The growing demand for the sustainable development of tourism has everybody talking. Academics, government bodies, business owners, employees, locals, influencers, and travellers all have a say in this matter. It is discussed so frequently now, that the definition of sustainable tourism sometimes gets clouded in the din.
We asked our panel of sustainable tourism specialists, which we convene around four times per year. Below are some of the common themes in what they had to say about sustainable tourism (highlighted respondents are available as consultants or speakers).
Our key takeaways:
- Sustainable tourism is meant for the long-term or specifically ad infinitum so that future generations too can benefit from it.
- Tourism needs to be controlled or contained so that it does not extract more from the destination than it can contribute.
- Sustainable tourism should not be human-centric but care for the biodiversity of the planet too.
- Natural resources: the tourism industry should run on a limited capacity and not be over-exploitative.
- Sustainable tourism should make a positive impact by improving the livelihoods of the local communities.
- Employing locals in tourism businesses is key. Providing them with financial security is important, especially during times like the pandemic-induced travel downturn.
- Sustainable tourism is financially viable, and profitable for the stakeholders involved.
- It helps travellers to get a richer understanding of the local culture through valuable cultural exchange.
Sustainable tourism is supported through a set of management, development, and marketing practices that together attempt to take full advantage of the positive economic, social, and environmental benefits of tourism while minimizing the negative impacts in order to address the long-term needs of travellers, the industry, the environment, and host communities.
Tourism that takes into account the needs of today and tomorrow, that works to optimize the triple bottom line, and that is developed in consultation with the community and other stakeholders.
It is a practice of living, working, developing, and managing that ensures we are minimizing or eradicating the negative impacts of our actions and ensuring the future of our planet. As such it considers environmental, social, cultural, and economic aspects of tourism development and management, and considers ways of operating that ensure a net positive outcome.
Visiting and experiencing others’ places, the impact of which (whether on people, places or species) is not negative so can be continued ad infinitum.
For me, there is no such thing as ‘sustainable tourism’. The correct term would be sustainable development of tourism. The meaning of it is to apply sustainable development principles to the tourism sector.
I define ‘sustainable’ holistically as per the 17 SDGs. It doesn’t only refer to environmental and climate sustainability (which are, of course, important), but notably also social sustainability, financial/economic sustainability, and—most often overlooked—the impact on SDG 16 (world peace) paired with SDG 4 (quality education—for locals and, importantly, also for travellers).
Sustainable tourism is travelling without leaving negative impacts on the local environment, community, and economy.
An economic activity that is built on the foundation of the 3 Ps: people, profit, a planet within the framework of a holistic approach.
We don’t reinvent the wheel here, so this is the UNWTO definition:
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 intercultural 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.
For more detail, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria can be used as baseline standards for sustainable tourism.
Sustainable tourism (or good tourism as I prefer) is balancing people, the planet, and profit and future-proofing the tourism industry. This entails supporting the local economy, offering community-based travel experiences where travellers can participate and learn, reducing their carbon footprint and plastic use, and protecting and conserving nature and wildlife while making a profit. Everyone involved should benefit from tourism, be able to build their own future and make sure we protect the world for future generations.
Sustainable tourism is a mix of conscience, responsibility, knowledge, and compromise that crosses all actors, places, and activities related to tourism, in line with the principles of the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.
It is a theory that tourism can be economically (profitable), socially (empowering), and environmentally (low-carbon, conservation-supporting) sustainable. Although there are examples and best practices that approach this ideal, although it has become a mainstream concept – so mainstream that it risks being replaced by fancier terms – and even though there is a proliferation of organizations supposedly working for its practical implementation. The truth is that the theory is yet to be proven on a global scale. So the real question is – Is tourism sustainable?
Respect for local nature, socio-economy, and culture. The foundational values of sustainable tourism include operating in a way that minimizes harm and negative impacts while optimizing positive benefits for people and places. Sustainable tourism provides two-way benefits — not only for the local community, but also for travelers through more immersive, connected, and deeper experiences. Sustainable tourism is inclusive with the local community at the centre.
Sustainable tourism is one that can provide remarkable experiences, emotional bonds, and the opportunity to value natural, cultural, and social capital through the awareness shown in sustainability practices. It is to take care of these capitals for the next generations to be able to receive in fullness and to raise awareness among residents and visitors.
