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.