Definitions and Principles

What is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable or responsible tourism has often been assimilated by many with ecotourism or community based tourism. After over a decade since the concept of sustainable / responsible tourism really emerged, it is now understood that all forms of tourism in all destinations need to become more sustainable. In the early years, the focus was mainly on environmental sustainability, it is now more widely understood that the social and cultural pillars of sustainability need to be addressed concomitantly to achieve any success towards sustainability, and long term profit for all stakeholders. The social element being more and more recognized as the key pillar that enables environmental and cultural protection in the long run.

What is the difference between sustainable and responsible tourism?

There is no real difference but we prefer using the term ‘responsible’, as it underlines the necessity that everyone,  suppliers as well as tourists  are to be committed ; Moreover for many the term ‘sustainability’ mostly refers to the financial and / or environmental sustainability often leaving aside the social element, whereas the term ‘responsible’  provides a human dimension.

According to the Cape Town Declaration (2002) developed in a participative way from the initiative of the International Center for Responsible Tourism, responsible tourism:

  1. minimises negative economic, environmental, and social impacts;
  2. generates greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities, improves working conditions and access to the industry;
  3. involves local people in decisions that affect their lives and life chances;
  4. makes positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity;
  5. provides more enjoyable experiences for tourists through more meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues;
  6. provides access for physically challenged people; and
  7. is culturally sensitive, engenders respect between tourists and hosts, and builds local pride and confidence

Responsible Tourism is not a product; it is an approach and one which can be adopted by travellers and holidaymakers, tour operators, accommodation and transport providers, visitor attraction managers, planning authorities, national, regional/provincial and local governments. An integrated approach is required, involving many stakeholders in any place or space which attracts tourists.

Sustainable tourism has been recognized by the United Nations as a powerful tool for poverty reduction that can significantly contributes to achievement of the MDG, because of the specific characteristics that makes tourism a unique sector of activity. The reasons why tourism can significantly contribute to poverty reduction are that tourism is:

•      at the origin of the biggest transfer of wealth ever from the rich to the poor countries

•      the largest provider of foreign currency of many LDC

•      now the largest world’s industry  (1 $tln /year and 6% of global employment),

•      the most tremendous growth industry of the last 50 years, moreover it is a very resilient sector, as for example in 2009 tourism recorded a decrease of -6% of receipts compared to -12% for overall trade.

•      it boost private sector entrepreneurships and reaches parts of the economy that other activities don’t; majority of jobs in SMEs, rural areas, strong multiplier effect (up to x4) tourism boosts other sectors such as transport, handicrafts, agriculture, services, etc.

•      is consumed at the place of production, so local people have easier market access than in other industries and more chance to benefit directly, to manage and control some operations, small businesses.

•      It can prevent rural exodus, encourage preservation of cultural traditions, of natural heritage, revive pride of the poorest in their local traditions and customs

•      It is labour intensive (2nd largest employer in the world) and allow creation of a multitude of jobs very accessible for women, disadvantaged, youth.

Ecotourism, CBT are only some examples of sustainable tourism products, exemplifying the capacity of tourism to alleviate poverty through local communities participation. But tourism will become a real powerful tool for poverty reduction when principles of sustainable / responsible tourism are applied to all forms of tourism, including mass tourism which can provides many jobs and initiate the creation of enterprises through the provision of goods and services by the poor or local enterprises employing the poor. At the same time mass tourism could also apply many of the responsible tourism principles in order to mitigate its current cultural and environmental negative impacts.

There are many definitions clarifying what sustainable tourism is, we selected those which are the most universally recognized.

UNWTO provides the following concise definition, while the Cape Town Declaration (August 2002) on responsible tourism goes into a more comprehensive and detailed explanation of the guiding principles of economic, social and environmental responsibility.  The  Kerala declaration (March 2008) focuses on the process and approaches to implementation, provides recommendations for action in order to achieve responsible tourism in destinations.

UNWTO conceptual definition 2004

“Sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism and the various niche tourism segments. Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability.

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.”


Useful resources

The Market Demand

Manuals & Guidelines

UNEP Green Economy Report 2011

For Policy Makers & Tourism Administrations

Overseas Development Institute (ODI) How To Series

Tool Kits for the Private Sector

Teaching Modules from Business Enterprises for Sustainable Travel Education Network (BEST) University of Western Sydney

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