Sustainable travel

Why Sustainable Tourism Matters

Have you ever gone on a several-hour-long trip to the beach? Or maybe went abroad to visit a world-famous tourist attraction? Regardless of how far you’ve traveled, you’ve most likely been a tourist once in your life. In the middle of it, did you ever think of tourism’s impact on the environment? The mode of transport, food, equipment, accommodation, amenities — everything. Back then you probably didn’t. But you certainly are now, given that you’re reading this article.

Tourism is generally a force for good. It drives the economy by generating jobs and it facilitates cultural exchange. However, for the larger part of history, tourism’s negative impact on the environment has often been overlooked. Fortunately, that has started to change.

Recent natural disasters have made the impacts of climate change more obvious. More people are now environmentally conscious and governments and corporations are reacting accordingly. Along with the rise of corporate sustainability, tourism has started to pivot towards a more sustainable future. And that is an important endeavor since traveling is an activity humans will always need and want to do.

Are you a tourist looking to learn more about sustainable tourism and how you can contribute? Read along as we discuss sustainable tourism, its importance, and how the industry is transforming for the better.

What is sustainable tourism?

The UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as “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.” Simply put, it’s a form of tourism in which the positive effects outweigh the negatives.

What makes up sustainable tourism?

The term sustainable tourism covers a variety of tourism types, each having its own focus. These components are the following:


This tourism focuses on the geographical integrity of locations. Geo-tourism allows the economic development of a geographical area to thrive without it coming at the expense of the environment. Unlike eco-tourism, geo-tourism focuses on abiotic nature and built environments. 

Cultural Tourism

This tourism applies to locations that feature a rich cultural heritage and history. The primary objective of cultural tourism is for participants to learn about the culture of the community they’re visiting. Learning is often done by experiencing the culture first-hand by participating in events such as festivals and religious ceremonies.


Often mistaken for being just another term for sustainable tourism, eco-tourism has a more specific focus — educating tourists about the environment, particularly the environment of the location they’re visiting. Oftentimes, participants get involved in conservation activities such as tree planting. Eco-tourism should always be sustainable, but sustainable tourism isn’t always meant to teach people about environmentalism.

These components might focus on different aspects, but they have the same objective. They aim to improve a location’s economy, society, or environment. It’s also important to note that they don’t have to stand alone and may overlap with each other.

The benefits and costs of tourism

To better understand the importance of sustainable tourism, we first need to take a look at the positive and negative effects of tourism in general.

Economic benefits

  • Diversifies and stabilizes an economy
  • Generates extra tax revenue for governments
  • Generate jobs and business opportunities
  • It produces a multiplier effect: tourist spending gets reinvested into the economy and circulates repeatedly, attracting more businesses and generating more revenue.

Economic costs

  • Tourism infrastructure can be expensive for the government.
  • May inflate the value of properties, goods, and services
  • If foreign parties own tourism development, the community won’t reap the benefits.
  • Employment tends to be seasonal.
  • Plenty of jobs have a low salary
  • Tourist numbers can be affected by factors that can’t be controlled by destinations, such as natural disasters, terrorism, and economic recession.
  • Destinations eventually decline, failing to attract visitors as they diminish in quality.

Environmental benefits

  • It can be considered a clean industry, relative to others.
  • Can encourage the preservation of the environment
  • Can encourage the beautification and revitalization of locations

Environmental costs

  • Can threaten natural resources such as beaches and coral reefs
  • Can threaten historical sites 
  • Contributes to pollution
  • Acts as an additional competitor for finite resources, ultimately contributing to land degradation, ecosystem disruption, and other damage to nature.
  • Produces sewage and solid waste 
  • Contributes to harmful emissions due to transportation

Social benefits

  • Generated income supports the community
  • Encourages civic participation
  • Facilitates cultural exchange 
  • Helps preserve cultural heritage
  • Tourism infrastructure can also be beneficial to the community.
  • Encourages the workforce to learn new skills and languages

Social costs

  • Tourists’ lifestyles may clash with or violate the destination’s customs.
  • Can contribute to a spike in sexually transmitted diseases
  • Can cause cultural degradation via imitation or diffusion
  • It can result in overcrowding if the infrastructure doesn’t scale properly
  • Tourists may compete with locals for goods and services.
  • Tourists can be ripe victims of crime
  • Locals can be displaced in favor of tourism infrastructure


Looking at these side by side, it’s not hard to argue that tourism generally has a positive effect on communities. But in the environmental aspect, it’s apparent that the costs heavily outweigh the benefits. Even in the social and economic aspects, the effects of tourism can tilt towards the negative in the absence of responsible management.

How sustainable tourism can correct these problems

Ultimately, sustainable tourism’s goal is to preserve tourist attractions so they may still be enjoyed by future generations. As discussed, tourism offers plenty of benefits to a community — socially and economically. These benefits will be lost if tourist attractions continue to be degraded by unsustainable practices. 

To help make sustainable tourism succeed, the World Tourism Organization and the United Nations Environment Program recommended twelve objectives. This set of goals highlights how sustainable tourism can solve the sustainability problems the industry is facing today.

