Tourism has expanded considerably over the last few decades. According to the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), international tourist arrivals increased from 674 million people in 2000 to 1,480 million in 2019. This multi-billion dollar industry is supported by millions of workers, mega infrastructure projects and a global web of travelling means. Tourism is intrinsically linked to other sectors such as construction, transportation, and hospitality, and often shares the human rights risk that these sectors face, in addition to the human rights risks the tourism sector creates itself.
Global tourism can have some clear positive effects on the economic and social well-being of both tourists and local populations. However, the tourism sector can also bring far-reaching negative human rights impacts on workers, local communities and tourists, in addition to impacts on the environment – both local and global, through the air travel of tourists, for example. A number of the risks workers face in the tourism sector are shared with workers generally. However, there are specific risks for workers in the tourism sector; vulnerable groups such as women, children, migrant workers and indigenous communities all over the world are the ones most heavily affected by the adverse impacts of tourism, especially in economically underdeveloped countries.+ Read more
The human rights risks of tourism include:
- abuses of labour rights and poor working conditions, including a lack of written contracts, long working hours and excessive overtime, lack of protective gear, which can take the form of modern slavery and exploitation;
- subjecting vulnerable groups, such as women, children, migrant workers, persons with disabilities or indigenous peoples, to discriminatory practices by companies or tourists;
- negative impacts on land rights;
- negative impacts on culture of communities and heritage sites;
- negative impacts on the environment and climate change.
These risks are amplified by local or worldwide economic crises or other events that affect tourism, such as terrorism, natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has put 100-120 million jobs in the industry at risk.
Accordingly, several states have addressed the human rights risks of tourism in their National Action Plans (NAPs). For instance, Poland’s NAP provides for regulatory amendments to address sexual exploitation of minors in the hospitality industry. Spain’s NAP aims to promote self-regulation codes in line with various frameworks that provide for responsible tourism. Germany’s NAP plans to increase financial support for the initiative the Round Table on Human Rights in Tourism.
Workers in tourism are employed in formal and informal sectors which prepare the infrastructure and provide service for tourists. Occupational health and safety (OHS) of these workers is a global concern. OHS violations often lead to work-related injuries and fatalities in the tourism infrastructure construction to which the migrant workers in the informal sector are the most vulnerable. For instance, in the case of casino construction on the American island of Saipan, involved the allegations of safety violations and, consequently, injuries and fatalities of the workers from China, often employed illegally. The Report on Migrant Workers’ Rights in Qatar & UAE Construction details the OHS concerns related to construction of the infrastructure related to mega events, such as Expo 2020 in Dubai and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, with the specific emphasis on migrant workers. Another dimension of OHS issues in tourism has emerged as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. The pandemic, apart from its negative impact on the employment in tourism sector, has also put workers at a heightened risk of infection. These risks are more pressing in countries that are highly dependent on tourism revenue, such as Turkey. Low wages for workers is a prevalent labour issue in tourism sector. A Florida State University Report in 2019 found that workers employed in tourism were payed the lowest wages of any industry in the US. For many tourist destinations that work 24/7, extremely long hours of work, especially on busy seasons, can be a tremendous challenge for workers. Additionally, workers often face problems protecting their labour rights due to the irregularity of their employment and the lack of trade unions.
Fuelled by high incidence of informality in the sector, there is a high risk of modern slavery and child labour. A significant number of forced labour cases involve migrant workers in the hospitality industry across the globe – in Qatar or the US, or in the construction of the infrastructure for major entertainment events as the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 and the much-anticipated 2022 FIFA World Cup. The ILO has estimated that there are between 13-19 million children working in an occupation tied to tourism, which represents some 10-15% of the tourism workforce. Child labour is often used in hospitality, or entertainment, such as hotel personnel, or guides for tourists, as well as in the vast supply chain for tourism industry, such as in the production of souvenirs, for example.
Sexual exploitation of women and children is also a prevalent issue in the tourism sector. A 2017 ILO Report estimated that 19% (4.8 million people) of all modern slavery cases are sexual exploitation cases, 21% (1 million people) of the victims are underaged, and 99% of the victims of forced sexual exploitation were women and girls. ECPAT International’s 2016 Global Study on Sexual Exploitation of Children in Travel and Tourism found a direct link between the growth of and advancements in travel and tourism with specific risks for children, and identified significant legislative and policy gaps globally that cause the protection of children to lag behind the industry. Extraterritorial commercial child sexual exploitation and abuse was also a topic of special interest for the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2020, which highlighted a weak rule of law and poverty in destination countries, as well as the increased accessibility of travel that perpetrators take advantage of. The 2020 Report also identified the trends that hinder the protection of children from sexual exploitation in tourism, such as the so-called “voluntourism,” “orphanage tourism”, online platforms and electronic payments. UNICEF’s 2017 Report on children and hotel industry in Mexico also underlined child labour and sexual exploitation, along with issues with decent work for parents and caregivers and the pressure of tourism on basic services in local communities as pressing for children’s human rights in Mexico.
Beyond exploitative labour practices, there have also been discriminatory impacts of tourism on workers and other stakeholders. The 2019 edition of the UNWTO’s Global Report on Women in Tourism found that while women make up the majority of the tourism workforce worldwide, they remain concentrated in low-level employment and there are additional barriers for entrepreneur women as well. Discrimination of persons with disabilities also remains a challenge in the sector. The 2014 San Marino Declaration of Accessible Tourism calls upon stakeholders in the sector to promote accessible tourism by means of awareness raising, training and implementing good practices in their own activities. The UNWTO’s 2015 Manual on Accessible Tourism for All serves to provide stakeholders with new tools and resources to make their tourism destinations, facilities and services accessible for all. The European Network for Accessible Tourism (ENAT) in 2013 produced a Code of Good Conduct which is an international labelling scheme for the promotion of ethical business standards in Accessible Tourism for All and grants a commitment label to tourism businesses and organisations, recognising their efforts to promote accessible travel and tourism.
