A New United Front for Sustainable Tourism


megan3The small difference between definitions could be solved, and the time is now to construct a more unified sustainable tourism approach. This is more than an academic exercise. As the global travel economy continues to expand, the need to focus on techniques and methodologies for managing growth, under one banner, with a unified approach is great.

Tensie Whelan, President of Rainforest Alliance, laid out a challenge at the Harvard Forum, asking the representatives of tourism businesses and governments to unite and work out commitments to lowering impacts from the tourism sector as a whole. She suggested tourism needs to shift from a “niche approach to a mainstream approach.” She called on the industry at large to set benchmarks for sustainable sourcing of products worldwide.

But is this possible if the field of sustainable tourism cannot agree on the definition of responsibility or sustainability? As Whelan pointed out at Harvard, many large tourism companies are only working on a project basis. They offer good examples but are not “proactively reducing the impacts of their supply chains.” Companies and governments define their own approaches to sustainability and work towards fulfilling benchmarks without unity.

Is the fracturing of the sustainable tourism definition the cause of the problem? If the strengths and weakness of each definition could be identified, could a more unified approach be adopted? The definition problem is a problem that has been perpetuated for so long, most are hesitant to address it for fear of fracturing the community further. And I certainly have long felt it should not take another moment of our time, after listening to conference deliberations on this for 10 years. But, as we enter into the century of rapid tourism growth, I believe it is necessary to try again to solve this problem.

I propose that there is a global effort to adopt a single definition for all forms of sustainable tourism. While a sustainable tourism definition already does exist, it does not incorporate the strengths of each of the sub-definitions into the larger definition. There has never been an effort to do this. It would be well worth the effort to bring the strengths of these new ideas to the larger definition of sustainable tourism to help unify the field.

For the main sub-areas of sustainable tourism here are the strengths.

1. Ecotourism addresses the challenge of managing tourism in wild lands, providing support to the conservation of biodiversity and parks and protected areas. It attracts a market interested in experiencing wild places and wildlife, while ensuring local people fully benefit.

2. Ethical, responsible tourism creates a better place for people to live in and better places to visit. It cannot be segmented into niche market vehicles that exclude “mass tourism.”

3. Geotourism addresses the protection of places. Destinations have more than ecological sustainability limits, they have geographic character that is the combination of both natural and cultural heritage.

Picture3_meganThese strengths divide the fields of responsible, eco and geotourism. Each is devoted to creating a set of tools that confirms the importance of their strengths. Each is equally important. But there is little doubt that the term sustainable tourism could easily include all of these strengths. The existing United Nations definition of sustainable tourism could be improved to incorporate the ideas above, and it is time this took place.

The current UN definition reads roughly as follows:

  • Sustainable tourism makes optimal use of environmental resources and conserves the natural heritage and biodiversity.
  • Sustainable tourism respects to socio-cultural features of host communities, conserves their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values and contributes to intercultural understanding and tolerance.
  • Sustainable tourism ensures long-term economic viability providing benefits to all stakeholders and helps to reduce poverty.

In fact there is very little missing in this definition that does not honestly include the ideas of ecotourism, geo and responsible tourism, but it could be redone to make it a more accessible definition.

In an effort to retool the terminology used to define sustainable tourism, I suggest this revision:

“Sustainable tourism creates a better place for people to live, work and visit by providing long-term economic benefits to local people, protecting the environment and biodiversity, and preserving the cultural heritage, traditional values and character of destinations worldwide.”

Why Retooling is a Must?
To date, tourism has barely registered in the global lexicon of development challenges, likely because it is seen as a luxury – a leisure industry which is not required to make the global economy tick. But this view has been short sighted.

It is time to put tourism into the context of global industry. Its global business footprint has both social and environmental dimensions. Both need to be measured. Its role in current global development trends has additional importance. Tourism is part of the transformation of the world economy, both as a business and leisure industry. It thrives on the growth of the global economy and will grow at an accelerated pace as air travel becomes an increasingly essential tool for business in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These (BRIC) countries have high rates of tourism growth and are symbols for how the global economy is being transformed.

At the Harvard Forum Geoffrey Lipmann, CEO of Gate Trip and GreenEarth.Travel stated that “We need to change how we power the industry, how we ensure social inclusion and conserve biodiversity.” He stated that the tools to be employed need to go “beyond certification, beyond awards and beyond indicators.” I would add the field needs to go beyond niche definitions that have left the field of sustainable tourism fractured and limited in influence.

Can we not reach a firm, global agreement on one definition that can be used in all presentations and media discussions around the world? Would it not advance our field in every way?

A one sentence definition is essential and would be 100% more useful than a long set of bullet points. If sustainable tourism experts from the different camps can agree on this simple step, it would be powerful.

Sustainable tourism needs a definition that speaks to the market, includes the best ideas from the different schools of thought, and is representative of the last 20 years of work.

Megan Epler Wood is a Core Instructor for the graduate school for Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard University Extension and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. She is a published author and editor of many titles, including Ecotourism; Principles, Practices and Policies in 2002 for the United Nations Environment Program. Her numerous academic papers investigate sustainable tourism markets, certification, economic growth, alleviation of poverty and environmental conservation. www.eplerwood.com


Images: www.eplerwood.com