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What is the definition of sustainable tourism. What impact do we have?

When working globally you learn to know that the sustainability practices on travel are as many as there are destinations and travel companies. The differences are huge and there can be many reasons for that.

I find it interesting to understand and accept that there are different approaches to this and use that to find strategies of implementing it.

What is sustainability?

Sustainable and sustainability have become buzzwords in several sectors the recent years. A lot of people use it, but my guess is that not to many understand it.  What is sustainable tourism and more important: Is it possible? 

The short answer to that is that all travel involves a negative impact on the climate, but there are so many potential positive impacts that tourism can be a really good thing also. The key is to facilitate tourism to maximize the positive impact and minimize the negative impact. 

Bill Bramwell and Bernard Lane tries to define sustainable tourism in their article – Sustainable Tourism: AnEvolving Global Approach, they say:

Sustainable tourism is a positive approach intended to reduce the tensions and friction created by the complex interactions between the tourism industry visitors, the environment and the communities which are hosts to holiday makers

Bramwell & Lane 1993

I think this is a good pitch to the subject, and a fine way to start understanding sustainability in tourism.

Triple bottom line

Another great starting point is the concept of triple bottom line, which is a common way to understand sustainability in the tourism context

The triple bottom line approach is a way of measuring tourism impact on people, profit and planet, or in other words the impact on people and societies, on the economics and on the environment. 

As mentioned, the impacts from tourism can be negative and it can be positive, and it also can have long term effect or for short term


  • Tourism generate income and employment in the hosting communities. Both directly and to a whole range of sub-services.
  • Facilitating for tourism improves the facilities in the host communities, as example transport, restaurants. local shops and services.
  • Tourism exposes travelers to new places, cultures and other peoples benefits and problems. This help people across borders understand each other, which lead to tolerance and peace
  • The jobs within tourism can promote equality and equity. It can also be a great tool for integration
  • Income from tourism help fighting poverty and raising the living standards in the host community
  • Tourism is a key driver of a destinations socio-economic progress with creation of jobs, enterprises and other revenue infrastructure development influence.
  • Inbound tourism to a country is an important source of foreign currency earnings that can be used employment and create possibility for further development.
  • With funds from tourism you can protect, maintain and restore sites of both historic and of cultural significance.
  • Tourism can be a reason to protect fragile natural environments from other and more extractive industries that leave an nonreversable footprint on the natural resources.
  • This also mean tourism can save endangered species and their habitats.


  • Many tourist destinations see that local prices rise as a result of tourism and it can become to expensive to live there for the locals. They can be forced out of their own areas.
  • Investments can be made on developing tourist facilities on behalf on much needed community facilities like schools, hospitals etc.
  • Overcrowding, noise and anti social behavior from tourists can be a problem and in some cases create tension between locals and tourists.
  • The jobs created by tourism is often low-paid and seasonal.
  • Some tourist industries like cruise lines is pushing, underpaying and exploiting workers and creates social dumping.
  • Tourism have negative impact on the climate. This is beyond doubt. Specially long distance travel.
  • Tourism use a lot of energy
  • Tourism can harm the environment by contribution to air and water pollution, littering and and overuse of natural resources.
  • Tourism can make unrepairable “footprints” in the nature.
  • Concepts like all inclusive resorts and cruise contribute little to local communities meanwhile it use a lot of energy and produce a lot of waste among other negative effects.
  • Animals can be harmed for pleasing tourists. As example elephant riding and photo shoots with drugged tigers.
  • Tourism can invade habitats and disturb animals.
  • Some kind of tourism exploit children.

How can sustainable tourism be implemented, and who is responsible for doing this?

Sustainability in tourism is not something that suddenly happens. To create sustainable products, services, practices and facilities requires systematic and strategic planning, management, execution and evaluation. This is not an easy game, and will require dedication and commitment from the industry, or more correct dedicated parts of the industry.

To succeed it is important that the generated income benefit the local host communities. If tourism facilities is owned by foreign companies the value created leak out of the economy.

The different kinds of impact from the triple bottom line are interrelated. What happen with economic impact often influence the people and the planet. When we can have a positive environmental impact we often also see positive economic figures also. And so it goes on.

Who is responsible to make things happen? Everyone! 

If we start with the community perspective we all need to make sure that the development consider the needs of both our community and the tourists. From a tourist perspective we must make informed sustainable choices and also act in a responsible manner. The industry need to find better solutions when designing products, concepts, services and facilities.

The tourism industry have in fact a lot of possibilities to increase the positive impacts and to reduce the negative, but none of these are going to work if we don´t get the tourists on board and choose the good initiatives. And this is really interesting.  

A popular belief is that if we can raise enough awareness we also can change tourist behavior. Many studies show that this unfortunately is an utopia,  it is a nice dream, but the reality is totally different.

The fact is that even tourists that are members of environmental protecting organizations, like Greenpeace and WWF, do not necessarily make environmentally friendly choices when it comes to travel

Studies that have interviewed these tourist reveal that so called environmentally friendly people have a lot of excuses. These can be:

  1. Denial of the negative impact on their vacation
  2. They will often compare and say that other trips are much worse
  3. They will point at the governments and industry and say that it is not a travelers responsibility to change the situation
  4. They say they have not enough information and money to choose otherwise
  5. They say they don´t want to think of this on their holiday
  6. They also believe that since they support a local community by traveling there, this outweight their other responsibilities.
Elephant riding is controversial

What we can read out of this is that a big share of the tourists are resisting efforts regarding sustainability and environment. Even the informed ones. We can also believe that sustainable tourism initiatives is not going to work unless the tourists is engaged and involved.

Can we engage the tourists?

Of course. One positive thing is that tourists actually want to care, and they say they care. They just don´t do it. They care if the trip seems better. We need to make it easier for the tourist to make responsible choices. We need to create more value, better stories and better quality. 

We must make sustainability convenient and sexy. To get there the tourism sector must be an agent for positive change and make a consistent contribution to sustainable development. When we combine this with great convenience and good incentives, sustainability will rule the tourism industry

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