The land rights of indigenous peoples and other community members are also under threat in the face of a booming tourism industry, which requires the expansion of existing public infrastructure and attracts business attention to accommodate the increased number of tourists. A 2019 study titled Tourism, Land Grabs and Displacement builds on 25 case studies of tourism-related land grabs and displacements and concludes that “land grabbing, dispossession and involuntary relocation in holiday destinations in the Global South are pervasive and often systemic phenomena, involving complex alliances of government and corporate actors.” The study emphasises the often-enabling role of governments in the violation of land rights and distinguishes the rights of indigenous and forest-dependent peoples and mega sporting and entertainment events as the issues that are particularly important in this context. Apart from relocation and disruption of their natural environment, indigenous people are often a tourist attraction themselves: millions of tourists visit indigenous communities all over the globe every year for tourist purposes. While this fact per se is often seen as a modern version of ‘human zoo’, tourist activities can have a clear negative impact on indigenous communities by disrupting their way of life and social environment. Along with incentivising preservation and enhancing intangible cultural heritage, tourism can also have a negative impact in this regard. In particular, pollution, disregard of rules and exposure to unnatural sources of noise and heat caused by increased visitor numbers have caused damage to the world heritage sites, such as Machu Picchu in Peru.
Tourism also has various negative environmental impacts, especially in economically underdeveloped countries, which rely on the revenue from tourism and subsequent foreign investments. International travel and other dimensions of tourism contribute towards climate change, which itself then impacts on the local communities and their human rights. According to a 2019 Report transport-related emissions from tourism are expected to account for 5.3% of all man-made CO2 emissions by 2030. However, the loss of biodiversity and depletion of natural resources such as water, are also significant negative impacts of tourism on the environment. Considering environmental impacts of tourism sector, conducting or strengthening environmental impact assessments (EIA) have been proposed for tourism-related projects. For example, Equitable Tourism Options (EQUATIONS) recently proposed including EIAs for tourism-related projects in the Indian EIA framework. To improve existing EIA frameworks in respective states, 2011 EIA Technical Review Guidelines for Tourism‐Related Projects were developed by experts from CAFTA-DR countries.
The role of tourism sector and tourism companies have been criticised for profiting from operating in conflict and post-conflict zones. Amnesty International’s Report Destination: Occupation details how digital travel companies such as Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor, contribute to the maintenance, development and expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Another report points to how tourism is used to “gloss over” the harsh reality in Kashmir. Torn and fragile post-conflict societies are also vulnerable to the effects of tourism. A 2015 Report calls for an advanced human rights due diligence for the companies operating in such circumstances, referring to the situation of Sri-Lanka as a case study.
The protection of human rights in the tourism sector is guaranteed by various generally applicable international frameworks, such as the core UN international human rights instruments and the ILO Conventions. Considering its economic, social and environmental impacts, the sustainable development of tourism sector has a crucial role in the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. SDGs 8 (Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all), 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns) and 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development) include tourism-specific targets.
The UNWTO Global Code of Ethics for Tourism is a voluntary set of 10 principles addressed to various actors within the tourism industry and aims to ensure that benefits are maximized without adverse environmental, cultural or social impacts. Stakeholders can refer to the World Committee on Tourism Ethics with the questions regarding the scope and interpretation of the Code. In 2017, the ILO produced Guidelines on Decent Work and Socially Responsible Tourism, which set out common principles and policy framework to guide actors in tourism towards the internationally accepted labour standards and promote decent work in the industry.
Notable initiatives and studies for implementing human rights in the travel and tourism sector have been implemented by various actors. Some examples include:
- International Tourism Partnership has launched the Principles on Forced Labour that is designed to guide hotel industry to preventing forced labour in their business activities and supply chains.
- Global Sustainable Tourism Council has developed Performance Indicators for hotels and tour operators that aspire to guide the respective industries to contribute to sustainable tourism.
- A Practitioner’s Guide for Human Rights Impact Assessment (HRIA) in Tourism, developed by Twentyfifty, Hamburg Foundation for Business Ethics and Institute for sustainable tourism, is designed to aid practitioners conduct HRIAs in different sectors within the industry, such as a tourism destination with beach hotels and excursions.
- The Roundtable Human Rights in Tourism, a non-profit association promoting human rights, has produced several operational guidelines and tools for the actors and contexts in the industry of tourism. Recently it also published a Human Rights Impact Assessment Report for the tourism industry in Thailand and Myanmar, underlining main contextual human rights impacts, including labour rights, economic inclusion, environmental impacts, children’s rights, etc.
- The Myanmar Tourism Sector Wide Impact Assessment carried out by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) in partnership with its co-founders, the Danish Institute of Human Rights and the Institute of Human Rights and Business, is intended to identify and document the potential and actual adverse impacts of the tourism industry in Myanmar and support responsible business practices in the growing sector of tourism in Myanmar.
- Other important studies include: Impact Assessment of Tourism on Communities and Children in Zanzibar, which has been conducted by UNICEF Tanzania in collaboration with Zanzibar’s state institutions;
- Human Rights Impact Assessments (HRIAs) in India and Kenya conducted by the Swiss travel agency Kuoni.