The great ambitions of Évora

The great ambitions of Évora – the Davos for Travel and Tourism

The current global scenario forces us to acknowledge where we are, and, especially, where we are heading.
Time is limited, and the tourism industry has been taken to the corner of the ring, with a sudden push.

The climate crisis, the environmental degradation, the stream of natural disasters that lines up like a religious parade, dominating the news headlines, all have been topped with one of the most intense global crises that the industry has ever experienced, leaving it to operate within an immense health crisis and its associated safety risks, increasing the pressure on an already worn-out sector.
According to the UNWTO (2020), the industry has been one of the most adversely affected sectors during the Covid-19 pandemic, with a potential reduction in global GDP of between 1.5 and 2.8 per cent.

Tourism is the third-largest export category worldwide, with a vast and diffuse value-chain that not only involves all economic sectors of our societies, but also affects greatly the natural environment, the cultural heritage and the livelihoods of many traditional communities; the tourism sector, therefore, carries a huge responsibility to acknowledge its impacts and take conscious actions towards its future.
What is needed, according to Christian Delom, secretary general of the forum, A World for Travel, is “a mandatory transformation of the industry for the good of humanity”– and this is exactly what next week’s event, to be held on 16–17 September at the University of Évora, Portugal, wants to sow the seeds for.

The tourism industry is coming together – in the proposal of the organisers – to provide responses capable of shaping the sector, transforming the way it faces global issues, and above all, transforming its impacts. This is the challenge.

Évora is declaring itself as a ground-zero moment for the industry, a “ground-breaking event” in the words of Rita Marques, Portuguese secretary of state for tourism, and this aspiration relies, more than anything else, on the collective collaborations they aspire to promote. “The future of the global tourism sector relies on creating partnerships both within and outside of travel”, concludes Rita.
In a moment of crisis, unity is probably the most effective strategy, especially if built on a community of direction.

Photo credits @Henning Westerkamp – Pixabay

The premises are very encouraging. As also, honestly, are the first impressions that follow a quick look at the summit programme, about which I would like to share a few highlights and some reflections, inspired by the main open questions and some new items on the agenda.

Political Sustainability
When talking about sustainability, conservation and biodiversity are, obviously, at the centre of attention, and have sadly been for too long the only dimensions ever considered.
Alongside concerns over the planet’s environmental crisis, the rise in temperatures, impacts on coastlines, problems of waste management, and water-related issues, a fifth dimension is entering the language. It is time to reflect on the political dimension.

We cannot agree more with Taleb Rifai – co-chair, the Global Travel and Tourism Resilience Council, when he opines that “sustainability is not only about conservation or preservation. The challenge is one of innovation and management.

It is evident that managing our destinations implies more than quantitative measures and standardised solutions. It requires facing up to the questions posed, to maintain a balance between the needs and wishes of tourists, and the rights of local citizens to enjoy a high quality of life in their own cities.
And although the issues are more visible and extreme in the urban environment, this balance needs to be considered – structurally and consistently – also for the countryside and rural communities.
Caught between the risk of irresponsible waves of overtourism, and the threat of undertourism, we need new forms of governance and decision-making processes, more inclusive of local needs, and also flexible enough to create adjustable solutions with appropriate priorities in mind, which will change and adjust according to the context of individual settings.
We wait eagerly to hear more of these discussions at Évora.

New Actors
A real change in the structure of how we organise and manage tourism is key; in the same way, so also is opening and inviting new actors to the discussion table. Some positive steps in this direction are visible in the lines of the programme, where mentions of ‘NGOs’ and ‘local communities’ are not a one-off appearance.
In particular, the session Sustainable Tourism means Industry Reorganization – moderated by Yolanda Perdomo, senior tourism strategist, ICF – poses interesting, and quite unusual questions, which I was happy to find.
Inquiries such as “how to connect with the local communities?” and other questions about the role of NGOs – with their established knowledge of the local territory and wide networks of grassroots support – summarise, in my opinion, a long overdue attention to the usual invisibles. Perspectives need to shift if we want to effect change.
It seems to be an industry in a moment of self-realisation, creating space for the building of alternative paradigms in which to explore not only new economic models, but also the modes in which we travel. Does this mean that, among alternative ways of travel, slow travel has finally entered our practices, not only as a product, but as a mindset too? A way of deepening the understanding of a territory, its cultures and its communities, so necessary in a sustainable tourism model.

Social impacts
Finally, in this first description of the event, an additional smile is caused by the realization that ‘positive impacts’ here seem to have a broader meaning than simply the economic, and they start with the social. When we talk about sustainable tourism, we need to begin our discussion by focusing on the human and social rights of the people involved, including “the deliverance of basic needs such as work, food, shelter, education and medical attention” as stated by the panel moderated by Rika Jean Francois – commissioner, Corporate Social Responsibility, ITB.
Whether through culture and heritage or an adventure tour, we need to train our gaze to look at the social aspects behind the economic roles played, and think in terms of people’s rights. We need to talk about the hidden social impacts of tourism activities, but also become inspired by the examples of real case studies, because if we need to build a new framework, we should start from sharing innovative solutions as well as reflecting on the potential impacts, as yet unexplored.

Photo credits @truthseeker08 – Pixabay

Language is the reflection of our mindset and embeds the perspectives we adopt on what we do and how we see the world. If it is true that, as reported by Belvedere’s latest report (2020), our industry is still not very familiar with the term ‘sustainability’, much more work needs to be done on the meaning of our social impacts.
However, it is a process, and adopting a new language is the first step towards its normalization.

Asking new questions – especially if they reflect a new mindset – opens up opportunities and is a great first step; nonetheless, the biggest challenge is the one that follows once the answers start to emerge.


The Real Challenge Is With The Actions That Will Follow
The invitation is for the industry to come together to rethink but, foremost, to build a new future through the support of “a common platform to share best practices and perspectives”– the World for Travel community.
It is well established that good intentions are not enough anymore, and there is no doubt that we need collective and collaborative actions, integrating the multiple stakeholders involved, even, and especially, the usually invisible ones.

After deep reflections on the problems that tourism is creating – day one – and after emphasising the benefits and solutions – day two – the main goal is to create actionable goals – the five ‘Spirit of Évora Commitments’ – “to accelerate the transformation of travel for the better”, which will be put into action, and their progress evaluated next year.

The intentions are grand, the challenge is gigantic, the premises are interesting, and the commitments inspiring.
Now is the time for action and collective contributions.

I will be there to register some live impressions and participate in the conversations with the hope of witnessing the emergence of a properly ground-shaking movement. The one that our planet and communities are waiting for, and most deserve.

I encourage you to join the 140 high-level speakers and the over 20 ministers and heads of state, to attend and ask thought-provoking questions and, above all, to listen to the answers, and even suggest alternative ones.

You can register for free by visiting the following link:

Take some time to peruse the stimulating programme: