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Have you heard of the term sustainable tourism? Probably. That’s because the term ‘sustainability’ has become one of the most commonly used ‘buzzwords’ in contemporary society.
We all know that we should switch off the lights when we leave a room. We know that we should recycle our cereal boxes or empty wine bottles. We know that dropping litter on the floor is a fallacy. But for some reason, a lot of these fundamental principles that we have mastered at home seem to go out of the window when we go on holiday.
In this post I will reflect on sustainable tourism, provide an insight on what the form of tourism is, why it is important and provide a few examples of sustainable tourism organisations. This post will help you to understand the extent of the sustainable tourism sector and how important it is that you adopt sustainable principles when undertaking your own travels.
What is sustainable tourism?
Tourism is one of the world’s fastest growing 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, such as social issues, loss of cultural heritage, economic dependence and ecological degradation.
Learning about the impacts of tourism has led many people to seek more responsible holidays. These include various forms of alternative or sustainable tourism such as: ‘nature-based tourism’, ‘ecotourism’ and ‘cultural tourism’. Sustainable tourism is becoming so popular that some say that what we presently call ‘alternative’ will be the ‘mainstream’ in a decade.
Sustainable tourism, similarly to responsible tourism, relies on the premise of taking care of the environment, society and economy. Sustainable tourism principles intend to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, whilst maximising the positive impacts.
As the tourism industry continues to expand and evolve, it produces significant impacts on natural resources, consumption patterns, pollution and social systems. It is ironic really, that while tourism, in many instances, relies on the natural environment (think lying on the beach, gorilla trekking or skiing), it also destroys it.
Stories of empty oxygen canisters scattered along the Mount Everest trail, Muslim populations in Dubai offended by half naked tourists filling their streets and Goan families pushed out of their home towns as a result of rising prices of land and gentrification are just a few examples of the impacts of tourism when it is not planned and operated sustainably.
In order to manage and mitigate such negative impacts of tourism there is a need for sustainable/responsible planning and management throughout the tourism industry. Economic, social and environmental aspects of sustainable development must account for the interests of all stakeholders including the local communities, tourists, private organisations and public bodies.
Sustainable tourism is the responsibility of all stakeholders involved. One of the elements of being sustainable is tourism planning, which is really important. Stakeholders need to think ahead to the future, not only about the present. You also need to take into consideration the different levels of tourism policy and planning to ensure that all of those involved are onboard with sustainability projects and plans.
All tourism activities of whatever motivation – holidays, business travel, conferences, adventure travel and ecotourism – need to be sustainable.
Sustainable tourism seeks to provide people with an exciting and educational holiday that is also of benefit to the people of the host country and does not damage the local environment or society.
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!
If we look back at early definitions of sustainable development, The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation then developed the definition of sustainable tourism and defined the form of tourism as “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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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?
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.
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.
Impacts of tourism
Tourism is the largest industry in the world and with that status comes great influence. According to the UNWTO, the impacts developed from the tourism industry can be categorised economically, socially and environmentally.
Below I have summarised the impacts of tourism.
Economic impacts of tourism
Tourism can help to create additional resources and add value to the economy. It brings in foreign currency, allows for new businesses to open up and encourages development in the area.
Tourism also has economic advantages by opening up avenues of employment. For countries like Sudan, for example, where unemployment is a serious concern, tourism can help to enhance employment prospects and therefore the overall economic activity in the area. A similar case was seen in the Solomon Islands, where tourism created over 15,000 jobs in 2017, of both direct and indirect nature.
However, tourism also brings negative economic impacts, such as economic leakage.
When a destination allows western companies to intercede into their tourism community (they believe with western companies comes western tourists), big franchises like Starbucks and McDonalds create economic leakage. This means that the money spent by tourists does not remain in the country, but instead is exported back to the USA or whatever country the multinational organisation is based in. The host country and locals see little or no financial gain.
To avoid economic leakage, destinations must prioritise locally run businesses, as well as enhancing their domestic services to retain as much economic gain as possible. This will in return provide better local control over tourism development.
Below is a documentary on Bali, demonstrating how the tourism industry doesn’t always yield the intended economic impacts.
Social impacts of tourism
There are many benefits of tourism socially, especially when the principles of sustainable tourism are adopted.
