There are many terms that float around that may sound similar but actually refer to something distinct.

Definition of Sustainable Tourism

Sustainable Tourism refers to sustainable practices in and by the tourism industry. It is an aspiration to acknowledge all impacts of tourism, both positive and negative. It aims to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive ones.

Negative impacts to a destination include economic leakage, damage to the natural environment and overcrowding to name a few.

Positive impacts to a destination include job creation, cultural heritage preservation and interpretation, wildlife preservation landscape restoration, and more.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization 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.”

Additionally, they say that sustainable tourism “refers to the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability” (UNEP & UNWTO, 2005: 11-12. Making Tourism More Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers).

Definition of Ecotourism

Ecotourism is a niche segment of tourism in natural areas. The term emerged in the late 1980s.

Fennell described it as such: “Ecotourism is a sustainable form of natural resource-based tourism that focuses primarily on experiencing and learning about nature, and which is ethically managed to be low-impact, non-consumptive, and locally-oriented. It typically occurs in natural areas, and should contribute to the conservation or preservation of such areas” (Fennell, 1999: 43. Ecotourism: An Introduction).

The Mohonk Agreement (2000), a proposal for international certification of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism, saw ecotourism as “sustainable tourism with a natural area focus, which benefits the environment and communities visited, and fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and awareness.”

The ecotourism definition by the  Global Ecotourism Network (GEN): “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved (visitors, staff and the visited).”

Definitions of Responsible Travel

Responsible Travel refers to the behavior of individual travelers aspiring to make choices according to sustainable tourism practices. The behaviors usually align with minimizing the negative impacts and maximizing positive ones when one visits a tourism destination.

Summary of the difference between Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, and Responsible Travel

Ecotourism is a niche segment of tourism in natural areas.

Sustainable Tourism does not refer to a specific type of tourism, rather it is an aspiration for the impacts of all forms of tourism to be sustainable for generations to come.

Responsible Travel is a term referring to the behavior and style of individual travelers. The behaviors align with making a positive impact to the destination rather than negative ones.

The aim of sustainable tourism is to increase the benefits and to reduce the negative impacts caused by tourism for destinations. This can be achieved by:

  • Protecting natural environments, wildlife and natural resources when developing and managing tourism activities
  • Providing authentic tourist experiences that celebrate and conserve heritage and culture
  • Creating socio-economic benefits for communities through employment and income earning opportunities

European Travel Commission (ETC) handbook for national sustainable tourism initiatives |DOWNLOAD PDF HERE

Ecotourism vs sustainable tourism

You may have heard the terms ecotourism and sustainable tourism being used interchangeably. Although both are important, there is a slight difference between what they mean. 

While sustainable tourism is about creating travel opportunities with minimal impact and positive benefits for destinations and their communities, ecotourism is more focused on educating tourists about nature and the environment, and travellers taking part in conservation and cultural activities.

While ecotourism should always be sustainable, not all examples of sustainable tourism are ecotourism. For example, you might take a train to stay in a sustainably powered lodge. While this is a sustainable option, you’re not necessarily learning about nature and your local surroundings in an educational sense.

Responsible vs Sustainable Tourism?

The concepts of sustainable tourism and responsible tourism are closely linked, to such an extent that they are often used interchangeably. However, there are some differences between the two ideas and it can be helpful to get to grips with what separates the two terms, as well as what unites them.

Sustainable tourism is heavily focused on the long-term sustainability of the tourism industry, so that current needs do not compromise the needs of future generations. Responsibility is shared between political leaders, tourism companies and other stakeholders. Responsible travel, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the ways individuals interact with the destinations they visit and the focus is generally on people making behavioural changes.

Facts about the tourism industry

Before we delve more into the impact of the tourism industry, let’s explore some recent facts and figures so that we have a better sense of the current situation. On their website, Sustaining Tourism state that international tourist arrivals have increased from 25 million in 1950 to 1.32 billion in 2017. 

