Why Lionel Messi is making responsible tourism cool

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Barcelona has become a poster child for overtourism, so it’s no surprise that one of its residents is keen to champion the cause of responsible tourism. It’s even less surprising when you learn that this resident has a long association with charities supporting disadvantaged communities. But how about if this resident is one of the world’s most famous footballers? How about if he is Lionel Messi – who has just been appointed Ambassador for Responsible Tourism by the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO)?

This announcement has, predictably, caused some disapproval. A convicted tax evader with a private jet, super yacht and sports car collection, Messi is not an obvious contender to be preaching about ethical lifestyle choices. But he is also far from the first celebrity to put his profile behind responsible tourism. In February 2018, Princes William and Harry declared they wanted to focus on sustainable tourism through their Royal Foundation, which would complement their long standing work to promote wildlife conservation. The same month, Leonardo di Caprio’s foundation donated $1m towards a programme which will create huge marine parks in the Seychelles – a hotspot for marine biodiversity and ecotourism.

A certain amount of flying – with its associated pollution – comes with the job for the actor and the princes (although di Caprio did famously give up his private jet – after using it to make a 12,000km round trip to pick up an environmental award). But perhaps we in the responsible tourism community should check our own record before criticising others. Even the most committed players are far from perfect. Ethical holidays – including those promoted by Responsible Travel – incur colossal carbon emissions, and so far we have very limited ways to collect accurate data on the social, environmental and economic impacts of our holidays. 

Perhaps it is hypocritical of us, then, to demand “perfect” representatives to promote responsible tourism. It is also incredibly counterproductive. Messi has unbelievable influence and reach, and his enthusiasm for promoting our cause can only help spread the message. Yet there are some figures in the industry feel that he shouldn’t represent us.

Messi has more than demonstrated his commitment to social causes, including as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, through substantial charitable donations of his own money, and by the creation of the Lionel Messi Foundation, which funds medical research, education and other initiatives. His dedication to these causes stems from the health issues he faced as a child; Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency which his family could not afford to treat. What’s more, Messi has access to an as yet largely untapped market when it comes to responsible tourism: young men.

Historically, celebrity ambassadors for ethical travel have been in short supply. In Look to the Stars’ list of causes supported by celebrities, responsible tourism doesn’t even feature, let along rank highly. Perhaps this is because tourism – holidays – have always been seen as a soft leisure activity, without the ability to either damage or enhance destinations. But this perception is slowly changing, and people are realising that tourism has the power to do both, and that they have a responsibility to decide whether their holidays will hurt or help a community. Princes William and Harry have made the important link between wildlife conservation and tourism, and hopefully other socially minded celebrities – such as Messi – will continue to make the connection between responsible tourism and poverty reduction.

Tourism has huge problems which we are scrambling to try and solve. Like many movements for change, we risk burying ourselves away in cliques, associating only with those we consider perfect. But perhaps the best solution is for all of us “imperfect” people to begin working together for this common cause. We can remain idealists while at the same time embracing pragmatism; demanding high standards while grasping at brilliant if unconventional opportunities when they arise.

Justin Francis is the CEO of Responsible Travel