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What Sustainable Tourism Is + Why It Is The Most Important Consideration Right Now

Sustainable tourism- have you heard of this term? Probably. That’s because the term ‘sustainability’ has become one of the most commonly used ‘buzzwords’ in contemporary society. But in reality, sustainable tourism is much more than the latest trend…

Today I am going to talk to you about the most important thing in travel- sustainability. While there are companies who claim to be ‘sustainable’ in order to achieve good PR and greenwashing happens more often than any of us wish to admit, the reality is that sustainability is literally a matter of life and death.

As highlighted by Guru David Attenborough, amongst many others, if we continue to act in the way that we are, the planet will not survive. And on a smaller scale and in a somewhat shorter time frame, if we continue to holiday in the way that we have been, tourism will not survive.

Sustainable tourism is not a choice, we have no choice- it MUST happen. And in this article I am going to tell you what this means for tourism industry workers, industry stakeholders and us- the tourists.

What is sustainable tourism?

Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing and most important industries and is a major source of income for many countries. However, like other forms of development, tourism can also cause its share of problems.

Sustainable tourism, therefore, relies on the premise of taking care of the environment, society and the economy. Sustainable tourism principles intend to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, whilst maximising the positive impacts. However, this if often easier said than done.

A large majority of global travellers (87 percent) say that they want to travel sustainably, according to the Sustainable Travel Report released by Booking.com. But what does sustainable tourism actually mean and are we really being sustainable?

sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism definitions

Sustainable tourism is a tourism form which has received significant attention in recent years, both by the media and the academic community. If you Google the term ‘sustainable tourism’ over 270,000,000 results are returned- that’s a lot!

The body of literature addressing sustainable practices in tourism has expanded exponentially. In fact, there is so much information on the concept of sustainable tourism nowadays that you take take an entire travel and tourism degree focussed on the sustainability management issues!

Sustainable tourism
Source: Pinimg

One of the earliest and most regarded definitions of sustainable tourism was published in The Brundtland Report, where it was defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This sums it up pretty well to me. Think about it- if everyone (industry workers, government, tourists etc) continues to act in the way that they have been, will our grandchildren or great grandchildren have the same opportunities that we have had? For example, if litter is dropped on the beach and not cleared up, then future tourists will not want to visit that beach.

And if economic leakage is not controlled (i.e. when money spent by tourists leaves the country as a result of foreign owned businesses, imported produce etc) then the local people will see little or no benefits of the tourism and may become unwilling to work in the sector or even become antagonised by it. You see where I am going with this?

Another key definition of sustainable tourism is that of The United Nations World Tourism Organisation who state that sustainable tourism is “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”.

According to the The United Nations World Tourism Organisation, sustainable tourism should:

  1. Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.
  2. Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
  3. Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

As I pointed out, there is a wide breadth of tourism literature available in today’s market. Some of my favourite academic texts include Managing Sustainable Tourism by David Edgell and Sustainable Tourism by David Weaver. You can also find a wide range of research papers on Google Scholar.

Why is sustainable tourism important?

What is responsible tourism?

Sustainable tourism influences positive movements that in return will create successful development by following strategies that allow the positive impacts to outweigh negative impacts.

As you can see from the graph below, the tourism industry is predicted to continue growing at a rapid rate. This means that any negative impacts caused as a result of tourism will also grow, thus indicating an urgent need for these to be carefully managed and mitigated through sustainable tourism practices.

Source: UNWTO

From the depths of the Amazon jungle to the Australian outback, there are few places in the world that have escaped the burgeoning growth of the travel and tourism industry. Unfortunately, in many cases, this has come at the expense of natural resources, local economies and indigenous populations.

A few years ago I visited a place called Dahab on my travels through Egypt, because I wanted visit the ‘Sharm el Sheik of 30 years ago. I plan to visit the ‘Thailand of days past’ by travelling to Myanmar and I chose the ‘less trodden’ path when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.

Areas untouched by tourism are becoming more difficult to find. But more worryingly, areas that are untainted or undamaged by tourism are also becoming less common.

If we want to preserve the very things that it is we are going to see (the beach, the mountain, the wildlife etc), then we need to behave responsibly and sustainably.

