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What is Sustainable Tourism?

by Brooke Wilson

Sustainable tourism is becoming a prominent topic when discussing the future of the industry. To effectively embody sustainable tourism, we need to fully understand its scope.

First off, what is Sustainable Tourism? 

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. Taking into account the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development in a suitable balance is vital to guarantee the long-term success and sustainability.

According to the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), the international accreditation body for sustainable tourism certification, sustainable tourism refers to sustainable practices in and by the tourism industry: an aspiration to acknowledge all impacts of tourism, both positive and negative, aiming to minimize the negative impacts of tourism and maximize the positive ones.

The GSTC breaks down sustainable tourism into 4 pillars:

  • Environmental 
  • Economic 
  • Social/Cultural 
  • Management 

These pillars have their own set of standards, but it is essential to think of all four interconnectedly. 

What does Sustainable Tourism look like? 

There are multiple examples of sustainable tourism which can be appreciated through each of the four pillars:

  • Environmental: EV charging stations, recycling, composting, etc.  
  • Economic: job creation, generating economic growth in the local community, revenue management, etc.
  • Social/Cultural: hiring locally, supporting other local businesses, job creation, fair pay, etc. 
  • Management: having a Sustainability Management Plan (SMP), setting goals, managing resources, creating a "Green Team", etc. 

What is Ecotourism and Responsible Travel? 

Ecotourism is a niche segment of tourism in natural areas. The term emerged in the late 1980s, and is described as a sustainable form of natural, resource-based tourism focusing primarily on experiencing and learning about nature. This is typically ethically-managed to be low-impact, non-consumptive, and locally-oriented, and usually occurs in natural areas. 

Defined 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).

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. The burden is primarily placed on the traveler and does not take into consideration the sustainable efforts of destination management organizations. 

What is the difference between sustainable tourism, ecotourism and responsible travel? 

Sustainable Tourism is not a niche, nor a behavior and style of individual travelers. It is rather a continuous process requiring constant monitoring of impacts to minimize the negative effects of tourism and maximize the positive. Sustainable tourism requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as leadership to ensure unity and collaboration, to ensure that all forms of tourism can be enjoyed for generations to come.