Sustainable tourism

What is sustainable tourism?

According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism is “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"[1]


Thus, sustainable tourism should:

1) Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

2) Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

3) Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.


Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary.


Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.


The twelve main goals for sustainable tourism laid out in 2005 by the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Program are as follows[2]:

  1. Economic Viability: To ensure the viability and competitiveness of tourism destinations and enterprises, so that they are able to continue to prosper and deliver benefits in the long term.
  2. Local Prosperity: To maximize the contribution of tourism to the economic prosperity of the host destination, including the proportion of visitor spending that is retained locally.
  3. Employment Quality: To strengthen the number and quality of local jobs created and supported by tourism, including the level of pay, conditions of service and availability to all without discrimination by gender, race, disability or in other ways.
  4. Social Equity: To seek a widespread and fair distribution of economic and social benefits from tourism throughout the recipient community, including improving opportunities, income and services available to the poor.
  5. Visitor Fulfillment: To provide a safe, satisfying and fulfilling experience for visitors, available to all without discrimination by gender, race, disability or in other ways.
  6. Local Control: To engage and empower local communities in planning and decision making about the management and future development of tourism in their area, in consultation with other stakeholders.
  7. Community Wellbeing: To maintain and strengthen the quality of life in local communities, including social structures and access to resources, amenities and life support systems, avoiding any form of social degradation or exploitation
  8. Cultural Richness: To respect and enhance the historic heritage, authentic culture, traditions and distinctiveness of host communities
  9. Physical Integrity: To maintain and enhance the quality of landscapes, both urban and rural, and avoid the physical and visual degradation of the environment
  10. Biological Diversity: To support the conservation of natural areas, habitats and wildlife, and minimize damage to them
  11. Resource Efficiency: To minimize the use of scarce and non-renewable resources in the development and operation of tourism facilities and services
  12. Environmental Purity: To minimize the pollution of air, water and land and the generation of waste by tourism enterprises and visitors.


[1] Making Tourism More Sustainable - A Guide for Policy Makers, UNEP and UNWTO, 2005, p.11-12

[2] Ibid.


Except the term sustainable tourism there are two other types of tourism that are also focused on creating a tourism in harmony with environment and social-cultural aspects:


  • Responsible tourism - sustainable tourism is often also referred as responsible tourism, which has been adopted as a term used by industry who feel that word sustainability is overused and not understood. Responsible tourism is any form of tourism that can be consumed in a more responsible way. Responsible tourism puts more emphasis on the responsibility of tourism industry through generating greater economic benefits for local people and enhancing the well-being of host communities, improving working conditions, involving local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances, making positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, providing access for physically challenged people and encouraging respect between tourists and hosts. It also strives to minimize negative social, economic and environmental impacts. According to its definition Responsible Tourism is about making “better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit”: in that order. 
  • Ecotourism – According to the International Ecotourism Society (TIES), ecotourism is defined as: "Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education"
    Ecotourism should provide direct financial benefits for conservation and local people and is focused on the conservation of natural resources.


Why it is important?

On one hand, tourism wields tremendous economic positive outcomes: it is one of the world’s most significant sources of economic outcomes and employment. However, tourism is a very complex industry involving numerous stakeholders (sometimes with opposite interests) and requiring significant amount of resources. As such, tourism can have very opposite effects according to the way activities are managed. Managed well, tourism can play a positive role in the socio, cultural, economical, environmental and political development of the destination and as such represents a significant development opportunity for many countries and communities. On the contrary, unchecked tourism development can lead to very damageable impacts impacts on natural resources, consumption patterns, pollution and social systems. The need for sustainable planning and management is imperative for the industry to survive as a whole.


Tourism impacts

Environmental Impacts

The quality of the environment, both natural and man-made, is essential to tourism. However, tourism's relationship with the environment is complex. It involves many activities that can have adverse environmental effects. Many of these impacts are linked with the construction of general infrastructure such as roads and airports, and of tourism facilities, including resorts, hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses and marinas. The negative impacts of tourism development can gradually destroy the environmental resources on which it depends.


