It’s no typo: 2016 is just around the corner, but I’m looking ahead to 2017. And here’s why you should too.

Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly adopted 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development.   It recognizes the role travel and tourism plays in shaping the economic, environmental and social future of our world.  For an organization with a pedigree like HI USA, that’s exciting.  But it’s important for all of us.

Travel and tourism has long meant fun and sun.  Now the industry has grown into an economic powerhouse.   More people are travelling than ever before, and with it come more jobs and spending.  One of 18 Americans is employed in a travel-related job, with one of 11 globally. That’s impressive.

Yet there are some big challenges, too. “Getting there” carries a wide carbon footprint.  Air travel in particular is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.  And on the ground, social and environmental ills tend to follow an influx of tourists into local communities, particularly in underdeveloped countries.

Can a United Nations focus on sustainable tourism development for a single year make a difference?   Since 1959 more than 60 year-long, international observances have been sponsored by the UN and the results admittedly are mixed.  With every good intention, few seem to have reached into the wider public consciousness.


The 2017 International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development is led by UNWTO and its Secretary General, Taleb Rifai.

I believe a 2017 International Sustainable Tourism Year holds special promise. It takes place at a time of deep stirring about global climate change, increased candor about social problems created by tourism, and public outcry around destruction of cultural heritage sites.  Significantly, United Nations World Tourism Organization Secretary General, Taleb Rifai, has defined the International Year’s scope broadly: to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental”  Everything seems on the table, which is a testament to tourism’s promise and the Secretary General’s leadership.

Yet how do we make this 2017 UN initiative more than a specially designed logo, a string of global events, and a summary report for a narrow audience. How do we ignite a level of awareness and interest that can produce some meaningful change in attitudes and actions?

Finding new ways to engage a broad cross section of the global community will be important. Social media is a popular (and likely pivotal) element.  But to my mind, the most tantalizing opportunity lies with engaging the many organizations that don’t have “sustainable tourism” in their name, yet it’s still part of their DNA.  I know, because HI USA is one of them.  While we connote buildings and intercultural exchange, our roots are in the principle of “travelling lightly on the earth”.  Even today, travelers using hostels are more likely than others to share transportation, cooking and sleeping accommodations, and an interest in intercultural experiences.

Beyond our philosophical roots, HI USA’s commitment is fortified by HI’s election as a chair of the UNWTO Affiliate Member group of more than 450 nongovernmental travel and tourism organizations worldwide.   UNWTO is the lead UN agency for the 2017 International Year initiative.

Do you know an organization that might be interested in partnering to make the 2017 International Sustainable Tourism Year successful in the United States? Share your suggestions with me.  Let’s start now to make 2017 a special year for those who love travel and want to make a difference.