and market flow of the country [32
]. A potential response to the financial costs required in the implementation of sustainability measures may be for destination communities to consider a sustainability tax in addition to or aligned with visitor fees. Such fees could be dispersed based on need and impact within destination communities. Furthermore, tax incentives in wealthier countries may prove to be helpful in encouraging take up and the implementation of sustainability practices advancing the goals.
The misconceptions and misinterpretation surrounding the SDG agenda among tourism stakeholders is an important factor for ignoring and/or overlooking sustainability approaches. Since resources that fit with sustainability practices are comparatively costly, the implementation of sustainability is considered economically damaging among those circles [33
]. Political misalignment and institutional blockages surrounding the inclusion of SDGs, particularly within tourism in emerging economies, stem from the lack of clarity in understanding the need for, and importance of, adopting these goals [33
]. One of the most debated solutions of Public–Private Partnerships aims at providing a balance to this power divide. However, this further brings questions about silencing effects on the less powerful, contradicting the aim of this solution [33
]. Clearly, resources are required to respond to some of the misunderstandings regarding what the SDGs entail. Moreover, evidence of best practices and SDG implementation may be useful within destination communities and across borders to illustrate how sustainability could be implemented responding to misconceptions. Governmental incentives in wealthier nations encouraging cross-country or cross-border partnerships to advance the SDGs could be useful.
4. Final Reflections
Evidently, interventions are required to raise awareness about the SDGs. An appropriate place to start may be considering formal and informal education. Teacher training, workshops, and courses could be designed to build a knowledge base around the SDGs and build capacity regarding personal and professional leadership. University instructors offering courses or content specific to the SDGs may consider ways of mobilizing their knowledge in formal (i.e., sharing or creating content with younger students at the primary or secondary levels) and informal settings (i.e., radio interviews, opt-eds, community engagement, i.e., street art, collaborations with businesses) to make the goals visible, relatable, and understandable in practical everyday settings.
Clearly, further interventions to enhance support among the tourism sector are required to progress the SDGs. Aside from our suggestion for governmental incentives encouraging participation and collaboration, perhaps there are opportunities for leading bodies such as the World Tourism Organization to nudge tourism stakeholders to engage with the goals. Specifically, this will entail facilitating conferences, workshops, and/or symposia to encourage the sector to come together, network, learn about the wins and/or struggles in the implementation of the SDGs, and co-design responses. Importantly, such networking opportunities would be best if they bridged academia, including faculty, staff and students, and members of the sector, including local governments, enterprises, developers, policy developers, and host communities. Communicating sustainability activities across sectors may serve as useful to gain insights about challenges faced, as well as ideas regarding SDG implementation. A collaborative on-line space may serve useful for on-going dialogue and sharing. Furthermore, incentives such as recognition via awards or spotlighting action may serve as an important motivational strategy enticing local governments or councils may consider.
While the SDGs aim to tackle our world’s most pressing social, economic, and ecological challenges [1
], our commentary has pointed to a myriad of barriers standing in the way of their progress. Tourism is a powerful sector that has the potential to respond to all the SDGs beyond the three (SDGs 8, 12, 14) explicitly referred to in the targets [11
]. Still, a re-evaluation of success, engaging with stakeholders who have been previously neglected, and prioritizing the distribution of funds is of paramount importance to tackle issues pertaining to the understanding of the goals. Unmistakably, financial inequities stand in the way of sustainability progress and the lack of leadership initiatives to bring about changes across the SDGs directly and indirectly by identifying and addressing systemic, institutional, and power divides at their root.
Importantly, contemporary crises such as the climate crises and the global health pandemic complicate the playing field, shuffling priorities including the direction of funding; however, crises also necessitate action [34
]. It is imperative the tourism sector addresses the short-term thinking that has been driving decision making, which has accelerated climate change, demonstrating knowledge gaps and a lack of preparedness [35
]. The ideals of sustainable tourism are not possible to realize without decarbonizing tourism, which is reliant on a collective response [35
]. The contemporary backdrop sheds a light on the vulnerability of the tourism sector, serving as a wake-up call necessitating urgent responses considering long-term, collaborative, and radical thinking for progressing sustainability ideals.