The words “sustainable” and “responsible” have become buzzwords in tourism in recent years, right up there with “eco-friendly” as the newest thing to strive for for many tour companies and travel businesses.
But sustainable tourism. What is it, really? And why should the average tourist like you or I care about it?
When buzzwords like these come up, it's a natural reaction, I think, to tune out. To assume that glazed-eye look and let your mind wander a bit because clearly these sorts of things are for executives and experts to worry about, right?
Well, you'd actually be wrong.
Sure, tourism boards and tour companies can pledge to more sustainable practices in their businesses. But until we as tourists care about sustainability and responsible travel, the efforts of those executives and experts will only go so far.
Before I can answer the question of why sustainable tourism should matter to you, though, I first need to explain what “sustainable tourism” actually means.
What is sustainable tourism?
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 main parts which we can look at as “pillars.” These pillars are environmental, economic, and socio-cultural. They all are equally important, just as all four walls are important to holding up the roof of a house. Tourism has to be sustainable in all three areas to truly be considered “sustainable tourism.”
The environment is obviously important to tourism – without the place, tourism would not exist. Both the natural environment (such as beaches, forests, and 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 of both locals and tourists. And it’s much more than just reusing towels in a hotel and calling it being “green.” It means being aware of the impact that lots of visitors can have on a destination and finding ways to make that impact as positive as possible.
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, the introduction of new languages and values, and perhaps even an influx of migrant workers to be employed in the tourist industry. Some destinations may even see an increase in instances of petty crime.
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. This could be as simple as encouraging the sharing of interesting local customs (like artwork or dancing), or as involved as making it easier for locals to start or own new businesses to serve tourists.
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 feel a sense of ownership and pride in it.
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.
In not-so-interesting technical terms, economic sustainability means building linkages and reducing leakages. In simpler terms, this essentially means keeping the money local. A hotel or company owned and operated by a foreigner or huge international brand is not likely to contribute much to the local economy – the money will likely “leak” overseas instead. This is not sustainable in the long run because it means the destination will not see any of those tourism dollars, and may begin to question the tourism industry altogether.
Not only should the community be involved in tourism, but they should also all share in the financial benefits gleaned from it in order to encourage them to care about the other pillars just as much.
Why does sustainable tourism matter?
So why does all of this matter? Clearly tourism has survived up until now without such a huge discussion about sustainable, responsible travel.
But here's the thing we have to remember: it's only in the last couple of decades that tourism has truly exploded. More people around the world have disposable income and an interest in travel today than ever before. This is putting a strain on the tourism industry as a whole – and especially on the most popular destinations.
For this reason, sustainable tourism is incredibly important right now.
I remember the first time I saw Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I was so incredibly excited to see those iconic towers and lily-littered moat. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, after all, and one of the largest religious monuments in the world.
But as soon as I arrived, I knew immediately that something was wrong.
First, I was paying $40 for a 3-day pass to all the Angkor temples in a country where many people don't even make that much income in a month. (I later learned that the company that manages Angkor isn't even based in the country.) Second, the site was incredibly crowded with both tourists in short shorts and hawkers selling cheap souvenirs.
I didn't feel like I was at a temple, and I certainly didn't feel good about spending my money there.
I've written about my thoughts on Cambodia before, but basically what I saw at Angkor Wat was unsustainable tourism personified. Tourism where making money is the prime objective and the preservation of the site is secondary. Tourism where visitors aren't interacting with locals in any meaningful way and where the locals aren't benefitting a whole lot financially.
I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I'm scared to see what Angkor Wat will look like 20 years from now.
Because that's the thing about sustainable tourism and why we really should care: sustainable tourism helps preserve sites like Angkor Wat for future generations. If we only think short-term (i.e. just about our own travels), who knows how much longer some of these historical, cultural, and natural sites will be around.
Tourism for Tomorrow
So now that you have a better grasp of what sustainable tourism is and why it matters, how can you ensure that you're traveling responsibly?
The next time you’re torn between two attractions or destinations or hotels or tour companies, consider these questions:
- Which one is locally-owned?
- 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?
- Which one is better for the environment?
Basically, which one is more sustainable?
Things that are red flags when it comes to sustainability include:
- Companies the promote “local” tours but only employ non-local guides – Remember those “leakages” we talked about, and how important it is for locals to get involved in tourism in order to feel ownership in it? Companies who hire exclusively non-local guides or drivers are not really sustainable since much of the money tourists spend with them is not staying in the destination.
- Attractions that exploit people or animals – Don't engage in orphanage tourism. Don't ride elephants. Don't go to tiger temples. Basically, don't participate in tourism that forces people or animals to perform demeaning or painful tasks just for the sake of entertaining you.
- Places that are over-touristed instead of preserved – Angkor Wat, for example, is not really being properly maintained or preserved, and the main temples can be way too crowded. I'm not saying you shouldn't go to places like this – just do your research and see if there are any alternatives you can visit instead, or perhaps a less crowded time of year to go.
- Companies that promote “eco-friendly” travel but can't back it up – “Greenwashing” is a big problem in tourism. If a company is truly dedicated to being environmentally-friendly, you should be able to tell by their actions and initiatives. Look for companies that offset their carbon footprint, participate in recycling, support reforestation, and legitimately take steps to ensure that they are leaving a positive footprint on the environment.
In the end, it's up to US as travelers to do a better job of supporting sustainable tourism (demanding it, even) so that we can ensure better tourism for the future.
Check out this new video from the World Travel & Tourism Council that takes a look at why we need to redefine tourism in a more sustainable way:
To read more about sustainable tourism (and what you can do to ensure you're traveling as responsibly as possible), check out these other posts, too:
*This post was brought to you in partnership with the World Travel & Tourism Council, who also produced the above video.
What do you think? Do you consider any of these things when you choose a destination or book a trip?