A goal for all forms of tourism. Sustainability in tourism manages to minimize the ecological and climatic impacts of tourism, maximize the social and cultural aspects for travellers, the local population, and tourism employees, and at the same time generate local added value. Sustainability in tourism is developed with the greatest possible participation of the local population and requires a supportive governmental framework.
From the point of view of destinations and businesses, it means enabling travellers to minimize their negative impact on the environment and the local population and to link sustainable measures with economic development.
Sustainable tourism does what it says on the tin – it’s a business that is sustainable for the long term because the financial, environmental, social, and governance principles that underpin it are in harmony with each other and not competing. By doing this all stakeholders have a vested interest in the outcome and ensure the long-term success of the project.
Sustainable tourism is a way of thinking and operating that considers all the areas on which tourism has an impact, and it focuses on each of them with the aim of mitigating the negative impacts and improving the positive consequences. It also considers time as a critical factor in terms of resource management.
Personally, I see it as a dynamic balance that must be constantly maintained through the interaction of all the actors involved, which is not always an easy task.
Tourism that sustains a healthy planet and culture.
Tourism with respect for business, people, environment, future, quality, and satisfaction.
The ability to deliver positive tourism experiences for the long term, which benefit local communities, which doesn’t damage the environment, and brings an enhanced appreciation of the destination and its culture and people to travellers.
Sustainable tourism is a tourism offering, activity, or product which can be maintained in the long term with no negative impacts, and which contributes in a positive way either environmentally, socio-economically, or culturally to the natural environment of the area in which it is based.
I describe the label ‘sustainable tourism’ as a shorthand way to describe tourism forms, types, and processes that make a net positive contribution to all forms of capital (social, cultural, natural, etc). These lay the foundation for the individual well-being of tourists and those who work in tourism and the collective well-being of the communities that host tourism. It also contributes to improving the natural capital globally and supporting sustainability action beyond the destination and tourism businesses.
‘Sustainable tourism’ was a response in the 1990s to the need for tourism businesses and travellers to support authentic and small-scale activities, implement interpretative guiding, abide by ethical business practices, and socio-economic participation in the local community.
It also had to be conceptually about reducing our footprint. It had to encompass personalized service to the clients, education, and training for both the local staff and the guests, the support and conservation of natural resources, and proactive efforts to increase the wellbeing of local and indigenous people.
Furthermore, as with ‘regenerative tourism’, the supply chain and their participation in this philosophy had to be nurtured and included.
Sustainable tourism is tourism that benefits the locals and is provided by them, through experiences.
Sustainable tourism is a philosophy that suggests that activities within the tourism industry should be undertaken in such a way that they can sustain the environment and/or community in which it operates. Practical examples, ensuring water consumption and solid waste are within the limits of what the destination can manage.
When looked at globally, ‘sustainable tourism’ is something of an oxymoron, in the sense that any tourism involving international flight travel is likely to be contributing more CO2 than it can return, however green one’s holiday or intentions. To make the term more accessible, it helps to look at ‘sustainable tourism’ at a more local scale and judge: if what is attracting the tourist remains as an attraction over time, then the tourism can be considered sustainable.
If tourism damages the site, ecologically, socially, or culturally, especially to an extent that over the long term there is likely to be enough change to cause it to lose its character and appeal, then it is unsustainable. Ideally ‘sustainable tourism’ should go several steps further and be instrumental in adding resilience and in sustaining the culture and traditions and enhancing the livelihoods of the community in which it is situated.
Sustainable tourism respects the quality of character of the destination, seeking maximum benefit and minimum cost per tourist, monetary or otherwise.
My actions though on my grandkids.
A style of tourism that is non-extractive, ensuring it contributes to the environment, ecology, culture or social setting in a way that enables it to continue ad infinitum. Of course, all tourism should attempt to be adopting sustainable practices as much as possible in an ideal world, but even with the COVID shock that has the opportunity to reset consumer patterns, this is unlikely to be achieved.
It should mean practices thought and planned to guarantee tourism occurs with social and environmental responsibility. As the triple bottom line impact claims, it should create value (including financial value) to the ones involved, in a fair distribution. Unfortunately, many people don’t really get how to move from theory to practice or only use the term for communication and marketing purposes.
There are many standards, sensible, and sometimes glib definitions of sustainable tourism but I believe it to be an approach to managing all aspects of tourism in a way that benefits the natural environment, mitigates harm, protects, and cherishes local communities ensuring that tourism is a benefit for the community rather than extractive; tourism that respects and supports employees through thick and thin, that nurtures and interprets local cultures and ensures tourists gain a richer understanding of other peoples and places.