Tourism promotes the conservation of cultural heritage and traditions and keeps traditions alive. And with the promotion of cultural heritage, tourism encourages cultural understanding and promotes cross-cultural relationships. The relationship built between locals and tourists can manifest into something much greater and can help bridge the gap between the rich and the poor and the global north and south.
The tourism industry requires adequate infrastructure and resources and when local communities have insufficient facilities, tourism promotes them. Particularly in undeveloped countries, where poverty is a major concern for communities, tourism is a viable industry to counteract such issues.
However, when the tourism industry is not managed properly, local control can be tarnished, and the voices of the locals are ignored.
Not to mention, when there is an absence of local control, feelings of resentment and antipathy will potentially brew, and these feelings may shift towards the tourists and in return create social conflict; dividing the relationship between the local community and the tourists.
For example, in the global north, anti-tourism protests have emerged as locals feel they have had little or no control over the tourism industry. In Barcelona, locals hold banners reading ‘tourism kills the city’.
Tourism is also sensitive to high crime rates, and where poverty is a big issue, destinations become a sensitive place to influence tourism. Tourism can create a ‘desirable’ world for people with little westernised living. This desire to live like a tourist can provoke feelings of jealousy, inferiority and resentment. These feelings influence locals to pickpocket or plead tourists for money and help.
When destinations become heavily labelled to crime, this creates a loss of safety and security that will create a perceived reality of an unsafe environment, reducing visitor numbers. It is hard to come back from things like this, even if crime rates drop significantly.
Globalisation and loss of culture is also a growing concern. When sustainable tourism practices are not used in tourism management, local cultures are more likely to lose their authenticity and traditions, as demonstrated in this video on Thailand.
Environmental impacts of tourism
In the past, environmental issues have been somewhat overlooked and even ignored due to no immediate foreseen impacts. However, in modern society there is a notable shift in sustainability and sustainable strategies and we now tend to look more closely at environmental issues.
Tourism has the means to promote environmental awareness and education, and with this the promotion of conservation and protection of the environment is created. And when environments are protected, their value is increased and thus creates greater economic prosperity. When the environment is conserved and looked after, so is its natural habitat and wildlife.
One of the many challenges locals face is the ability to multiply resources. And when a community has limited resources, it is not simply an economic strain but it can also put pressure on the environment and all of its natural resources when the tourists too require the same resources.
In a destination like Haiti, resources are limited, and protection of these resources are insufficient. As a result, Haiti suffers from severe deforestation, overpopulation and food insecurity and declines in agricultural productivity. Therefore, this crisis manifests a dispute between prioritising resources between the locals or the tourism industry.
However, what we are seeing now are countries in the global south attempting to sustain their tourism industry. For instance, according to the World Economic Forum, Nepal employed local communities to protect and look after their forests, in attempt to tackle poaching of tigers, turning ¼ of its land into conservation areas. As a result, Nepal is set towards becoming the first country to double its wild tiger population. This is an excellent example of demonstrating biological diversity and sustainable tourism.
Environmental impacts of tourism are far reaching, ranging from climate change, greenhouse gases from aviation, deforestation, littering, displacement of flora, fauna and animals and environmental degradation. Outdoor Recreation: Environmental Impacts and Management by David Huddart and Tim Stott is a useful text that addresses these issues in great detail.
Read also: 15 reasons volunteering might not benefit you as much as you think: Negative impacts of volunteer tourism
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.
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.
You can find out more about the Eden Project in this video.
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. Here is a bit more information about the work that they do.
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: 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.
Are you a sustainable tourist? I would love to hear your views on the issue! Leave your comments below.
Like this post? Read about more types of tourism here.
- How to be a highly Sustainable Tourist: A Guidebook for the Conscientious Traveller– a great guide with tips on how to travel sustainably
- The Intrepid Traveler: The ultimate guide to responsible, ecological, and personal-growth travel and tourism– Leading travel expert Adam Rogers draws upon 40 years of experience exploring more than 130 countries in every region on Earth to share the smartest ways to travel in this tip-filled guide
- Outdoor Recreation: Environmental Impacts and Management– an academic text discussing the sustainability of outdoor pursuits
- Sustainable and Responsible Tourism: Trends, Practices and Cases– Sustainable tourism case studies from around the world
- Responsible Tourism: Using tourism for sustainable development– a textbook addressing the concept of sustainability in terms in development