Sustainable Tourism - What Does that Even Mean?

#IY2017 The UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

#IY2017 The UN International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

2017 was the official Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development #IY2017

It was also the year that Earth Changers launched, handily as we exist to promote and support the best sustainable tourism for development and grow awareness of tourism's contribution to sustainability. But what does that really mean?

What is sustainability?

People understand the term in general, that it’s about being able to uphold or maintain something at a certain rate, level or balance, that an increase doesn’t have a negative, destabilising, impact.

So when applied to tourism, does this just mean global tourism needs to be limited to current levels, not increase, because to travel more would have a negative impact on the world?

Not quite. Because it’s not just about volume (growth, limits or reductions), but also about impacts.

In simple terms, any consideration of sustainability – viable, maintainable balance – looks at the impacts on three things together, called the “triple bottom line”.

The Triple Bottom Line. Credit:

The Triple Bottom Line. Credit:

Where a commercial organisation’s 'bottom line' is singularly its profit – its economic benefits – any sustainability is considered with an additional two factors, which are Social and Environmental.

So the Sustainability Triple Bottom Line considers a balance of 3 pillars: Social, Environmental & Economic:

What is Sustainable Development?

In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued The Brundtland Report, otherwise called “Our Common Future” that had been asked to propose long-term environmental strategies as "A global agenda for change" for achieving sustainable development by the year 2000 and beyond. It defined sustainable development as,

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

So sustainable development can be brought about by tourism - but how does tourism do that?

Sustainable Tourism

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) defines 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."

But isn’t “Sustainable tourism” a contradiction in terms?

Aren’t we, just by travelling somewhere, especially flying, creating a negative impact?

Yes and no. Any industry or sector can have a negative impact, and any industry or sector - tourism included - can be more sustainable. Sustainable tourism isn’t a ‘type’ of tourism (such as cruise or camping), nor does it occur in specific places (like remote jungle or desert), rather it’s the ethos by which an organisation is run and decisions made.

So in (more) sustainable tourism, decisions aren’t taken just for bottom line profit, but on a triple bottom line basis which considers costs and benefits environmentally and socially as well as economically, and seeks to find a suitable balance between the three dimensions to ensure long-term sustainability.

So a journey indeed may have a negative environmental impact, but a trip might also make positive contributions economically or socially - which is why it's not clear cut and simple.

Triple bottom line benefits

It might be argued that putting a halt to global travel could massively reduce the carbon ‘footprint’ of tourism, and the consequent impact on greenhouse gas emissions and man-made global warming.

However, transport isn’t the only thing which creates carbon emissions: accommodations, tours and other trip activities do too. But whilst those can undoubtedly cause a negative environmental impact, to take away tourism from some countries could literally cut their life-line, because of other impacts it can have, including (but not limited to):

Economic Impacts: Foreign earnings via exports, enterprise, jobs & income, inter-industry and sector linkages, procurement, supply chain value, infrastructure, and financial systems.

Social Impacts: Education, health, well-being, accessibility, culture and cultural resources – language, food, dance, arts, dress, heritage, buildings, behaviour - morals, esteem, empowerment, equality, politics, inter-cultural understanding, tolerance and peace.

Environmental Impacts: Natural resources & capital, ecosystems, landscapes, (de)forestation, biodiversity, wildlife, preservation, conservation, waste, water, energy, building, pollution, atmosphere and climate change.

Tourism is an important contributor to GDP and international value of a country and its culture. It can extend far into a nation’s urban and rural society in a way that many other industries or sectors cannot, for example extractive industries which are focused on and impact a relatively small area, versus tourism which travels throughout a country, often sold as an export.

