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‘Sustainable tourism’ is not working – here’s how we can change that

Trips to Antartica are part of the ‘last chance’ tourism to environmentally fragile places. Shutterstock

‘Sustainable tourism’ is not working – here’s how we can change that

This year is the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Taleb Rifai declared it gave:

… a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.

Sustainable tourism comes from the concept of sustainable development, as set out in the 1987 Brundtland report. Sustainable development is:

… development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

British environmental activist George Monbiot argued that, over the years, sustainable development has morphed into sustained growth. The essence of his argument is that little resolve exists to go beyond rhetoric. This is because environmental crises require we limit the demands we place on it, but our economies require endless growth.

At the moment, economic growth trumps environmental limits, so sustainability remains elusive.

What is sustainable tourism?

Tourism is important to our efforts to achieve sustainable development. It is a massive industry, and many countries rely on it for their economies.

In 2016, more than 1.2 billion people travelled as tourists internationally, and another 6 billion people travelled domestically.

According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, 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.

Following on from Monbiot’s criticism, we might ask if efforts are directed at “sustaining tourism”, or instead harnessing tourism for wider sustainable development goals.

No place is off the tourism circuit

Looking at some of the tourism trouble spots, complacency is not called for.

Venice residents have accused tourists of “destroying their city”. Barcelona’s government has passed legislation to limit new tourist accommodation. The Galapagos sees mass tourism’s arrival threatening the iconic wildlife that attracts visitors.

No place is off the tourism circuit, so tourism grows with few limits. Ironically, tourists even want to tour Antarctica to see its pristine environment before it disappears (“last-chance tourism”). This is despite their impacts contributing to global warming and threatening this last wild place.

It is difficult to get a complete picture of the impacts of tourism because no-one is working to build a comprehensive view. So, insights are fragmented.

While we might be sceptical that UN “years” are often more rhetoric than real, we can nonetheless seize the opportunity to make tourism more sustainable.

How can tourism be made more sustainable?

Tourism can be made more sustainable through several achievable measures. Some look to technological solutions so we can continue business as usual. Others highlight conscious consumerism and ideas like slow travel.

But in a world in which growing populations with endless consumer demands are pitted against a fragile environment, we require more concerted effort.

1) Governments must implement policies that foster sustainable development by overcoming the growth fetish. Tourism then should be developed only within sustainable development parameters. Governments must tackle the environmental limits to growth and climate change challenges we confront. Tourism development requires integrated planning. So, we need the government tourism authorities – such as Tourism Australia or state tourism commissions – focused equally on integrated planning as the marketing they currently emphasise.

2) Consumers should be educated for responsible travel choices. For example, few realise that all-inclusive resorts result in economic benefits from tourism leaking out of the host economy back to the home economies of the big multinationals and corporations that often own such resorts (think Club Med). Civics education in schools could educate for responsible travel.

3) Local communities, often treated as only as one stakeholder among the many, must have a right to participate in tourism decision-making and have a say on if and how their communities become tourism destinations.

4) Workers of tourism must have their rights respected and given decent conditions. Tourism should not be allowed to continue as a low-wage and precarious source of employment.

5) The tourism industry needs to assume greater responsibility, submitting to local tax regimes and regulations so its presence builds thriving communities, rather than undermining them. This is increasingly essential as a social license to operate. The industry should also educate its clients on responsible tourism.

6) Non-governmental organisations are essential for reporting on the abuses of tourism, including land grabs, human rights abuses, community opposition and corruption.

Harnessing these essential stakeholders in a rigorous agenda for sustainable development, rather than sustaining tourism, would make the UN’s “year” more meaningful.

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