They also state that travel and tourism made up 10% of total GDP in 2016, and the average international tourist receipt is over 700 US dollars per person. Therefore, it’s clear that tourism has a huge economic impact on communities, and the industry is continuing to grow at a staggering rate.

What are the positive impacts of the tourism industry?

There are a few main ways we can look at the positive impacts of the tourism industry. We can start by looking at the social and cultural benefits, before moving on to study the environmental benefits. This will provide us with some well-rounded insights into different key areas.

Social and cultural benefits of tourism

  • Strengthened communities due to more money and resources
  • Improved infrastructure including buildings and transport systems
  • Higher rates of employment due to the tourism industry
  • Improved understanding of different cultures and traditions
  • Preservation of local cultures 
  • Commercialisation of art and culture
  • Conservation of heritage including architecture and natural sites
  • Increased number of events and celebrations

Environmental benefits of tourism

  • Creation of natural parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • Reduced numbers of animal poaching
  • Improved water quality
  • Increased funding for nature conservation and protection

What are the negative impacts of the tourism industry?

It’s not all positives, unfortunately. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be such a need for sustainable tourism and ecotourism. Once again, we’ll split these negative impacts into the social and cultural impacts and the environmental impacts of tourism.

Negative social and cultural impacts of tourism

The negative socio-cultural impacts of tourism can vary heavily depending on location and culture, but there are definitely some patterns that repeatedly show themselves. Our open step by Coventry University suggests three things that can happen:

  1. Staged authenticity: This refers to when events or cultures are manufactured just to bring in tourism and money, even when they don’t reflect the local culture of destination communities. This can cause bad feelings between tourists and locals, and can also lead to the eradication of local culture.
  2. Standardisation: Often tourists seek familiarity even when they are visiting a foreign country, and this can lead to a loss of cultural diversity. For example, you can find McDonald’s and Starbucks all around the world, and these huge companies can take business from smaller companies.
  3. Commodification: In some ways, this is similar to staged authenticity, because it happens when tourism destroys the true meaning of cultural performances, events and customs. Instead, they are transformed to suit the time frames and wishes of tourists. Understandably, this can make local communities feel taken advantage of and disrespected.

Negative environmental impacts of tourism

There are two main ways that tourism can negatively impact the environment: through the development of the area, or through the behaviour of tourists. Some examples of both include:

Development of the area

  • Damage of wild habitats due to new infrastructure
  • Weakened resilience to natural disasters
  • Beautiful scenery ruined by hotels and car parks
  • Deforestation
  • Overuse of water due to influx of people

Behaviour of tourists

  • Air pollution due to traffic congestion
  • Destruction of nature due to littering and disregard
  • Wildlife relocating due to increased noise levels
  • Higher consumption of energy
  • Plastic pollution in the ocean affecting sealife

How sustainable tourism is providing a solution

It’s not just local communities that live in tourist destinations that are feeling the negative effects of tourism. As tourists ourselves, many of us prefer to visit places that are clean, not too crowded, and safe. We also usually want to preserve local cultures, traditions, religions, and buildings, rather than experience an inauthentic ploy for money. 

Therefore, we all have a lot to gain from alternative forms of tourism, including sustainable forms. The best places for sustainable tourism to be developed are regions with natural resources, landscapes, or cultural buildings – all features that attract tourists who might want to explore and admire local destinations and cultures in an environmentally friendly way.

