Sustainable Tourism & Ecotourism

What Is Sustainable Tourism?

One of the major hurdles in implementing guidelines for sustainable travel lies in the lack of a cohesive definition of just what sustainable travel actually is. Not only is there no universally accepted definition but there is a seemingly endless range of terms that are used interchangeably. Sustainable Tourism defines a way of looking at the travel industry as a whole, encompasses both leisure (pleasure) travel and business travel and is based on a set of guidelines that take into account the entire travel experience and all of the stakeholders involved.

While most travel terminology focuses on the destination sustainable tourism looks at every stage of the travel process including:

  • How travelers reach their destination
  • How they interact with the physical and cultural environment while at their destination
  • How local resources are affected by the visit

The vast range of travel experiences encompass so many different factors that to properly create a framework for sustainability, it is necessary to give equal weight to biological, economic and socio-anthropological factors.

Sustainable Tourism minimizes environmental damage, maintains resource diversity, renewability and productivity over time and seeks to mitigate the inevitable negative effects of tourism on local, regional and global levels.

The resources in question can be local such as communities and ecosystems or global such as air quality and atmospheric conditions. Sustainable travel focuses on four equally important areas:

Energy and Sustainable Tourism

Energy consumption has become the leading cause of raising environmental awareness in the past few years because of greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil. Just as the use of DDT in the seventies brought different shareholders together, global warming has become the rallying issue of our time.

From a tourism industry standpoint energy use encompasses:

  • Fuel used to reach a destination
  • Energy used by a property to keep it running
  • Amount of energy needed to construct the property

It can be argued that the use of cars, trucks and other forms of transportation that use fossil fuels are the leading consumer-caused contributor to global warming.

Airline Industry

Airlines in particular release an incredible amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere and one international flight can contribute more to an individual’s carbon footprint than every other activity for a year. Not only do hotels and resorts use an amazing amount of energy on a daily basis, but the construction of new properties, including the transportation of building materials and workers from all over the world is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions as well. The airline industry has taken a very proactive approach to reducing emissions and through a combination of increased efficiency and design innovation has actually cut emissions by more than 13% since 2000. The industry as a whole, led by visionaries such as Sir Richard Branson, is exploring new fuel options and continues to seek solutions to the amount of emissions produced by flying.


Hotels seeking to become more efficient may initiate small incremental changes such as the use of insulation and glass to cut down on heating and cooling or may seek large-scale solutions like the use of solar or wind power. Simple economics are usually the deciding factor in how energy efficient a hotel actually is; it can be so expensive to initiate large-scale changes to existing buildings that it is simply not economically feasible for the property. The greening of the building and construction industries have brought design innovation and corresponding efficiency to many new tourism developments and have initiated industry-wide change.

In order to actually become carbon neutral it is necessary for most hotels and transportation providers to purchase carbon credits to offset their emissions or, as is usually the case, to offer consumers the ability to purchase credits to offset their trip.

Ecology and Sustainable Travel

The maintenance of pristine destinations and cultures is usually the first thing people think of when trying to travel sustainably. Eco travel, or travel for the purpose of experiencing wildlife, natural attractions and indigenous cultures, has become the fastest growing segment of global tourism and is the major source of income for countries such as Kenya, Costa Rica and Nepal.

Ecology is much more than the state of the natural world; it is the interconnected relationship between all living things and their environment.The major negative effects of tourism to the ecology of a destination are:

  • Habitat loss to accommodate tourists
  • Migration of workers to tourist areas
  • Natural resource depletion and degradation including water quality and soil erosion
  • Displacement of local communities
  • Threats to indigenous cultures
  • Pollution from waste generated by visiting tourists.

Sustainable tourism seeks to maintain healthy relationships between local communities, the natural and physical world and tourists while planning all development to mitigate the negative effects of population pressure on the environment.

Conservation and Sustainable Tourism

The conservation of natural and cultural resources, on both a local and global scale, is at the forefront of any sustainable travel plan and is the major focus of most industry organizations. Pristine destinations are extremely susceptible to being “loved to death” as money flowing into local economies initiates the unchecked development of lodging and other support industries that require natural resources, energy and water to grow.

Ironically, history has shown us that the development of tourism in natural areas can actually destroy the very qualities of the destination that brought travelers in the first place. Tourism growth in an area can lead to the loss of wildlife habitat from growing population pressures and the construction of tourism facilities, degradation of environment and water due to improper waste management, loss of cultural identity and traditional land-use strategies by indigenous cultures and unsustainably large demands for energy from new development.

Community and Sustainable Travel

Perhaps the most important and most often overlooked aspect of sustainable travel is the impact on local communities. When thoughtfully planned and responsibly initiated tourism growth can alleviate poverty, increase local pride and ownership and create sustainable alternatives to destructive use of resources. In order for any touristic enterprise to succeed in the long term revenue needs to end up in local communities and they need to become active players not only in support roles but also in every stage of infrastructure development. The simplest way to involve community is to stay in locally owned hotels and use local tour operators, guides and transportation. Fair trade policies insist on adequate wages, working conditions and medical care for tourism professionals and compensation for the use of locally owned resources. Education plays a very large role in sustainable tourism for both the traveler and the local population and should be incorporated into every development plan.

What Makes a Sustainable Travel Product?

Just as there is no universal definition of sustainable travel there are no universally accepted criteria for what combination of the above focus areas makes a product or service actually sustainable. To complicate matters even further, there are dozens of different accreditation programs in existence, each with its own criteria for sustainability. Until there is one universally accepted labeling program there will always be different standards for what makes a travel product green.