The principles of sustainable tourism

Principles of sustainable tourism
This infographic was created by one of my travel and tourism work experience students.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Tourism Concern (1991) outline 10 principles for sustainable tourism. These are outlined below:

  1. Using resources sustainably. The conservation and sustainable use of resources- natural, social and cultural – is crucial and makes long-term business sense.
  2. Reducing over-consumption and waste. Reduction of over-consumption and waste avoids the costs of restoring long-term environmental damage and contributes to the quality of tourism.
  3. Maintaining biodiversity. Maintaining and promoting natural, social and cultural diversity is essential for long-term sustainable tourism and creates a resilient base for the industry.
  4. Integrating tourism into planning. Tourism development which is integrated into a national and local strategic planning framework and which undertake environmental impact assessments increases the long-term viability of tourism.
  5. Supporting local economies. Tourism that supports a wide range of local economic activities and which takes environmental costs and values into account, both protects these economies and avoids environmental damage.
  6. Involving local communities. The full involvement of local communities in the tourism sector not only benefits them and the environment in general but also improves the quality of the tourism experience.
  7. Consulting stakeholders and the public. Consulting between the tourism industry and local communities, organizations and institutions are essential if they are to work alongside each other and resolve potential conflicts of interest.
  8. Training staff. Staff training which integrates sustainable tourism into work practices, along with recruitment of personnel at all levels, improves the quality of the tourism product.
  9. Marketing tourism responsibly. Marketing that provides tourists with the full and responsible information increases respect for the natural, social and cultural environments of destination areas and enhances customer satisfaction.
  10. Undertaking research. Ongoing research and monitoring by the industry using effective data collection and analysis are essential to help solve problems and to bring benefits to destinations, the industry, and consumers.

Benefits of sustainable tourism

Sustainable tourism has many, many benefits. In fact, many would argue that implementing sustainable tourism is not a choice at all, it is essential. But to summarise, here are the key advantages of sustainable tourism:

the best beaches in Seattle

Environmental Benefits

Sustainable tourism promotes the conservation and protection of natural resources and biodiversity, reducing the negative impacts of tourism on the environment. It also encourages the use of eco-friendly transportation and accommodations, reducing carbon footprint and other pollutants.

Social Benefits

Sustainable tourism can contribute to poverty reduction by creating job opportunities and income for local communities. It also promotes cultural understanding and respect by engaging tourists in local cultures and traditions.

Economic Benefits

This type of tourism can be a profitable and economically viable industry, contributing to economic growth and development. It supports local businesses and economies by promoting local products and services.

Preservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage

Sustainable tourism can help to preserve natural and cultural heritage sites for future generations by promoting responsible tourism practices and supporting conservation efforts.

Education and Awareness

Sustainable tourism can raise awareness and educate people about environmental and social issues, and encourage behaviour change towards more sustainable practices. It also provides educational opportunities for tourists to learn about local cultures and traditions.

Improved Travel Experience

Sustainable tourism can lead to a more meaningful and authentic travel experience for tourists, as they can engage with local communities and cultures in a responsible way.

Overall, sustainable tourism can benefit both tourists and local communities by promoting responsible and sustainable tourism practices that respect the environment, society, and economy.

Disadvantages of sustainable tourism

Virtual tourism

While sustainable tourism has many benefits, there are also some potential disadvantages to consider. These include:

Higher Costs

Sustainable tourism often requires more investments in eco-friendly technologies and practices, which can increase the costs for tourism businesses and potentially make it more expensive for tourists.

Limited Tourist Numbers

Sustainable tourism often requires limiting the number of tourists to reduce negative impacts on the environment and local communities, which can limit the economic benefits for tourism businesses and potentially reduce access for some tourists.

Limited Development

Sustainable tourism practices may require limiting the development of tourism infrastructure in certain areas to protect natural and cultural heritage sites, which can limit economic growth and development opportunities for local communities.

Cultural Changes

Sustainable tourism may require changes in local cultural practices and traditions to accommodate the needs of tourists, which can potentially lead to the loss of cultural erosion and loss of heritage.

Lack of Standardisation

Sustainable tourism practices can vary widely across destinations and tourism businesses, which can lead to inconsistencies in quality and standardisation, potentially reducing the overall effectiveness of sustainable tourism practices.