Tourism’s Value in the Global Economy

The 2016 Economic Impact Annual Update Summary from the World Travel and Tourism Council shows that in 2015, travel & tourism represented in the global economy

  • 9.8% of global GDP : US$7.2 trillion
  • 1 in 11 jobs: 284 million (108 million directly)
  • 2.5 million new jobs generated in 2015 (directly)
  • Growth of 3.1%, out-performing the wider economy, manufacturing and retail.
  • Ranked 3rd worldwide export category in 2015, after fuels and chemicals and ahead of food and automotive products. (UNWTO)
  • By 2026, Travel & Tourism is expected to support 1 in 9 jobs in the world.

The Least Developed Countries

Tourism can be evidently important to any country, and its importance can be magnified in Less Developed Countries.

If global tourism were limited (eg. for reasons of carbon impact on global warming), it would arguably be the countries that most need it – the Least Developed Countries – who would most suffer, already suffering from poverty, human resource weakness (health, education literacy issues) and economic vulnerability (production, exports etc):

  • Developing countries account for over 45 per cent of world tourism arrivals and more than 35 per cent of international tourism receipts. (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 2013)

Tourism is in the top 3 sectors, if not the top, and certainly for export trade, for many of the world’s Least Developed Countries:

  • In 2015, the 49 least developed countries (LDCs) received 29 million international tourist arrivals and earned US$ 21 billion from international tourism, up from US$ 16.4 billion in 2014 and US$ 2.6 billion in 2000. Tourism now represents 7% of the LDCs’ total exports of goods and services, and for non-oil exporters, the figure stands at 10%. (UNWTO, 2016)

Tourism can be used as a transformative force for good in less developed and all countries.

With more than one billion international tourists now traveling the world each year, tourism has become a powerful and transformative force that is making a genuine difference in the lives of millions of people. The potential of tourism for sustainable development is considerable. As one of the world’s leading employment sectors, tourism provides important livelihood opportunities, helping to alleviate poverty and drive inclusive development.
— United Nations Secretary-General, Banki-moon, on World Tourism Day, 2015

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Sustainable tourism can thus be used as a tool for development. This was recognised by global leaders at the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, Brazil (also known as “Rio+20” or “Earth Summit 2012”), a 20-year follow-up to the Rio 1992 Earth Summit / United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

At the conference, Member States recognised that “well-designed and well-managed tourism” can contribute to the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental) and decided to launch a process to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), comprised of 169 targets aimed at promoting sustainable development globally, to build upon the Millennium Development Goals, in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, for People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership.

Earth Changers supports the Sustainable Development Goals

Earth Changers supports the Sustainable Development Goals

On 1 January 2016, the 17 SDGs of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development officially came into force.  All the SDGs can apply to tourism, though tourism is mentioned specifically in three:

SDG 8 Decent Work & Economic Growth

SDG 8 Decent Work & Economic Growth

SDG 8: Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
Tourism is one of the driving forces of global economic growth and provides for 1 in 11 jobs worldwide.

SDG12 Responsible Production & Consumption

SDG12 Responsible Production & Consumption

SDG 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production
A tourism sector that adopts sustainable consumption and production (SCP) practices can play a significant role in accelerating the global shift towards sustainability. 

SDG14 Life Below Water

SDG14 Life Below Water

SDG 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
Coastal and maritime tourism, tourism’s biggest segments, particularly for Small Island Developing States’ (SIDS), rely on healthy marine ecosystems.

#IY2017 The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

The International Year aims to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behaviour to a more sustainable tourism sector that can contribute to the SDGs.

To address the issues of how tourism can support the Sustainable Development Goals, the #IY2017 will promote tourism’s role in the following five key areas:

  1. Inclusive and sustainable economic growth
  2. Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction
  3. Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change
  4. Cultural values, diversity and heritage
  5. Mutual understanding, peace and security

Over the year, Earth Changers will be highlighting tourism’s role and Purpose, and how it inter-relates with the Sustainable Development Goals, through its life changing Places and world-changing People.

Read more:

What are the Sustainable Development Goals and What Have They Got To Do With Tourism?

Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, Responsible Travel, Conscious Tourism...etc. What's the Difference?