Plastics, Tourism, And The Way Forward Interview With Mr Atul Bagai

Atul Bagai, Head of UNEP's India office, discusses plastic's impact on tourism and highlights the role of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and individual efforts in addressing the issue
Representative Image
Representative Image

"One could have a pledge [to shun plastics], but if it's not backed by adequate infrastructure to disseminate it properly, then it's just paper&hellip." In conversation with Outlook Traveller, Atul Bagai, Head of Country Office, India, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), addresses critical questions on the impact of plastic on the tourism industry, the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative (GTPI) and the role we play, individually.

How do the patterns of plastic usage and disposal impact travellers and the destinations they visit

Within a hotel or destination, when there is a concentration of tourists who come to that place, that concentration of tourists, in many cases, is more than the local population. So that means that geographical location has to cater to three, four or five times the infrastructure that has been made for that city, hotel or destination. 

Littering is yet another challenge, and it's a mindset issue. We should manage not only plastic use but also plastic waste, and if you cannot do that, you will see it everywhere. The waste coming from land-based sources, for instance, finds its way to the oceans, and that amount is enormous. We must see that our land-based activities don't choke our rivers and oceans. 

Fortunately, travellers are&nbspgetting a little worried about what they are seeing. The natural beauty is getting spoiled, and they are not getting the experience that they are visiting a tourist destination for because of the kind of filth all around. This impacts tourism, and I think the industry is aware of the problem and trying to address it.

What is Global Tourism Plastics (GTPI), and what is its goal

It's an initiative launched by UNEP and United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to focus on how the tourism industry, which is also a big contributor to plastic waste, can strategically address the plastic pollution issue. Plastic waste impacts the tourism potential of destinations, and it would have a major impact on the inflow of tourists. GTPI helps key stakeholders create action plans to address the plastic menace in their geographical locations. It focuses on eliminating problematic and single-use plastic. It also tries to bring reuse models and the circular economy narrative into the tourism sector.

Also, one of the big goals of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is partnerships&ndashSDG 17. And it can swing the whole pendulum in favour of success for the remaining SDGs. It has to be a concerted effort by all. Partnerships are also the cornerstone of the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative. It focuses on governments, tourism businesses, destinations, supporting organisations, and associations. There are 145 signatories globally. And after the Ministry of Tourism in India set up the Sustainable Tourism Policy, we started working to bring more signatories from India. We have seven so far, and we hope that number will grow during the G20 [Tourism Working Group] meeting in Goa this week.

How does one become a signatory for GTPI 

A detailed form must be filled out, listing the actions they must take. Then, UNWTO, UNEP and Ellen MacArthur assist and handhold these signatories to fulfil their commitments. It's a voluntary initiative, but whoever signs it needs to be serious about it. We are not trying to limit it to getting together, taking a pledge, and returning to our normal lives. We are trying to get commitments by signing this actionable pledge that can be monitored.

There are four categories of signatories under GTPI. Businesses like tour operators, travel agencies, hotels, and transporters. Destinations like local and national governments. Destination management organisations and tourism departments, supporting organisations and tourist associations like the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). And any other potential signatories linked to the tourism industry. If they show interest, we can formulate or modify solutions around their needs. We will also host a training program for the signatories and anyone interested in it from the tourism sector to start building capacity.

What are some highlights of the G20 Tourism Working Group meeting in Goa

We're organising an event on the margins of the 4th G20 meeting. The G20 countries will be there, plus eight other invited countries. We are looking to scale up our initiative and collate some concrete suggestions and ideas that the G20 countries and the Indian tourism industry could benefit from. We want to bring forward the significance of plastic waste management, how it impacts the sector, and what we can collectively do to address the issue. We've invited Brazil, Indonesia and Norway to join the conversation and share what they are doing and their best tourism practices. We are also bringing in 4-5 Indian destinations under the Swadesh Darshan 2.0 scheme, with the Ministry of Tourism to commit to this initiative, which can then become models and be replicated by other destinations.

I know a model village in Alsace in France, for instance. It's a small village, but a famous one, because it makes a very specialised wine. And during the tourist season in July and August, this village of about 2,000 local residents gets about 1.5 million tourists But if you go there, the way the village administration and the French administration managed to adapt to this influx of almost 15,000x, and to preserve the pristine beauty of that village, is remarkable. There are many best practices, even in India. Many organisations are working on this. We've also started a responsible traveller campaign with the Responsible Tourism Society of India to raise awareness.

What role do travellers play in solving this problem

Travellers have started demanding more environment-friendly services, choosing more ecologically balanced destinations. But it's not become a mass movement. Sustainable consumption and sustainable production need to work hand in hand. If there is demand for sustainable products, the industry will automatically need to meet the demand and individual consumption can play a very important role.

If sustainable consumption can be part of our mindset as consumers, the planet will benefit greatly, irrespective of the industry or the government's efforts. If 1.4 billion people in India start looking at sustainable consumption, it will have a major impact. Needless to say, individual consumption approaches need support from the government in terms of policy or from the industry in terms of alternatives. So the fact that the Prime Minister launched the Lifestyle for Environment Initiative recently, and following that, the Ministry of Tourism launched a Travel for Life campaign, is encouraging and a step in the right direction. 

Cover photo credit Dhaya Eddine Bentaleb on&nbspUnsplash

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Traveller