Difficulty in Implementation

Ever heard of the term ‘easier said than done’? Sustainable tourism can be difficult to implement and manage, requiring partnerships between different stakeholders and long-term planning and management.

It’s important to note, however, that these potential disadvantages can be mitigated through careful tourism planning, collaboration, and monitoring to ensure that sustainable tourism practices are effective and beneficial for all stakeholders involved.

Examples of sustainable tourism

It’s not difficult to be a sustainable tourist, the biggest problem is a general lack of awareness amongst many tourists. If you want to learn more about how to be a sustainable traveller I recommend this book- How to be a highly Sustainable Tourist: A Guidebook for the Conscientious Traveller.

There are so many wonderful examples of sustainable tourism throughout the world! I have visited a few and I have lots more on my bucket list. Here are a few of my favourite examples.

Footsteps Ecolodge, The Gambia

My first example of sustainable tourism is Footsteps Ecolodge, which I visited back in 2010.

David, the Founder of Footsteps Ecolodge expresses how when he took a relatively cheap trip to The Gambia, he discovered that the staff at his booked hotel were only earning on average £1 per day. David felt guilty for enjoying a holiday knowing that the locals were receiving little or no economic benefits at all from hosting him.

David went on to develop Footsteps Ecolodge, with a mission to improve The Gambia’s trade through responsible tourism and therefore encourages sustainable development. In fact, one of his goals has led footsteps to employ only from the local village and buy only local produce.

I loved visiting this ecolodge. It has many environmentally friendly initiatives, ranging from solar powered electricity to composting toilets. It is based far away from the main tourist areas, providing a unique and authentic holiday experience. After spending a few days in the main tourist resort of Kotu, I was happy to exchange the evening chatter in the restaurants for the humming of grasshoppers and the beach bar music for the gentle sounds of waves.

You can read more on David’s story and the story behind Footsteps Ecolodge here.

Eden Project, Cornwall

The Eden Project is another great example of sustainable tourism.

It was built to demonstrate the importance of plants to people and to promote the understanding of vital relationships between plants and people. It is a huge complex that welcomes a wide range of tourists from the UK and overseas. In 2017, the project attracted more than one million visitors.

The project in fact has annual sustainability reports, monitoring its sustainable impact year on year.

Reality Tours and Travel, India

Reality Tours and Travel’s mission is to provide authentic and thought-provoking local experiences through their tours and to use the profits to create change in Indian communities.

Reality Tours and Travel is a social catalyst and works towards profit sharing programs. 80% of their profits go directly to Reality Gives which runs high quality education programs in areas where their tours work.

Reality Tours and Travel now welcomes over 15,000 guests each year and employs over 50 members of staff.

Dolphin Discovery Centre, Western Australia

The Dolphin Discovery Centre begun when Mrs Evelyn Smith begun to feed a group of dolphins near her home. Following her discovery of the dolphin grouping, specialists were brought in to monitor and study the local dolphins.

A few years later, the Dolphin Discovery Centre allowed tourists and community members to interact with the dolphins in hope they would understand and enjoy the marine mammals.

In brief, the Dolphin Discovery Centre Adopt a Dolphin Program supports the conservation of dolphins and the broader marine environment.

To date, the Dolphin Discovery Centre not only conserves dolphins, the centre also conserves turtles too. Learn more on adopting a dolphin or turtle with the Dolphin Discovery Centre here.

Rancho Margot, Costa Rica

Ranch Margot is exactly what it sounds, a ranch located in Costa Rica. It all begun in 2004 when the founder of Rancho Margot, Juan Sostheim, purchased 400 acres of pasture. Despite the land being cleared of all vegetation, Juan Sostheim had a vision to grow sustainable food and raising animals.

Today, Rancho Margot focuses specifically on sustainable production and living, from the food they delivery to their energy production and the transportation used. Read more on Rancho Margot here.

Rancho Margot’s sustainable mission is in keeping with the Brundtland Report.

“To achieve and maintain sustainable operations, we work to find better ways to satisfy our needs without compromising future generations​”

Whilst I didn’t get a chance got visit Rancho Margot during our travels through Costa Rica, it does look like a fantastic place to go and a great example of sustainable tourism.

