Tourism is one of the economic sectors most affected by the COVID-19 health crisis. The countries have shielded themselves to try to stop contagion, which has led to a very notable drop of foreign citizens visits. In particular, this industry could face a reduction of up to 78 per cent in international tourist arrivals. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the specialized agency of the UN, it could affect more than 100 million jobs.

As countries try to recover economically while facing public health and hygiene challenges from the pandemic, the global tourism sector, which represents 10% of the world’s GDP, can continue to fight plastic pollution. This is recommended by the Global Tourism and Plastics Initiative, led by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They recently published Recommendations for the tourism sector to continue taking action on plastic pollution during COVID_19 recovery’, a document that establishes the action plan for private and public sector stakeholders.

The document contains five recommendations related to the key concepts behind the common vision of a circular economy for plastic and should be seen as complementary to national and local regulations. It describes, for example, how to reduce the plastic footprint, work more closely with waste service providers and ensure transparency in the actions taken to significantly contribute to a responsible recovery in the tourism sector.

  1. Remove unnecessary packaging and items to reduce cross-contamination

According to the WHO, transmission is possible through indirect contact, i.e. through a contact point. It is therefore important to reduce these points and to disinfect those materials and targets that may come into contact. Single-use plastics should also be disinfected before they are used or made available to customers. Unnecessary plastic packaging and items should continue to be disposed of during the recovery from the pandemic to help reduce such contact points. Therefore, only those items needed by the citizens should be available, which also avoids the production of unnecessary waste.

  1. Develop cleaning and disinfection procedures and encourage reuse

Again, it should be noted that single-use plastic items can also become contaminated, so ensuring their hygiene and safety depends primarily on sound and reliable cleaning and disinfection procedures. Therefore, as the integration of these protocols is absolutely necessary, the commitment to reusable products is the logical investment for the stakeholders. Moreover, reusable models allow stakeholders to directly guarantee the application of hygiene and disinfection procedures and to have a greater control over its processes.

  1. Assess the use of packaging and articles and investigate their recyclability

Increased use of disposable items means increased pressure on waste management, so it is advisable to give preference to designs, materials and formats that can be collected and recycled effectively.

Consideration should be given to the capacity of the available waste management infrastructure to process the increasing flow of plastics in a sustainable and circular manner, i.e. through recycling.

There is also a need to reduce, sort and separate plastic waste to prevent it from being mixed with hazardous waste; to seek to introduce single-use plastic items and packaging as temporary; and to review long-term operational needs on a regular basis in the light of the latest scientific and public health advice available.

  1. Involving third parties to improve the effectiveness of actions

The establishment of health and safety protocols by tourism companies has resulted in greater control over their operations. It represents an opportunity to strengthen communication mechanisms with suppliers and to increase influence and coordination, thus ensuring the application and monitoring of these protocols.

Their influence on the supply chains can be used to reduce the amount of unnecessary plastic packaging and items that are destined for tourism operations, which should be disinfected and disposed of appropriately.

  1. Open and transparent communication

Consistent and transparent communication is key to successfully implementing health and safety measures and rebuilding the trust of customers. It is recommended that communication reflects the efforts to address plastic contamination by staff and partners. Clear expectations should be established on how to reduce the use of plastic and implement models for reuse while complying with health and safety measures.

Tourist destinations and businesses should inform customers in an open, transparent, and consistent manner about actions taken to address hygiene through an improved plastics strategy, as well as provide recommendations on the use and hygiene protocols of the equipment and items at their disposal.

What is the Global Plastics Tourism Initiative?

Announced in January 2020, the Global Plastics Tourism Initiative is the tourism sector interface with the Global Commitment to the New Plastics Economy, which groups more than 450 companies, governments, and other organisations behind a common vision to address the causes and sources of plastics pollution.


Other topics of interest: What is the New Plastics Economy and how has the debate on plastics changed


The Initiative enables companies and governments to take concerted action, leading by example in the shift towards circularity in the use of plastics. In addition, it requires tourism organisations to accept a set of concrete and achievable commitments by 2025 regarding the idea of recycling:

  • Eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging and articles.
  • Take steps to move from single-use models to reusable models or reusable alternatives.
  • Move towards making 100% of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable.
  • Take measures to increase the amount of recycled content in all plastic packaging and articles used.
  • Collaborate and invest to increase recycling and composting rates for plastics.
  • Publicly report on an annual basis on progress towards these targets.