Heads of State, ministries, and global tourism leaders gathered at this year’s 9th Our Ocean Conference (OOC-9) to discuss what is being done to develop more sustainable tourism models and practices. Yet even the speakers themselves seemed unconvinced that their efforts are enough in the face of climate change and the rapid deterioration of global ecosystems.

The Disconnect Between Science and Industry

While tourism leaders presented the ways they are transitioning their tourism models in industry-driven sessions, scientists were stressing the urgent need for significant conservation and restoration efforts in parallel meetings.

Citing the somewhat boggling record-breaking sea surface temperatures, including in the Mediterranean, the world’s fourth massive sea coral bleaching event, declining fishing stocks, ocean acidification, incidents of sea life die off, and more, scientists called for a rapid acceleration of the designation of properly functioning marine protected areas and the decarbonization of all sectors.

Yet the tourism sector and discussions around sustainable tourism remain disjointed, in partial due to the fact that “sustainable tourism” seems to take on a different form based on the societal and geographical context.

Tourism is obviously a sensitive topic for Greece, as it is a key growth driver for the Greek economy, but it is clearly the same case for many of the world’s economies. Representatives from small island states at the conference highlighted their economies’ almost exclusive dependence upon tourism, and their challenges to transition as they also face the biggest brunt of climate change.

Divisions Within the Tourism Sector Itself

Commenting on the way that global tourism operates, President and CEO of AltaSea and the Port of Los Angeles Terry Tamminen said, “if we keep doing what we are doing, we will destroy it all.”

Tamminen was invited to talk about the “green” and “blue” transformation of Los Angeles’ main port in the progressive United States state of California, and to highlight how it has been transitioned into a blue economy hub through its production of hydrogen, wave energy and even aquaculture.

He said that despite the know-how and resources, the transition was not easy, as local populations and businesses needed to be shown “what’s in it for them.”

Meanwhile Craig Cogut, Founder and Chairman of Pegasus CapiAdvisors, Six Senses hotels, and the Global Fund for Coral Reefs, defended the reputation of luxury tourism as creating the greatest burden on the environment.

Referring to mass tourism and high-density tourism, Cogut said, “Let’s be honest, tourism can be done bad… really bad…” and argued that luxury tourism is actually low-density tourism, which is better for nature.

Statements by the Minister of Tourism and Environment of the Republic of Albania Mirela Kumbaro Furxhi were interesting, revealing Albania’s concern not to be perceived as a competitor to its neighboring tourism powerhouse of Greece.

“We are not competing with Greece, Italy and Croatia,” she said, despite the evident fact that tourism is on the rise in Albania and it is now on the global tourism map as a less expensive alternative to Greece and neighboring countries.

Minister Furxhi said their tourism model focuses on ecotourism and that they protect biodiversity by spreading tourists throughout the country instead of concentrating them in one location.

Greece’s Plans to Transition the Sector

Meanwhile Greece’s Minister of Tourism Olga Kefalogianni took the opportunity to talk about the measures Greece is taking to decarbonize the sector, relieve pressures from overtourism, and focus on the qualitative elements of tourism instead of just the quantitative.

First off, Minster Kefalogianni echoed the announcement of the Greek Prime Minister the night before that Greece is making a decarbonization fund for the islands and that plans involve a carbon trading system.

Additionally, and focusing on cruises, Minister Kefalogianni said “We want to see cruises diverted to other islands in order to alleviate pressure from the most popular destinations.” However, how this will work for smaller islands which have already expressed concerns about overdevelopment, inadequate local infrastructure and resistance from local society is unclear.

Answering the question about how the many activities in the tourism sector will be funded, she explained that “Using RRF funding, we will upgrade our marinas, fund underwater parks and we are trying to enhance the accessibility of our beaches. We will also operate a monitoring center for coastal and maritime tourism.”

In what was probably one of the most pointed remarks of the conference, the Minister concluded her speech by asserting, “In order to be ‘green’ we have to think ‘blue’ as well.”