Sustainable tourism is tourism that cares about the natural environment and the local communities in the destination as well as about tourists, in this order. It can be a force for good if we want to protect what we treasure most: nature, culture, and other people’s well-being.
Tourism which does not destroy or irreparably compromise natural, environmental, and socio-cultural resources for future generations and provides well-distributed socio-economic benefits to host communities.
Tourism that helps protect the culture, physical and human environment of the destination and is hopefully a source for good and protection rather than harm – eg flight needs to be offset until the airline industry can switch to hydrogen.
Sustainable tourism is the activity that generates meaningful exchanges between visitors and locals and generates long-term benefits to the environment, the territory, and the communities where the visits take place.
I rather look at ‘sustainable tourism development’, because I do not see a role for a niche market, which too often is designated as sustainable tourism, as contrasting mainstream (unsustainable) tourism. We have no other choice than make tourism as a whole – develop sustainably.
Then the definition: Sustainable tourism development is tourism development that does not cause irreversible impacts on any earth system or societies and does not deplete resources for current and future generations.
I think it’s important to start with what sustainable tourism isn’t, first.
Sustainable isn’t about maintaining a specific state indefinitely (socially, culturally, environmentally, or economically), because that is impossible. Life is dynamic and we are all continually in a state of flux and change. So, while the word ‘sustainable’ is often interpreted in tourism as ‘conserving’ (e.g. maintaining culture in an authentic state, maintaining an income level, etc), it needs to be understood in the bigger sense of living, working, and adapting. It should enable us to continue life on this planet within the means available to us and future generations, hopefully leaving the world a bit better than when we started.
In this context, I think the classic definition of sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs isn’t too bad, although it is very anthropocentric and should specifically include a stronger, more direct message not to exhaust natural resources.
In practice, what is it?
It’s about partnerships for tourism which makes the world a better place for all living beings.
These partnerships will take place between people with immensely different backgrounds, life experiences, goals, roles, responsibilities, obstacles, and opportunities. Therefore, sustainable tourism needs a massive amount of empathy and respect for diversity. If people don’t make enough effort to understand each other and compromise then it won’t work.
These partners need to be skilled and have the tools to do their work well. So, great teachers, eager students, education, and lifelong learning are right at the heart of sustainability.
How to make sustainability more engaging so that every traveller and stakeholder can really make a difference.
Sustainable tourism is about balance – a balance between the environmental, social, and economic aspects – one that helps communities, businesses, and people thrive, not just grow.
Depends on who you talk to! For some people we work with, it is a bit of resource efficiency. For others, it is finding ways to deliver their services within the planet’s capacity whilst also making a positive contribution to the communities that their services touch.
For me, it is about inspiring all those we work with to make a positive change on the path towards reducing the negative impacts of their operations whilst enhancing their capacity to deliver the positive benefits that can accrue from tourism. Positive change is good enough for us – our priority is to get the first step – once it has started, we know the journey will continue.
Sustainable tourism for me is finding a balance between creating values and protecting our unique nature at the same time, for generations to come.
Tourism that is controlled and managed in such a way and at such a scale that it does not negatively impact other systems and processes, both human and natural.
It’s tourism that takes into account the climate emergency and biodiversity emergency.
Sustainable tourism is that which takes into account both inputs (resource use) and resulting impacts (negative or positive) of a traveller and travel community. Moving past simply taking inputs and impacts into account, sustainable tourism seeks to ensure these are positively impacting the local population whilst not negatively impacting resources.
Tourism that is focused on helping, not harming a destination and that goes from the involvement of local people to the environment to carbon footprints. Sustainable tourism means doing no harm wherever possible and causing good for the destination in most cases.
Tourism that has a positive impact on the people and ecology of a place, while being financially sustainable.
Sustainability in tourism means to continue to be viable for a destination in the future. It means being responsible for the needs of the present without compromising the living conditions for future generations to come.
Sustainable Tourism contributes in measurable ways to the conservation of the environment and the benefit of the community it operates in, with respect for all stakeholders, while being profitable.
It’s tourism that puts the long-term well-being of the places that you visit ahead of the short-term enjoyment of the visitors.
More about the sustainable tourism expert panel here – including previous sessions and answers to some of the most pressing issues linked to making tourism more sustainable.
Do you have a topic in mind that you think needs to be highlighted in 2022? Get in touch!