Africa Travel Week
responsible tourism

What if Tourism…?

Two weeks ago, Marco Lucero, the co-founder of Chilean sustainable tourism organisation Cuidadores de Destinos, posted the following Tweet:

Is to What If, described as ‘a call to action to reclaim and unleash our collective imagination, told through the stories of individuals and communities around the world who are doing it now, as we speak, and witnessing often rapid and dramatic change for the better’.

The book explores the power of imagination to ‘look at things as if they could be otherwise’. It’s also accompanied by a podcast, with episodes such as: What if birdsong drowned out the traffic? What if we lived in a wellbeing economy? What if we took play seriously? and What if indigenous wisdom could save the world?

None of these questions are specifically about tourism. But they all relate to what we could do, if we realised our potential.  Indeed when Conscious Travel’s founder Anna Pollock and Visit Flanders put on an event in Bruges in 2019 titled ‘Travel to Tomorrow’, Rob Hopkins was one of the four keynote speakers invited. (There’s loads of great links on this page to his speech and related content from and inspired by the summit).


My own experience for the last year has also been an exercise in exploring ‘What if.’ In October 2019 I wrote a sort of ‘what if’ blog on this site asking ‘Should Tourism Declare a Climate Emergency?’. By January 14th 2020, the initiative had launched with 14 founder members. As of today we have 153 members, from almost every sector of our industry, all coming together to ask ‘what if we declare as a tour operator / travel agent / consultant / hotel…’? To ask ‘what if’ we really put climate action at the heart of our plans? What if work together to find the solutions our industry needs?

And that’s how I met Marco Lucero – whose tweet began this blog. He contacted me in October and said ‘What if we launched in Spanish as Turismo Declara?’ Last week, he, along with seven other volunteers from across Spain and Latin America did exactly that. Tourism Declares has only got this far thanks to the power of what if. And especially thanks to the 28 people who have joined us as volunteers since COVID shut down our industry, giving some of their spare time during this chaotic period to help us develop.

Across our industry, the most exciting innovations start with a ‘what if’ moment. The Future of Tourism Coalition, now with 450+ signatories since launching mid 2020, is the result of six leading tourism NGOS asking ‘What if we worked together?’ The Palau Pledge asks ‘What if we reimagined the visa stamp as a commitment to the country you were visiting?’

Deutsche Bahn’s ‘No Need to Fly’ campaign asks ‘What if we could find the same tourism experiences without leaving home?’ And perhaps most powerfully of all, Black and Abroad’s ‘Back to Africa’ campaign confronts racism directly by repurposing hatred on Twitter and asking ‘What if we can tell a different story about what it means to go back to Africa?

At its best, tourism is such fertile ground for the power of imagination. It’s the motivating force behind so much of what takes us away travelling. Elevate Destinations’ Buy a Trip, Give a Trip initiative answers the question  ‘What if every holiday we sold paid for a local child to experience wonder?’ Ilunion Hotels recruitment policy, where 50% of its staff have some form of disability, demands ‘What if we saw everyone for what they can contribute, and built a company to support that?’ Scandic Hotels took years of experience developing their hotels to be as accessible as possible, and wondered  ‘What if we shared this freely online, how much more impactful and accessible would we be then?’  And Unseen Tours, where all the tour guides are homeless and previously homeless people,  asks ‘What if we saw them as the tour guides who know the streets best?’

What if we took this as far as possible? What if we explored the full extent of our potential as the sector to reinvent the world, to connect people to each other and to the nature? What if we brought all these exceptional ideas together so they were no longer exceptions to the rule, but rather the way every hotel and tour operator worked?

What if all our hotels operated like in Innovation Lighthouse’s Sustainable Stays project where the hotel rooms become living labs for all the sustainable innovations that could be found in a single bedroom, with the guests contributing to the research simply be being guests and feeding back on their experience?

Marco’s original tweet best captures the opportunity we need to seize, where he asks: “What if Tourism becomes a platform for deep connection and understanding between humans and nature?”

What if we did that?

Jeremy Smith

Jeremy Smith is the editor of sustainable tourism news site Author of recently published Transforming Travel - realising the potential of sustainable tourism (2018). As well as writing a fortnightly blog for WTM's responsible tourism website, he works with responsible and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy. He is co-author of Rough Guides' only guidebook dedicated to responsible tourism, Clean Breaks - 500 New Ways to See the World. Before that he was editor of The Ecologist, the world's longest-running environmental magazine.