Tourism has tremendous impacts on nations' economies, providing them with alternative income sources and driving infrastructural development. But many are starting to ask if these benefits are worth the consumption rates, ecological damage, and other negative impacts of having travelers troop in and out of locations daily. Now, we ask, what is sustainable tourism, and is it a viable solution?
Sustainable tourism takes full account of tourism's economic, social, and environmental impacts on an economy. Tourist activities in certain places can deplete those areas, leaving them in bad shape. So what sustainable tourism seeks to achieve is the preservation of travel destinations, especially the natural ones.
Related: Looking for companies in tune with the principles below? Our guide to sustainable travel companies presents plenty of options to inspire your next adventure.
To make tourism responsible and sustainable in any place, sustainability goals must be set and realized. These goals guide and inform tourism policies, strategies, and primarily actions. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the following should be sustainable tourism goals (source).
When these long-term goals drive travel and tourism, the resultant effect would be that touristry would positively affect people's wellbeing.
Similar to the above, the expert group for global sustainable development, with representation from the united nations environment program and the UNTWO, laid out 12 goals for sustainable tourism in 2005 (source):
Travel destinations begin to benefit from tourism as much as those visiting, and economic advantages will follow. Of course, at the same time protecting their cultures and sustainability.
This can prove especially important in developing countries given the fast growth of the tourism sector and prospective economic and social benefits.
Inevitably, tourism will have some negative impacts on local people. For example, a tourism destination may experience more buses on the roads and planes in the air. Or perhaps preventing access to their own local heritage sites without a paid-for ticket. Sustainable tourism is the only way to ensure that travel and tourism keep having a mostly positive impact on the people it serves.
This is not peculiar to tourism, as everything has disadvantages. But sustainable travel and tourism seek to ensure that travel's negative side is far less than the positive environmental impacts. The sustainable travel concept addresses travelers' desires and the socio-cultural aspects and impacts of people living wherever they might travel.
Sustainable development tourism is also important because of the financial rewards flowing from tourism. However, this income can lure governments into a false sense of security. And in turn, natural resources and local economies in these places pay the price. With this neglect, businesses do not benefit from the influx of tourists as much as they should.
At a TEDx event in Stockholm, Sweden, Doug Lansky talked about the pitfalls of unbalanced tourism: How to save tourism from itself. He proposed a new way to achieve tourism success. Methods include protecting locals' quality of life, protecting critical assets, elevating the traveler experience, and maximizing the local economic impact.
When we practice sustainable tourism, the focus of tourism changes, it ceases to be only about tourists and the income they bring to travel destinations. It now equally prioritizes tourist sites and local businesses' sustainability and makes them key stakeholders in the industry.
To practice sustainable tourism effectively, certain principles must guide the actions of governments and people. Here are the most important sustainability principles to consider for sustainable and responsible travel and tourism.
For resources to keep serving the travel sector, the industry must use them wisely. This includes conserving and maintaining them to increase their efficiency. Sustainable use of means is one of the best decisions to take towards the sustainability of tourism activities. This is because the protection of natural resources from undue exploitation is assured.
The temptation to consume too much is a problem plaguing the industry. Providers leverage many natural resources, from energy to water and packaging. Inevitably, tourists cannot consume all of these at once. For example, half-full boat trips waste fuel.
Inevitably providers cannot restore many resources once used or depleted, and they go to waste. Allowing natural and cultural resources to waste extends beyond the service sector. It also affects the environment, causing pollution and health hazards.
To ensure tourism that takes complete account of its natural resources consumption efficiently, adopting eco-tourism is necessary. When providers achieve efficient consumption, a good balance between resource use and consumption results; this will boost responsible travel and preserve resources for other areas of the economy.
Biodiversity is so important to tourism activities because it provides many benefits to both those who travel and the environment. The benefits of biodiversity and why we should maintain it as part of responsible tourism include:
Local communities and even urban areas depend on biodiversity to provide raw materials for farmers to make money. For example, bees and honey. They can also process these materials into finished goods, which drives innovation and creativity.
Due to biodiversity, we have clean water, clean air, and a host of other benefits. If we do not maintain biodiversity, there is a possibility that we will harm tourism. It can mean that travelers would breathe bad air and return to their countries with illnesses. There is also a possibility that visitors would not have a rewarding experience, which is the primary goal of most that choose to travel. A sustainable visit to a jungle or reef is far less appealing without wildlife or coral.
Biodiversity provides much of the richness and appeal of activities like fishing, camping, and hiking. Visitors can engage in these activities as a way to relax and unwind. This is an important benefit to travelers because it is often the primary reason they decide to visit a tourist destination. If we allow biodiversity to decay, we could lose this unique aspect of travel and tourism. Countries will also lose the unique income that comes from it.
We should preserve biodiversity because it directly links to the cultures and spirituality of people. For example, in Africa, people have their cultures and religions deeply rooted in nature. So if they allow biodiversity to decay, it means that visitors would not be able to appreciate and experience local culture and religions.
