Sustainable Tourism: Pros & Cons, Examples, & Is It Possible?

In this guide, we analyse sustainable tourism.

Specifically, we look at what it is, give examples of how tourism might become more sustainable, the pros and cons of a sustainable tourism approach, and how sustainable tourism compares to conventional and mass tourism.

 

Summary – Sustainable Tourism

Overall as an industry, tourism has a significant economic value to the world economy, and billions of tourists travel every year. So, it’s an important industry takenote of.

The concept of sustainable tourism involves the incorporation of sustainable tourism practices, aimed at improving the short term and long term environmental, economic and social impact of tourism, for all tourism stakeholders

Compared to conventional and mass tourism, sustainable tourism might place more focus on issues like environmental and site degradation, resource usage and environmental footprint, and the impact of tourism on the local humans and ecosystems in the area

A few examples of sustainable tourism include but aren’t limited to restricting/limiting tourist numbers at the most popular tourism destinations, allocating funding towards maintaining tourism sites, making ‘green’ improvements to tourism transport and accomodation, and supporting and/or promoting tourism businesses that provide a based level of rights for humans or animals involved in the business

A number of tourism destinations and stakeholders around the world have taken action to implement policies, rules and behavioral requirements, based around the concept of more sustainable tourism in those destinations

However, what several sources point out is that there’s been no significant progress on sustainable tourism in general

A lack of financial resources (in the form of financial investment and funding), and organisation/collaboration between stakeholders, are a few of the leading reasons for this

On a positive note, results from other industries shows that investing in sustainability can have a number of benefits for companies and brands. So, there is at least incentive there

 

What Is Sustainable Tourism

The concept of sustainable tourism involves the incorporation of sustainable tourism practices, aimed at improving the short term and long term environmental, economic and social impact of tourism, for all tourism stakeholders

Stakeholders include but aren’t limited to travellers/tourists, locals and local communities (their rights, and their culture and customs), tourism workers, tourism companies and tourism industry businesses, third parties, the government, the environment, and animals and wildlife.

 

What Does Tourism Include?

Tourism involves everything from leaving the house to returning to the house, when sightseeing, travelling or going on holiday.

It involves both domestic and international tourism.

It includes but isn’t limited to specific things like:

– travel and transport like cars and planes

– accomodation

– and any activity (or production and consumption) that is undertaken on the way to, from, or at a tourism destination (or destinations)

 

The Economic Importance Of The Tourism Industry

Billions of people travel every year.

Tourism as an industry also plays an important role in the world economy in terms of total revenue, employment, income, and projected growth.

A few stats that illustrate this are:

From traveller.com.au: ‘[tourism is a] $US8.8 billion industry [that] sustains 319 million jobs [or] 10 per cent of all the jobs in the world (traveller.com.au)

It generates more than $2.1tn in annual revenues (theguardian.com)

Tourism provides both local and external employment, and puts money in the pockets of local citizens and governments (though admittedly, not all of this money always stays in the local economy)

In 2016, more than 1.2 billion people travelled as tourists internationally, and another 6 billion people travelled domestically (1millionwomen.com.au)

[Tourist arrivals are also only expected to increase in the future, making tourism one of the fastest growing industries in the world] (theboar.org)

[The tourism industry is expected to grow] by an estimated 4% on average annually in the next 10 years.

COVID has had an economic impact on tourism though, and variables like border restrictions will play a part in tourism in the future too.

 

Pros & Cons Of Sustainable Tourism 

Pros

Places a focus on both short term and long term needs and wants, as opposed to just the short term

Places a balanced focus on the economic, environmental (including environmental degradation, and resource management) and social aspects of tourism, instead of just the profit motive or individual wants

More travellers are becoming aware of sustainable tourism, and the impact of purchasing from companies with sustainable practices

Some tourism destinations already have sustainability practices in places

the business case for sustainability and corporate responsibility in tourism is growing stronger year-on-year [with several benefits for businesses, but also for consumers that give their money to them] (weforum.org)

 

Cons

Progress on sustainable tourism right now, according to several reports, is not significant

Some argue that sustainable tourism overall has significant challenges and limitations which impact how sustainable tourism can end up being in the future 

Sustainable tourism means different things to different people, which can make it hard to collaborate or consolidate on any one indicator

Sustainable tourism as an issue happens at many different geographic points, and not just in one place or activity. This can make it much harder to gather data on, track, and address compared to other issues. It can also make collaboration and organisation more challenging

Right now, there might not be enough resources, funding and data collection committed to addressing sustainable tourism (from governments, and private funding sources)

A potential conflict of interest with sustainable tourism is incentivizing tourism related production and consumption (which flows to other areas of the economy), whilst also minimizing negative environmental and social impact. This is a tricky balance

Sustainable tourism can be more expensive for travellers for the service or product offered, or because of requirements of the travel destination – this reduces how far a traveller’s disposable income can go, and can price out some lower income travellers

