Sustainable Tourism in UAE: Insights into key challenges

The Biodomes - Baharash Architecture

Sustainable Tourism will be a key industry in UAE’s future economy. Transforming this highly-modernised mass market towards sustainable practices requires a new way of thinking.

By 2027 it is estimated that the travel and tourism market in UAE will support 770,000 jobs. This will account for 11.1% of total employment in UAE. By that time, more than 30 million tourists are expected to travel to this popular destination, generating expenditure of more than 180 billion AED. Whilst these projections provide a positive outlook for UAE’s tourism industry, there can also be undesirable side effects. Without proper management, mass tourism creates a negative impact on local communities and their environments. Sustainable tourism is a solution to this problem.

Sustainable tourism brings many benefits to host communities whilst also enhancing travellers’ experience. It can increase employment and provide long-term income-earning opportunities for locals. It can help to conserve natural heritage, biodiversity and local ecosystems. Sustainable tourism also aims to provide the same level of benefits to future generations. This can be achieved by ensuring that our activities today do not compromise the needs of future generations. Given that the travel & tourism industry is expected to continue growing faster than the global economy and most other major industries, shifting the balance towards sustainable tourism has become a necessity.

Empowering local businesses towards green practices will enable the growth of a sustainable travel & tourism sector. In order to understand how best to fuel this transformation, we first need to understand what sustainable tourism is all about.


What is Sustainable Tourism?

The World Tourism Organisation defines sustainable tourism as: “Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. Thus it’s about meeting the needs of present tourists and host communities, whilst protecting and enhancing opportunities for the future.

The concepts of sustainable tourism are in common with the concepts of ecotourism. Whilst they overlap and share common principles, ecotourism is more widely related to pristine and untouched landscapes. Sustainable tourism is a much broader term and is widely used as a term [in both pristine as well as urbanised areas] to provide positive impact on the environment, society and economy.

The core practice of sustainable tourism is to balance the requirements of travellers with the needs of the local community, whilst also protecting the environment. It’s about generating the greatest economic, social and environmental benefits to local communities, whilst minimising negative impacts. Whilst there are various other practices, they all have key themes in common; to support local communities, protect the environment and raise awareness about sustainability.

Monitoring the impacts associated with tourism activities, as well as providing preventive measures are also key instruments of sustainable tourism. It is important that these measures do not compromise tourist satisfaction; instead they should enable a higher quality of experience. Modern destinations such as the UAE are new to the concept of sustainable tourism. Their ongoing experience can provide a good learning curve for the region. For example, projects such as the Oasis Eco Resort and The Biodomes Wildlife Conservation Centre are defining some of the key challenges of sustainable tourism in UAE.


Ecotourism Projects: New Learning Curves

One of the key challenges of developing tourism projects is ensuring that measures are taken to protect and conserve the area which is ultimately its “biggest asset”. The scale of ecotourism projects is also crucial to ensuring that as much as possible of the landscape remains untouched. The Oasis Eco Resort for example is much smaller in scale than Al Maha Desert Resort, whilst The Biodomes Wildlife Conservation Centre is smaller of them all.

Thinking at a smaller scale also helps to ensure that the project is economically viable, as until recently projects such as Sir Bani Yas Island have been developed by the government, primarily to boost UAE’s tourism industry. These government initiatives can cost several billion Dirhams which was the case for projects such as the Qasr Al Sarab. Whilst the government can comfortably spend this amount of money, without the worry about the time it takes to payback their initial investment, private investors operate with a different mindset.

Private investors will look at a return on investment within 10 years. This is already a highly challenging market to seek equity investors, given that debt financing for these types of projects are already a challenge to obtain, as lenders are generally looking for 40-50% equity investment along with a bankable feasibility study that can demonstrate strong returns. The reality is that resort projects in general [regardless of whether they are eco or not] are high-risk long-term investments.

Thus the economic viability of resorts is a key challenge to attract and encourage private investors to build truly genuine eco resorts. The challenge is thus trying to encourage private investors to enter the ecotourism market and design eco resorts that can provide healthy returns within 10 years. The solution to this was much simpler in places like Costa Rica. This is because their socio-economic and environmental situation enabled sustainable tourism to thrive. The situation in United Arab Emirates is considerably different.