The main reason why tourism suffers in some countries is that governments do not plan properly. Governments often prioritize other aspects of the economy and do not create conscious tourism policies pitched to mitigate the less desirable impacts of numerous visitors and mass tourism. This is dangerous because a lack of planning would affect the experience their visitors would have. Hence, proper planning is effective and necessary for tourist satisfaction.
Tourism fails at the point where it does not support the local economy. Many local businesses depend on life chances from tourists to grow their businesses. To the extent where visitors spend days in these places, and their businesses cannot grow, it means the government is not doing enough.
Governments can remedy this by supporting local businesses to meet the needs of visitors and travelers. Governments can also empower local communities, regulate these businesses, and ensure they don't damage the environment. Regulation can help support climate change targets and ensure the natural environment is not subject to over degradation to service the tourist trade. And encourage the tourism sector to protect the socio-cultural heritage of the region that brings travelers there in the first place.
For tourism to yield positive results, it is crucial to involve local communities and make them stakeholders. Not involving people can make them hostile to visitors, which can have ugly consequences. Touristry relies on the warmness of the host communities to be effective, hence involving local communities.
Travelers seek out cultural diversity apart from their experiences at home. Countries should involve local communities to champion intercultural understanding and welcome sustainable travel. Doing so can also help understand how local communities define overtourism and when too many inbound travelers become detrimental.
There has to be synergy between all the stakeholders in a country for tourism to work. All tourism-related organizations must be intentional about the advancement of tourism. Yet not at the cost of the environment. They must also dedicate their effort to ensuring that local tourism businesses grow.
For sustainable tourism to flourish, the people involved should receive training in various hospitality services. When tourists visit a community, they look out for the best service they can get. If they do not get satisfaction, they are unlikely to visit that same tourist destination again. Therefore sustainable tourism requires sufficient human resources in the relevant industries and institutions.
Nothing makes tourism grow in leaps and bounds like effective marketing. They know how much it will cost them to visit the site, so they can begin to plan. For marketing to be successful, it must be strategic. This means that it must target high-profile media where many people can see the advertisements.
Further, amongst so many messages vying for consumer attention, sustainable tourism must authentically make a case for its benefits. Calling out and exemplifying the environmental impacts of addressing the needs of nature, people, and the economy can prove compelling. All while the word sustainability and the entire concept of sustainable travel must avoid greenwashing and false claims.
The tourism industry has to collate data and undertake research that can solve problems in the future. Because tourism is a sector that is always upgrading, research also has to upgrade at an equal pace. This is necessary to monitor sustainable development impacts and match the ever-increasing demand for responsible tourism products.
Tourism has the potential to be a force for good. Through research, the industry can understand where to improve and reduce the activity causing harm progressing its aims of achieving sustainable tourism. Industries can carry out this research by monitoring the industry and noticing the changes that occur as tourism destinations come in and out of favor.
There are potentially significant consequences for communities and countries that do not practice effective, sustainable tourism. Here are a few of such consequences:
When we avoid sustainable tourism practices, natural and cultural heritage sites can be in danger. This could be due to a lack of maintenance because the industry no longer prioritizes these sites. The destruction of these sites is especially bad for locals because many people have special cultural connections to them.
When these sites become obsolete, the cultures of many people waiver; not practicing sustainable tourism is why many beautiful travelers' destinations around the world have become overrun and degraded. This is a trend that should stop—as such, making tourism sustainable is crucial for every leisure industry.
Many tourist attraction sites are losing their originality as the years roll by. As visitor activities destroy the area, structural changes that don't reflect the natural area have to happen.
As a result, these areas lose their appeal. This is because travelers want an intercultural understanding of your site in its original form before visiting. This loss of originality can indicate that the touristry sector has sustainability issues.
Cultural clashes are not inevitable in the leisure industry. They only happen as proof that the stakeholders in the industry are not doing a good job. Clashes between visitors and residents occur because the residents don't feel involved in the touristic sector.
Most times, it is also because the presence of visitors is not boosting their businesses. Or the influx of visitors prevents their access to important cultural or religious sites. When situations like this occur, stakeholders in the industry have to find ways to make the local people, environment, and host communities benefit from the industry. This is why we should adopt sustainable travel practices for local culture.
The environment is essential and must be our utmost priority. When sustainable tourism doesn't drive the leisure industry, looking for eco-friendly solutions to waste disposal problems can prove challenging. This means that touristry products may not end up in recyclable containers, and the companies who produce touristry products choose not to use clean energy, leading to climate change.
When sustainable tourism development drives the industry, the environmental benefits flow from a focus not just on sustaining tourism but also on the future economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the environment. Neglecting this approach can cause overtourism and increase climate concerns and all the ills that come with them.
The focus of the global tourism industry needs a strategic shift. Tourism can improve the environment and its people, not leave them in worse shape.
Stakeholders must come together to drive the industry towards a more sustainable method and bring about all-around changes for tourism development. Governments also have to play a role in promoting sustainable tourism practices and enacting good tourism policies.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.