On the other hand, tourism has the potential to create beneficial effects on the environment by contributing to environmental protection and conservation. It is a way to raise awareness of environmental values and it can serve as a tool to finance protection of natural areas and increase their economic importance.

Tourism development can put enormous pressure on an area and lead to impacts such as soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires. It often puts a strain on water resources, and it can force local populations to compete for the use of critical resources.


Socio-Cultural Impacts

The socio-cultural impacts of tourism described here are the effects on host communities of direct and indirect relations with tourists, and of interaction with the tourism industry. For a variety of reasons, host communities often are the weaker party in interactions with their guests and service providers, leveraging any influence they might have. These influences are not always apparent, as they are difficult to measure, depend on value judgments and are often indirect or hard to identify.

The impacts arise when tourism brings about changes in value systems and behaviour and thereby threatens indigenous identity. Furthermore, changes often occur in community structure, family relationships, collective traditional life styles, ceremonies and morality. But tourism can also generate positive impacts as it can serve as a supportive force for peace, foster pride in cultural traditions and help avoid urban relocation by creating local jobs. As often happens when different cultures meet, socio-cultural impacts are ambiguous: the same objectively described impacts are seen as beneficial by some groups, and are perceived as negative - or as having negative aspects - by other stakeholders. 


Economic Impacts of Tourism

The tourism industry generates substantial economic benefits to both host countries and tourists' home countries. Especially in developing countries, one of the primary motivations for a region to promote itself as a tourism destination is the expected economic improvement.

As with other impacts, this massive economic development brings along both positive and negative consequences.


How can we measure sustainable tourism?

While sustainable tourism has many positive goals, there must be a concrete measurement system that enables the business to determine their progress towards sustainability.  In order to measure results and progress, benchmarks are used.  Benchmarking is “the comparison of a business’s performance in a given area (such as water consumption) with those of a similar business.”[1]  Benchmarking does not only put a business’s activities in perspective with that of its competitors, but also contributes to many positive internal improvements.


For example, in tourism sector, commonly used benchmarks are:

  • Electricity and energy consumption in kilowatt hours (kWh) per square meter of serviced space
  • Fresh water consumption in liters or cubic meters (m3) per guest per night
  • Waste production (kg per guest per night and/or liters per guest per night)


With these benchmarking categories, achieving sustainability in the tourism industry is not just a rhetorical goal; it is tangible, providing measurable benefits and potential economic savings to those businesses who strive for improvement in their daily performance.

By beginning to benchmark activities, businesses can engage in sustainable development while simultaneously reaping the tangible and economic benefits of internal improvements.


[1] Defra

The big picture

Environmentally sustainable practices

  • Over three-quarters of businesses (77%) currently have practices in place to reduce the impact their business has on the environment. Australasian and North American businesses are the most likely to have eco-friendly practices in place (both 84% vs. 77% overall), which falls to 73% among European properties.
  • The EU tourism industry generates almost 3,7% of the EU GDP[1], with about 1,8 million enterprises employing around 5% of the total labour force (approximately 11,3 million jobs). When related sectors are taken into account, the estimated contribution of tourism to GDP creation is much higher; tourism indirectly generates around 10% of the EU's GDP and provides about 11% of the labour force.
  • Tourism accounts for 5% of global carbon emissions: 4% is attributed to transportation, close to 1% to the accommodation sector and a small amount to other tourism activities. (Source: UNWTO/UNEP, Climate change and tourism, 2008)
  • A tourist uses from 84 to 2,000 liters of water per day, depending on length of stay, size and amenities in the hotel, type and amount of food consumed, and other factors. (Gössling et al., 2012)
  • Globally, the world’s 32,000-plus golf courses use an estimated 9.5 billion liters of water per day to irrigate their greens. (Source: Gössling et al., 2012) An average golf course in Spain uses as much water as a town of 12,000 people. (Source: Lucia de Stafano, “Fresh Water and Tourism in the Mediterranean,” WWF, July 15, 2005)
  • 70% of people believe companies should be committed to preserving the natural environment and 55% want fair working conditions (TUI Travel 2010)