Sustainable Tourism: What is It, and Why Should We Care?

Sustainable Tourism Definition

Today I am thrilled to introduce this extremely useful article by Amanda Williams, owner of the travel blog A Dangerous Business. I asked Amanda to write this piece because of her expertise in the area and to add some clarity to an issue that is so often misunderstood. I know you will enjoy this thoughtful explanation of the true definition of sustainable tourism.

Especially in recent years, the term “sustainable” has been increasingly paired up with words like “travel” and “tourism” to denote a desired way of operating. Hotels want to be “sustainable.” Tour companies want to be “sustainable.” And travelers are increasingly concerned with only spending their money on “sustainable” ventures.

But what exactly does “sustainable tourism” even mean?

To most people, “sustainable” is synonymous with “eco-friendly.” They think of geothermal-powered hotels, conservation efforts, and companies concerned with their carbon footprints.

And it’s true that being environmentally-conscious is a big part of being sustainable. But it’s not the only thing to consider. An attraction or destination can be as “green” as green can be, and still not be sustainable.

When it comes to sustainability, there are actually three “pillars” to consider: environmental, economic, and socio-cultural. Tourism has to be sustainable in all three areas to truly be considered “sustainable tourism.”

Sustainable Tourism Definition

Environmental Sustainability

The environment is obviously important to tourism. Both the natural environment (such as beaches, forests, waterways) and the built environment (such as historic buildings and ruins) must be preserved for an area to be environmentally sustainable. Environmental sustainability means making sure resources in an area (whatever they may be) can be preserved for use by future generations. It’s much more than just being “green.”

Sustainable Tourism Definition

Socio-cultural Sustainability

When an area starts being visited by tourists, there are bound to be some social and cultural impacts of those tourists on the host community. Locals may see increased congestion and overcrowding in towns and cities, perhaps an increase in crime, the introduction of new languages and values, and perhaps even an influx of migrant workers to be employed in the tourist industry. Socio-cultural sustainability, then, means minimizing these negative impacts and focusing on more positive ones, such as promoting cultural exchange and preserving local traditions. This can usually be achieved by getting the locals involved in the tourism industry. Having the community involved will not only offer visitors a more genuine experience, but the locals will be more likely to see tourism in a positive light because they will be proud of it.

Sustainable Tourism Definition

Economic Sustainability

The last pillar of sustainability revolves around perhaps the most important part – the money. Many people don’t take into account economics when thinking about sustainability, but it’s really the key to making a tourism venture sustainable. Economic sustainability means building linkages and reducing leakages – essentially, keeping the money local. A hotel or company owned and operated by a foreigner is not likely to contribute much to the local economy – the money will likely leak overseas instead. This is not sustainable. Not only should the community be involved in tourism, but they should also all share in the financial benefits gleaned from it.

Sustainable Tourism Definition

Why Does it Matter?

So why should we care about sustainability?

Well, the fact is, sustainable tourism actually benefits everyone involved, and not just one half of the equation. Unsustainable tourism might be fine from the point of view of the tourist, but it’s unlikely to benefit or gain support from the host community.

And, at the end of the day, tourism should not be a one-way street. Everyone involved should be benefiting from it in one way or another.

So, the next time you’re torn between two attractions or destinations or hotels or tour companies, consider these points: Which one is locally-owned? Which one is more eco-friendly? Which one employs local people? Which one contributes the most to the local economy? Which one is more sensitive to its impacts on the host community?

Basically, which one is more sustainable?

Considering these points just might change the way you travel.

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By: Amanda Williams

Amanda is just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a "normal" life of school, friends and family with an unquenchable lust for travel. She's always looking for that next chance to get swept away in adventure, be it on the other side of the globe or just around the corner.

11 Responses

  1. Dalene

    A very excellent and simplistic breakdown that more people should pay attention to (including me, if I’m being honest!) Well done Amanda.

    Reply
    • Amanda

      Thanks, Dalene! I’m glad I made it simple to understand. It’s quite a complicated thing to try and explain!

      Reply
  2. Stephanie - The Travel Chica

    Great info here. I typically have only looked at the environmental side, but now I see why there are other aspects to consider.

    Reply
  3. Kelly Waterhouse

    I really like your point about economic sustainability. Finding those destinations where the locals share in the economic advantages of tourism will make it a wonderful place to visit.

    Thanks for sharing

    Reply
  4. Andy

    The financial side is really important – and is a major argument against all-inclusive resorts; these places discourage any tourist spending outside the fence. I always try to make people think twice when they say “How convenient – we don’t have to worry about spending money”. If you are visiting someone else’s country they should be the ones reaping any economic benefit, not a foreign corporation raking in hard currency…

    Reply
  5. John

    Amanda you make some great points . The most quoted definition of sustainability is: ”

    To meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”(WECD, 1987) : ”

    The three pillars you mention are most often found in Corporate Social Responsibility Policies. The economic and socio-cultural responsibility is often overlooked. I have researched numerous horror stories from the carbon offsetting business, where vast tracks of land have been bought up to plant not forests, but plantations of fast growing trees and the local population have been evicted. Even Nature Reserves in Africa have evicted the locals and denied them access to the land of their ancestors. If I was to visit a Nature Reserve I would do some research beforehand to ensure that the rights of the local population have always been respected before even contemplating visiting.

    Sure keeping money in the local community is important, but remember when you travel, you are taking money you earned in your home town out of your local local community. If you fly there you use up fossil fuel that will not be freely available to future generations. So companies promoting “sustainable destinations” in places such as the Maldives are not taking into account that you need to use up limited resources to get there. Excluding of course getting there by sailing ship.

    My preference is to spend money with small local businesses, Farmer’s Markets, eating locally grown, in season food and buying Fair Trade products. But I am passionate about learning more about sustainable travel. This is a very deep subject so thank you for expanding knowledge in this field.

    Reply
  6. Andrew Lloyd Hughes

    Great, concise and simple article. So pleased you’ve emphasized the three pillar approach and the importance of economics. You’re so right, too often sustainability is perceived as heavily weighted towards the environment, and that unfortunately deters a lot of people. What dissapoints me is some destinations have sustainable tourism strategies and tourism strategies, which implies that the latter is not sustainable! Tourism is sustainable full stop, one day it will ‘go without saying’!

    Reply
    • Matt Long

      Great comments, thank you for sharing!

      Reply
  7. Alexandra - TeamFlorens

    Very interesting reflections, Amanda, thank you Matt for sharing this with us. The economic aspect is particularly interesting to me and to us at the Fondazione Florens and we are interested in reading more theories about the economics of sustainable travel.

    Just FYI we are currently holding a call for bloggers who write on these topics – know anyone interested? There is a trip to Florence up for grabs.

    Reply
  8. Theodora

    A really neat breakdown, Amanda, thank you. I tend to think flying is the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions on sustainability and green, but it’s good to have a reminder that there’s more to sustainability than crude carbon footprint.

    Reply
  9. Elbert

    Great аrticle, just what I was looking for.

    Reply

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