Some argue that some approaches to sustainable tourism are flawed and question how effective they are – for example, decision makers should focus on how to reduce per capita impact, rather than outright trying to restrict the total number of visitors. The same can be said when trying to achieve per tourist yields for economic objectives

Technology like the internet has made it easier for the consumer to drive prices down with price comparisons between competing travel providers. This drives down the available money for these companies to invest in sustainability, and also makes higher priced sustainable tourism look less desirable

 

Pros & Cons Of Regular Tourism (Conventional, & Mass Tourism)

Pros

Tourists and travellers are free to pursue their own individual wants and needs (contributes to happiness and satisfaction, and a range of other personal benefits)

Companies and other stakeholders who receive economic benefits from tourism are free to pursue their own wants and needs

There’s a significant positive impact on the economy from regular tourism – in terms of revenue and GDP generated and contributed, number of people employed and receiving an income, and flow on economic stimulus, development (especially from domestic and international investment) and opportunity in tourism affected areas

 

Cons

No emphasis on protecting the environment and ecosystems from a certain level of degradation. Overcrowding/congestion, saturation, mass tourism and lax regulations can lead to more stress being placed on the environment in one area

Environmental issues that may get worse as a result of unsustainable tourism might include greenhouse gas emissions, hard waste generation, different forms of waste pollution – air pollution, water pollution, hard waste pollution, habitat destruction, and impact on local wildlife

No emphasis on managing resources sustainably (especially scarce resources) – which can lead to resource shortages or price increases and volatility for resources for locals. Water and land tend to be scarce in some countries – the question has to be asked if committing these types of resources towards tourism is the best use of these resources. Hotels in particular can be big users of water and electricity

Further to the above point, basic services and cost of living can be impacted for locals. When more homeowners are offering their homes to travellers for increased nightly prices, this can put a housing and renting squeeze on locals who may not have as much affordable housing available. Land, food, water, housing, transport/fuel and infrastructure are all used and consumed in tourism related activities

No emphasis on the social and cultural rights and needs of the local population and communities

There’s no guarantee that money spent on tourism stays within the local area where a popular tourism destination is – there’s some reports that up to 80% of the money spent in some areas leaks out of the local economy. This is called leakage and could be argued as a strong point against modern models of tourism in some areas. The tourism in this case could be benefitting external parties that don’t have to deal with the negative impact the tourism is having on the local area.

On the topic of keeping wealth within local communities – ‘… often as little as 5-10% of the money tourists spend remains in the destinations they visit’ (weforum.org)

Who the money goes to is also in question – some sources indicate that it’s mostly large transnational companies that reap the financial rewards from more commercialized tourism, and not a wider range of more independent parties

[Even when jobs are created for] local people, they [can be] entry level and low paying with limited opportunities for upward mobility (weforum.org)

The more commoditized and competitive tourism products and services become, the more they result in lower margins for tourism businesses – negating some of the economic benefits. There’s also only so many products and services that can be offered in some places, leading to saturation and hard caps on how many people can make money

As an area developments, existing natural environments and habitats can be cleared to make way for buildings and infrastructure

Some new developments are poorly designed or constructed, and end up a long term liability or detractor in the area

Governments can spend taxpayers money to get tourists to their countries and cities to reap the economic rewards from tourism, but there can little accountability and responsibility for the true long term impact of mass tourism or unregulated tourism. The same can be said for developers and decisions makers who are profiting upfront, without dealing with the potential true costs and long term costs

Third party industries like media and online content and influencers help promote travel with no accountability for the end result

Local and indigenous communities can sometimes be displaced by new development

External companies and stakeholders can get access to prime real estate over locals

Large-scale tourism [can lead to] the quality of life and the quality of the visitor experience [to] deteriorate (weforum.org)

Tourism can be heavily commercialized, and because it’s becoming cheaper to travel and more accessible, some argue that some tourists’ attitudes towards travel and tourist destinations can be that they don’t value them as much, or treat them with as much respect

Mass tourism can lead to a worse experience for the tourist, but also a worse daily life for locals

 

How To Make Tourism More Sustainable – Examples Of Sustainable Tourism Practices

The following are a list of practices that might each make tourism more sustainable collectively, and for individuals.