Socio-economic & Environmental Challenges

One of the key reasons sustainable tourism thrived in countries such as Costa Rica is because the majority of these resorts were built by local communities. Most of these resorts were built using local labour, local materials and local knowledge. During the 1980’s, the majority of Costa Rica’s population were living in rural areas which made ecotourism an economic necessity. Today 85% of UAE’s population live in urban areas. The world is becoming highly urbanised, and the world health organisation estimates that by 2050, almost 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. Local people – living in rural communities – in areas with natural beauty, are the key to the success of ecotourism projects. The same is true for local urban dwellers – they are the key to the success of sustainable tourism projects.

Local people have the best knowledge of the needs and demands of their areas. This bottom-up approach encourages community involvement and ownership of proposals. On the contrary the majority of today’s ecotourism projects are usually initiated from the perspective of central decision-makers. This top down approach is a waste of resources due to a lack of understanding of what’s really happening on the ground… as each community will most likely have different needs. The key is to flip this model; which will be challenging in a place such as UAE.

UAE is also one of the richest countries in the world. The country’s gross domestic product per capita was ranked 5th largest in the world by the World Bank in 2016. Emiratis currently enjoy one of the best welfare systems in the world. These include tax-free income, free health care, government-funded retirement plans, access to land to build homes with interest-free loans, free higher education and much more. The country is looking to create a more sustainable welfare system and is encouraging Emiratis to sustain themselves through entrepreneurship and job opportunities. Sustainable tourism and ecotourism could be the industry for the new generation of Emiratis to take bold steps towards a green economy.

Thus the backbone of successful ecotourism and sustainable tourism projects in UAE will be based on the “Three Ps” [Public, Private, Partnerships], as this will promote a collaborative approach between private and public entities. The key benefit of this collaborative approach is that it will expedite the transformation of UAE into a sustainable tourism destination, thus helping to create a greener circular economy.

Environmental sustainability is another area where developers can take a lead. Current trends in the design of eco resorts or eco hotels around the world seem to focus on selective approach to sustainability and conservation. A more holistic approach can be achieved by taking into consideration a series of sustainable initiatives during the early stage design of projects. These sustainable initiatives can be categorised in areas such as: Water, Health & Well-being, Energy, Materials, Pollution, Ecology and Waste. Excelling in these initiatives will help guide the design team in the pursuit of creating a more environmentally-friendly eco resort.


Final thoughts

Changing our habits and thinking patterns towards sustainable tourism should not be seen as a demanding exercise. In fact, some of these habitual changes require very little effort. For example if you are thinking of buying a product, make sure that it is locally made. If you are looking to acquire a service, you should invest in the one that you feel will benefit the local community the most. If you are looking to explore a fragile location, ensure that the area is properly managed and that there is information on the conservation efforts in that area. These are just some of the key challenges that tourists in UAE will find difficult to grasp. This is primarily due to the fact that sustainable tourism is still fairly new to the country, thus scaling the support for the industry is evidently taking some time to grow.

The concept of sustainable tourism is rapidly evolving as tourism challenges grow, travellers’ habits change, socio-economic challenges expand and new technologies emerge. The increase rate of climate change is also fuelling new thinking in sustainable tourism. Affordability and improvement in technology is also fuelling change within the industry. For example, the cost of implementing renewable energy such as solar panels has decreased significantly in the last decade. Thus there is an opportunity for hoteliers to take bold steps in areas such as 100% renewable energy.

Ultimately, sustainable tourism is not just about protecting the environment. It’s about increasing the social and economic benefits for host communities, without compromising the traveller’s overall experience but rather to enhance their satisfaction. The biggest challenge however is for sustainable tourism to become the mainstream choice, rather than an alternative and niche package.

About the author

Baharash Bagherian

Baharash Bagherian is a Designer working holistically at all scales, designing for a higher quality of life whilst also protecting the environment. He believes that great Architecture is more than buildings: “It’s about creating resilient destinations that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and want to visit.”

In his work, each project is driven by a process of investigation and experimentation. The outcomes of these studies form the basis of the design. He strives to develop innovative and creative solutions that make a positive contribution to our current and future generations.

His award-winning design studio, Baharash Architecture, have worked on projects in various scales, from urban scale; such as master plans, landscape design and buildings, to smaller scale; such as interiors, furniture and products. Recent projects include the Oasis Eco Resort in Liwa and phase 2 of The Sustainable City in Dubai.

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