The goals of sustainable tourism

The World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Program suggested twelve main goals for sustainable tourism in 2005. These will help to demonstrate the ways in which sustainable tourism can provide a solution to some of the global challenges facing the industry today:

  1. Economic Viability: To make sure that tourism destinations and businesses are viable, competitive, and able to achieve long-term success. 
  2. Local Prosperity: To ensure that tourism activities help local communities thrive economically and retain a large amount of the economic contribution.
  3. Employment Quality:  To increase the number of local jobs created in the tourism industry and ensure that the pay and working conditions are fair, safe and offered to workers without discrimination.
  4. Social Equity: To ensure that tourism increases the amount of economic and social benefits being distributed across local communities, improving all areas of life.
  5. Visitor Fulfillment: To create a safe and fulfilling holiday experience for tourists without discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality, disability or other.
  6. Local Control: To empower local communities to have a role in planning and decision-making regarding tourism in their neighbourhoods.
  7. Community Wellbeing: To improve the quality of life and wellbeing of local communities, ensuring they have access to resources and are not disrespected or exploited in the name of tourism.
  8. Cultural Richness: To respect the cultural heritage, traditions, authenticity and uniqueness of host communities.
  9. Physical Integrity: To look after all landscapes, whether urban or rural, and ensure that they are not degraded physically or visually as a result of tourism.
  10. Biological Diversity: To conserve natural areas, wildlife, and unique habitats, protecting them and ensuring they are not damaged.
  11. Resource Efficiency: To use sustainable and renewable resources when possible in the development and operation of tourism facilities and services.
  12. Environmental Purity: To protect the land, air and water from pollution, littering and other waste that may come as a result of tourism businesses or visitors.

What are some examples of sustainable tourism?

There are plenty of different examples of sustainable tourism, but the main thing you need to do before you plan a sustainable trip is making sure you’ve done your research. While one aspect of a trip may seem sustainable, it’s worth considering the holiday in its entirety before you solidify any plans.

One example of sustainable tourism is the Six Senses Fiji resort, which is powered solely on solar power, recycles rainwater, runs on a low-waste model, and uses handiwork such as furnishings and artwork created by local villagers. 

However, this is obviously a high-budget type of experience. For something simple, how about organising a self-sufficient camping trip, choosing sites accessible by train or bike? Or if you’re looking for something more wildlife-focused, how about looking for a sustainable conservation program abroad?

Rural tourism

One kind of sustainable tourism is rural tourism, it must occur outside of an urban environment and tends to focus on actively participating in a rural lifestyle. With rural tourism, tourists tend to stay with local people, understand their lifestyles, and even help out with manual labour. 

While rural tourism is more of a branch of ecotourism, by nature, it’s normally pretty sustainable. This is because it helps to support local people, focuses on the rural environment, and doesn’t involve vast numbers of tourists all being in the same place at once.

Community tourism

In a similar vein, community tourism can also be a great example of sustainable tourism. This is because it’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to mass tourism. Normally, local residents and communities invite tourists to stay with them, and they may offer different events, activities and experiences.

While this could be similar to rural tourism, it doesn’t have to focus on natural surroundings. Instead, the purpose of community tourism is more about empowering local communities to plan, implement and be responsible for tourism activities in their home destinations. While they will gain economic benefits, tourists will enjoy authentic experiences.

13+ Ultimate Ways to Promote Sustainable Tourism

1. Avoid the plane, or take non-stop flights

2. Go green

3. Spread awareness on sustainable tourism

4. Support local restaurants

5. Support legislation that promotes sustainable tourism

6. Buy souvenirs from local stores

7. Support the fight against illegal trade

8. Walk where possible

9. Promote sustainable tourism with your inner circle

10. Travel more locally

11. Share your sustainable travel experiences

12. Volunteer to organizations fighting the same fight

13. Say no to plastics

14. Donate to sustainable tourism businesses and organizations

15. Take care of heritage places

16. Respect the practices of local peoples

17. Challenge yourself to step outside your comfort zone

18. Make sustainable tourism the new ‘normal’

Understanding Destination Marketing

The concept of sustainable tourism can easily tie in with the idea of destination marketing too. Essentially, this is where marketers for hotels and other travel companies aim to attract tourists to a particular location by promoting the local attractions, features and activities on offer, in order to make it a more appealing proposition.

You can explore the topic of destination marketing further and gain an understanding of how it can relate to the concept of sustainable tourism by reading the “Destination Marketing Strategies to Attract More Visitors” article.

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