They aren’t a strict list of of practices that each need to be adhered to. They are ideas only:

Local communities might take on more accountability to put in place regulations, guidelines, barriers to entry, and plans that help protect and preserve their local communities and areas. Effort would also have to be put into enforcing these regulations, guidelines and plans

The tourism industry and tourism companies might take on greater responsibility to ‘pay into, or, invest into’ the destinations they frequent the most to help maintain them

Since impact and accountability is shared by various stakeholders, there needs to be more collaboration, possibly through private, public and community partnerships. This involves the government, consumers, local communities, tourism workers, tourism companies and tourism industry businesses, and third parties

Raise/promote greater awareness of sustainable tourism practices for travellers and businesses

Travel during off peak

Travel to smaller cities and towns, rural areas, and less crowded and less popular destinations

Try to spend money with local, and/or small or independent companies and business owners compared to big commercial companies

Limit the annual number of visitors, limit visitors based in impact per visitor numbers, limit large-scale development, charge visitor taxes and fees, or ban visitation altogether

Number of tourist trips, and trip length can factor into tourist footprint

The number of tourists going on a trip together can decrease the footprint of things such as transport and accomodation if they share rooms and vehicles

Key issues that needs better a better approach are how to manage growing visitor numbers, address changing traveller expectations and shape and improve both visitor and host experiences (weforum.org)

Better data collection, tracking and reporting on sustainability issues to do with tourism, and better funding and resource investment into this

Don’t exploit animals or let animals suffer in the name of tourism – choose ethical businesses

Don’t litter

Try to stay at accommodation with sustainable ratings

Respect local cultures and traditions 

Consider how to lower your tourism related resource usage, and environmental footprints

Consider low impact trips to natural destinations likes lakes, and use canoes and bikes, over boats and vehicles

 

How & Where Sustainable Tourism Practices Have Already Been Implemented

– [Weforum.org lists a number of popular travel destinations that have implemented sustainable practices related to tourism, with just a few examples being] Cinque Terre, Zion National Park and Machu Picchu limiting the number of annual visitors

– theconversation.com notes how the climbing of Uluru in Australia was banned in 2019 out of respect for the region’s traditional owners 

 

The Current State Of Progress On Sustainable Tourism

In summary – several sources indicate that there is yet to be any significant progress on sustainability in tourism up until this point in time.

Weforum.org perhaps indicates that as of 2017, sustainable tourism is not gaining a lot of momentum:

[As of 2017] 50% of World Heritage sites … [did] not have tourism management plans in place to prevent the negative impacts of tourism

– [Right now, there is no] single organization is achieving success at scale [and] the cumulative impact is significantly smaller than what is necessary and achievable 

– … like ecotourism, sustainable tourism has become virtually meaningless as it is often tied to cursory efforts, which are very limited, rather than organization-wide commitments, strategies, and actions

– … few tourism-related companies and destinations have integrated sustainability into their operational DNA [and] Even fewer are investing in protection [of] the destinations in which they conduct their business

– Overall, the tourism sector’s commitment to sustainable development is decidedly weak [which stems from a need for growth, profit, short sighted planning and development, a need to make returns for shareholders, and politicians needing to get re-elected]

… This is surprising given that the business case for sustainability and corporate responsibility in tourism is growing stronger year-on-year [with several benefits for businesses, but also for consumers that give their money to them]

The problems posed by tourism are … growing so fast that we can’t address them (weforum.org)

 

How Sustainable Can Tourism Really Become?

Some say that there is a certain % of the impact of tourism that is inevitable from the industry.

With this being the case, some argue that some level of negative tourism related impact is essentially locked in or impossible to avoid.

Even if there aren’t negative implications for certain activities, there might be limitations on how effective sustainability practices can be.

For example:

– you can’t control people’s’ desire and want to travel

– there’s only so many people you can fit on a plane (to average out a plane travel footprint per passenger)

– there’s only so many people you can fit in a vehicle (to average out a car travel footprint per passenger)

– there’s only so many people you can put in accomodation at a time (to average out things like shared electricity, water use, etc. that might be saved compared to two people staying in two separate rooms)

– resource use and waste generation are inevitable

– impact on the local community and local sites is also inevitable

– even if you restrict travel to some sites, people may find alternate/new sites and overcrowd them

– even if tourism plans and regulations are put in place, how are external factors like population managed in the future?

– how do you decide who gets access to the most popular tourist spots in the world in the event tourist numbers are restricted to certain spots? If it becomes based on money, lower income travellers may miss out.

– enforcing sustainable tourism is usually going to require increased expenditure and resources – and many cities and towns, or companies and travellers may not be able to afford these increased costs

– … the industry is based on a finite and limited supply of attractions, or accessible places rich in scenic beauty or culture (theguardian.com). Working from this starting place of scarcity, it’s hard to see how popular destination can get more sustainable

 

Sources

1. https://www.traveller.com.au/ethical-travel-20-issues-every-traveller-needs-to-be-across-h1ho3w

2. https://theboar.org/2020/02/sustainable-tourism/

3. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/08/the-growth-paradox-can-tourism-ever-be-sustainable/

4. https://theconversation.com/why-we-are-banning-tourists-from-climbing-uluru-86755

5. https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/six-reasons-mass-tourism-unsustainable

6. https://www.1millionwomen.com.au/blog/sustainable-tourism-not-working-heres-how-we-can-change/

7. https://visit.org/blog/en/what-is-sustainable-tourism/

8. https://sustainabletourism.net/

9. https://theconversation.com/sustainable-tourism-is-not-working-heres-how-we-can-change-that-76018

10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_tourism

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