Interview with Jordi Ficapal, Director of the Tourism, Sustainability, and Innovation Department at IQS
Why is being committed to sustainable tourism so important?
Tourism being sustainable is a basic essential! What we find attractive about a tourist destination is the lives of other people and that it’s a nice place to live. This is what attracts us to places. The better they are for the people who live there, the better they will be for tourists. A place’s inhabitants must have environmental, economic, and social conditions for living that ensure that the destination is fair and good for residents and, therefore, will also be good for visitors. Otherwise, tourism can end up generating perverse effects: think of a place where a certain level of tension is present (social, economic, and environmental) and where loads of tourists who are not involved at the local level are added to the mix, causing their own impact – environmental emissions from the trip itself, producing waste and consuming during their stay, their impact on water and energy consumption at luxury hotels, and so on. They are also sharing spaces with residents, restricting their activities, causing economic inflation, and more. If tourist destinations are not “prepared,” it ends up causing an extraordinary burden, even a psychological one, on residents if “the presence of tourists in this neighbourhood is unsustainable.” In fact, the psychological burden is one of the elements used to measure tourist impact in an area, and it is the first that surfaces.
“Tourism being sustainable is a basic essential. What attracts us to a destination is that it is a good place to live.”
Tourism’s DNA carries the gene of its own destruction, because what pushes us to be tourists is an attraction to a different place and a different way from our usual environment. Repeated over numerous people, this creates a volume of influxes to a place that ends up transforming it to a point where the place loses its initial attraction as a tourist destination, encouraging attraction for other less demanding groups and producing a stream of erosion towards visitors who are less sensitive to the beauty, life, and culture of the place, who came looking for other types of activities.
How can we address this?
Well, that’s the big question: how can we ensure that we only keep the positive impacts of tourism while minimizing and/or erasing all of the most negative impacts it can create?
Traditionally, public and public-private tourism cooperation organizations were primarily engaged in promoting tourism, especially in cities. For a couple of decades now, these entities, such as the Barcelona Tourist Office, have become more involved in managing the effects of tourism. They are more concerned with a uniform distribution of tourism throughout the region and they seek to ensure that citizens don’t experience the presence of tourism negatively, an aspect that is of considerable concern to local citizens today.
How did you become interested in sustainable tourism?
I am an anthropologist by training, an area in which there is the sub-discipline of the Anthropology of Tourism. This area focuses on conflicts in tourism and raises the points that we have already discussed above, that the most forgotten issues in tourism are the residents of the destinations themselves. The field takes great interest in the relationships between residents and tourists, the problems that can arise, and how an environment can be transformed to support tourism demand.
One of the issues that has always interested me is development aid, and I cooperated with Oxfam Intermon in Bolivia for three and a half years. When I started teaching Tourism and Sustainability, the first subject I taught was “Tourism and Community Development.” I wanted to share the idea of how we can make tourism a tool in community development and for people with needs, seeking to value the richness of the history, environment, and culture of the countless communities around the world and attract resources to facilitate their human and economic development to increase their wellbeing.
In 2003, I led a task force within the World Tourism Organization that aimed to establish procedures for applying the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. This work ended up shaping the current Tourism, Sustainability, and Innovation Department at IQS, of which I am the director.
“The current Tourism, Sustainability, and Innovation Department at IQS is based on applying the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism.”
Can you tell us about the project of the new ICT+Tourism cluster that you are launching through ACCIÓ, the Catalan Agency for Business Competitiveness?
The cluster was established in March. It aims to create an intelligence and collaboration hub between companies, government, and knowledge centres to develop and promote the digitalization of the tourism sector in Catalonia and the digital transformation of many tourism business models to make them more efficient, more sustainable, and produce greater added value for our economy. Technological companies from the world of travel and accommodation are involved in making this transformation of business models and incorporating technological elements into their tourism activities that improve their business. We need to be able, for example, to monitor the real-time flow of tourists in certain areas by using resources from the Internet of Things (IoT) or to be able to distribute tourists disembarking from a cruise so they don’t all go to the same places at the same time. We can still do much more.
How will IQS contribute to the cluster?
On behalf of IQS, Dr Albert Fornells, Head of the Quantitative Methods Department, and I are participating in the cluster. Our contribution is applied research and advice for the tourism sector with solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and the advantages that this brings the sector. On the one hand, IQS aims to help transform the tourism sector through new technologies, bringing them closer to companies and providing them with strategic judgement in using them. On the other hand, we also want to contribute to training talented individuals who are able to understand these technological innovations in the tourism sector and apply them successfully.
You are also a member of different committees related to sustainable tourism. Specifically, what is the work you do with the Barcelona City Council?
Currently, I am a member of the scientific committee for Biosphere Certification, a certification for sustainable destinations, promoted by the Responsible Tourism Institute and aimed at tourism companies. I am also a member of the Commitment to Sustainable Tourism Board, associated with the City of Barcelona through the “Sustainable Barcelona” programme. I also form part of the Tourism Circle with the Barcelona Provincial Council as an advisor.
Recently, I was named an expert on the Barcelona City and Tourism Council (CTiC), a governance body established in 2016 where representatives of the city’s different neighbourhoods, business organizations, the city council itself, and independent experts participate to discuss and debate the effects of tourism on the city, how to manage it, how to control it, and offer advice on the best tourism policies to implement, both for the Barcelona City Council and the Barcelona Tourism Office.
What does Biosphere certification involve? Is it based on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?
Biosphere emerged very early in the timeline of sustainability concepts, and from the beginning it covered environmental, social, and economic issues. The first major destination to be certified with Biosphere Tourism was Barcelona.
Sustainable tourism certifications are based on three main foundations: social, environmental, and economic sustainability. Recently, a fourth one has been added: good governance. Certification involves a series of indicators that are audited based on a number of questions for each of the dimensions.
Since the creation of the SDGs, these certifications have definitely been adapted to their requirements in order to be aligned in the same direction and to seek harmonization between the traditional certification indicators and the 17 SDGs. These objectives should always be present in our lives, not used only as “reference literature,” and we must incorporate them in strategic planning and in the “triple bottom line” of economic, social, and environmental sustainability. As to tourism, we must implement these objectives as we design tourist activities. But much work remains to be done.
Finally, how has the relationship between tourism and local life been affected by the ongoing pandemic?
The pandemic has had a twofold effect. On the one hand, pressure has decreased in places that see more tourists, supporting a return to “normal life” for citizens with less pressure on local life. On the other hand, this decline has led to the closure of many dining and hotel establishments, or the conversion of many dwellings to tourism uses, for example. Therefore, this “new normal” is not ideal, because much of what was previously available has disappeared, along with job losses. And this has a negative impact on citizens as a whole, even though the “tourismphobia” that was often used a “punching bag” for many people’s frustrations about the city has decreased. We have to seek a better balance, with the advantages and disadvantages and without trapping ourselves in extremes.