  1. Economic Viability – sustainable tourism aims to ensure that businesses in a tourist destination can thrive and achieve long-term success.
  2. Local Prosperity – to make sure local communities can thrive by reaping the majority of the economic benefits generated by tourism.
  3. Employment Quality – to generate more jobs and improve the quality of said jobs (e.g. better pay, better safety, equal opportunities) in the tourist destination 
  4. Social Equity – to make sure tourism results in the proliferation of social and economic benefits being received by the local community.
  5. Visitor Fulfillment – to provide a safe and satisfying experience for visitors without any form of discrimination.
  6. Local Control – to give control to local communities over the decision-making and planning regarding tourism in their area.
  7. Community Wellbeing – to make sure tourism improves the wellbeing of local communities; to ensure the locals and their resources aren’t being exploited.
  8. Cultural Richness – to ensure the cultural heritage, traditions, authenticity, and uniqueness of host communities are respected.
  9. Physical Integrity – to ensure tourism doesn’t result in the damaging or visual degradation of urban or rural landscapes.
  10. Biological Diversity – to make sure tourism conserves the environment and local ecosystem by contributing to their protection; ensuring they are not damaged.
  11. Resource Efficiency – to utilize sustainable alternatives whenever possible in the development and operation of tourism.
  12. Environmental Purity – to help protect the environment from pollution and ensure tourism activities don’t contribute to the production of harmful waste.

These goals thoroughly outline what sustainable tourism should strive to achieve. They also emphasize the benefits sustainable tourism can offer. Achieving these goals will show the importance of sustainable tourism for host communities, tour operators, and tourists themselves.

The characteristics of sustainable tourism

The 12 goals discussed above highlight specific targets for sustainable tourism. But from a broader perspective, any sustainable tourism plan should exhibit these characteristics:

Protective of the interests of the environment and local community

A sustainable tourism plan should strive to equally protect the interests of the local community and the natural resources available. The sustainable development of a community requires the responsible consumption of natural resources. Failing to manage these resources may result in irreversible damage to destinations, preventing future generations from enjoying them.  

Conducive to local economic development

Sustainable tourism development will be difficult if the local economy is not thriving. This is why it’s critical that any tourism plan should expand the local economy, instead of shrinking it. To do this, protecting tourism resources should produce results that do not compromise economic opportunities for the local community. An effective sustainable tourism plan is therefore one that allows the local economy to grow sustainably.

Ensures longevity and viability

Protecting tourism resources and the local community is a never-ending process. Sustainable tourism is always looking to solve problems while also anticipating issues that may come. Ensuring the longevity and viability of tourism is a balancing act between people’s infinite needs and finite resources. 

Examples of sustainable tourism

As we can surmise from the numerous goals, components, and characteristics of sustainable tourism, it can come in many forms. There are many popular sites for sustainable tourism around the world. Furthermore, anyone can plan an entirely unique, sustainable trip with ample research. But if you’re unsure where to start, many forms of sustainable tourism fall under these two categories:

Rural tourism

Too much is never good. The aim of rural tourism is to redirect tourists from urban places to rural ones. It encourages visitors to experience rural life. Unlike urban tourism, there are more rural tourism destinations and they’re typically located far from each other. This means rural sites are less likely to experience congestion, placing less pressure on tourism infrastructure and the environment.

Community tourism

Community-based tourism is a lot like rural tourism as it also pulls tourists outside urban areas. What makes it different is that the tourism activities it offers are owned, led, and run by the host community. It’s characterized by an experience that is more intimate to the local community. Instead of staying in expensive hotels and lodging, tourists are invited by the locals to stay with them. 

Community tourism focuses more on learning about the community instead of the natural surroundings. It also encourages the locals to take responsibility for the tourism activities in their area. It presents them with an opportunity to develop the destination in a way that benefits them, the tourists, and the environment. 

Destinations for sustainable tourism

Kingdom of Bhutan

The entirety of Bhutan, a country located east of the Himalayas, is among the best destinations for sustainable tourism. Barely touched by colonialism, the sustainable lifestyle of the Bhutanese people has been well preserved. Bhutan’s tourism industry follows a “high-value, low-impact” model, which allows for maximum economic gains with minimum negative effects. 

Bhutan is able to follow this tourism model by enforcing strict entry requirements and charging a daily tariff. The revenue generated is partly reinvested into the environment, the economy, and the general welfare of the Bhutanese people.

Six Senses Resort, Fiji

The Six Senses Resort, a five-star luxury resort in Fiji, entirely depends on solar energy for power. It also features rain capture and water filtration facilities that contribute to the reduction of plastic bottle use. Furthermore, the resort promotes reuse and recycling practices and supports several causes that benefit the local community. Among these causes is the Rise Beyond the Reef Charity. It seeks to create a more sustainable world by bridging the gap between remote communities, government, and the private sectors. 

Mdumbi Backpackers, South Africa

This hostel on the Wild Coast of South Africa is made for those who are interested in sustainable tourism. Its goal is to empower the community and promote sustainable eco-tourism. This is evident in its close relationship with the amaXhosa culture of the Eastern Cape.

The destination features a number of sustainability initiatives, such as the use of solar power and efficient waste management. It also has an ownership model which allows the locals to own shares in the business.

What you can do as a tourist

Host communities aren’t solely responsible for sustainable tourism. Much of the sustainability comes from the tourists themselves. There are many things you can do to ensure you are a sustainable tourist.

  • Using a more environmentally-friendly mode of transportation such as bikes, trains, and electric vehicles
  • Walking to destinations whenever possible
  • Turning off appliances when leaving the hotel room
  • Choosing organic products, avoiding plastics, and reusing as much as you can
  • Contributing to the local economy by supporting local stores and restaurants
  • Respecting the culture of the locals
  • Spreading word regarding your sustainable tourism experience

Final words

If you were uncertain about the value of sustainable tourism, this article hopefully changed that. Just because tourism is a clean industry relative to others doesn’t mean it should ignore opportunities to improve. There’s still a lot to do before the tourism industry becomes fully sustainable, but it’s on the right track.

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