Sustainable tourism: Key takeaways

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So now that we understand a bit more about what sustainable tourism is and what it looks like in practice, lets re-cap the key points that we have covered in this article.

  1. Sustainable tourism is an approach to tourism that seeks to minimise negative impacts on the environment, society, and economy, while maximising the positive impacts.
  2. Sustainable tourism can help to preserve natural and cultural heritage sites, and contribute to poverty reduction by creating job opportunities and income for local communities.
  3. Sustainable tourism promotes responsible travel practices, such as respecting local cultures, conserving natural resources, and reducing carbon footprint.
  4. Sustainable tourism requires partnerships between different stakeholders, including governments, local communities, NGOs, and private sector businesses.
  5. Sustainable tourism involves long-term planning and management to ensure that the benefits of tourism are sustainable over time.
  6. Sustainable tourism can be a profitable and economically viable industry that contributes to economic growth and development.
  7. Sustainable tourism can lead to a more meaningful and authentic travel experience for tourists, as they can engage with local communities and cultures in a responsible way.
  8. Sustainable tourism can help to raise awareness about environmental and social issues, and encourage behavior change towards more sustainable practices.
  9. Sustainable tourism can support the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services, which are crucial for the health of the planet and human well-being.
  10. Sustainable tourism is not just a trend or a buzzword, but a necessity for the future of tourism and the planet.

Sustainable tourism FAQs

Now lets finish up this article about sustainable tourism by answering some of the most common questions on this topic.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is an approach to tourism that seeks to minimise negative impacts on the environment, society, and economy, while maximising the positive impacts.

Why is sustainable tourism important?

Sustainable tourism is important because it can help to preserve natural and cultural heritage sites, contribute to poverty reduction, promote responsible travel practices, and support the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

What are some examples of sustainable tourism practices?

Examples of sustainable tourism practices include using eco-friendly transportation and accommodations, supporting local businesses and communities, conserving natural resources, and respecting local cultures.

How can tourists practice sustainable tourism?

Tourists can practice sustainable tourism by reducing their carbon footprint, supporting local businesses and communities, respecting local cultures, and conserving natural resources.

What is the role of governments in sustainable tourism?

Governments can play a crucial role in promoting and regulating sustainable tourism practices, such as setting standards and regulations for tourism businesses, supporting local communities, and preserving natural and cultural heritage sites.

How can tourism businesses implement sustainable practices?

Tourism businesses can implement sustainable practices by adopting eco-friendly technologies and practices, supporting local communities and economies, reducing waste and carbon emissions, and promoting responsible tourism practices.

What is the impact of unsustainable tourism practices?

Unsustainable tourism practices can have negative impacts on the environment, such as pollution, overuse of natural resources, and habitat destruction. They can also have negative social impacts, such as exploitation of local communities and cultures.

How can sustainable tourism contribute to economic growth and development?

Sustainable tourism can contribute to economic growth and development by creating job opportunities, generating income for local communities, and promoting local businesses and economies.

How can sustainable tourism help to address climate change?

Sustainable tourism can help to address climate change by reducing carbon emissions through the use of eco-friendly transportation and accommodations, and by promoting responsible travel practices.

How can consumers support sustainable tourism?

Consumers can support sustainable tourism by choosing eco-friendly accommodations and transportation options, supporting local businesses and communities, respecting local cultures, and conserving natural resources.

Sustainable Tourism: Conclusion

To summarise, sustainable tourism is a form of tourism that takes a long term approach. It considers needs of the future, not only the present. Sustainable tourism has close ties with a number of other tourism forms such as responsible tourism, alternative tourism and ecotourism. In order to be sustainable the three pillars of sustainable tourism must be accounted for: economic impacts, social impacts, environmental impacts.

Typically tourists who partake in sustainable tourism activities will have a desire to help and support local communities and environments whilst avoiding any negative impacts their visit might bring. Many tourists now are far more conscious than they used to be and in general, society is a lot more aware of the impacts of their actions. In many ways, this has fuelled the sustainable behaviours of a number of stakeholders, who seek to please their customers and to enhance their own business prospects.

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