What is Sustainable Tourism?

Christy Bragg
Jul 23, 2023

This post is a contribution from guest blogger, Christy Bragg. We are keen to encourage more bloggers and individuals working in tourism, conservation and sustainability to reflect on their experiences while providing suggestions and tips for future GOOD travellers. If you'd like to share an idea that you believe incorporates GOOD values and practices, please email us at info@good-travel.org. We look forward to sharing more guest posts like this one!

Tourism, in 2021, means something different than it did to previous generations. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, the increased research on climate change and the realization of global inequalities, it has to mean something different.

My own work in conservation has hammered the message home – to conserve our natural ecosystems, from the glinty, tiny endemic fish to large, prickly porcupines only succeeds when you work with people and their places.

For many, when thinking of tourism, it's been about glossy travel brochures of elephants and lions, or peering through the camera’s viewfinder at blue sparkling sea-scenes. Perhaps it's been about climbing mountains, finding a good surf spot or wandering through the streets of a strange new town. These are some of the wonders of travel, but it’s important to consider the responsibility that tourism holds as well.

What has changed in tourism?

Bali Indonesia GOOD Travel

Firstly, tourism is being impacted spatially. As I write this, the Covid-19 pandemic, and its quickly spreading impacts, has necessitated travel restrictions from a regional to a global level. Secondly, some of the long-term, and often unintended, harmful impacts of tourism in game reserves and wild places are being recognized. Too much tourism disturbs species and ecosystem processes needed for healthy balance. Too little tourism, such as the dramatic reduction of tourism resulting from the Covid-19 travel restrictions, has reduced the funds required for successful conservation operations within these reserves and parks. Thirdly, we are seeing the need to protect beautiful places, which are struggling under the impact of over-consumption and climate change. These beautiful places are also often supporting disempowered communities, who themselves are being buffeted by pollution and global impacts (or “externalities”) caused by countries other than theirs.

The world is waking up to the fact that we not only need these wild beautiful places for our souls and our children’s souls, but for tourism too, and unfortunately, the top-down conservation approaches imposed on the communities living and being supported by these places fail too often. Tourism thus has a responsibility, too. To start at the grass-roots, to be gentle and compassionate on the earth and people. These realizations are what has caused the rise of phrases like “Sustainable tourism” and “Responsible Tourism” and their ongoing increase in the public domain is encouraging to see.

So what is Sustainable Tourism?

As with all popular terms, many are appropriated quickly, sometimes not in full understanding of the concepts. There are various multilateral or overarching organizations that seek to define standards for such concepts. The United Nations and its World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) developed a Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, which contains six principles to guide tourism development, with the “objective of minimizing the negative impact of tourism on environment and on cultural heritage while maximizing the benefits of tourism in promoting sustainable development and poverty alleviation as well as understanding among nations.”[1] The list of ethical principles are not really bunch-able into one overarching definition but others have loosely defined 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”. [2]

bali indonesia good travel sustainable tourism

One way of understanding sustainability is to think from whose perspective is ‘sustainability’ actually decided? Is the ‘tourism industry’ considered sustainable or is it just the environment that is not negatively impacted? Where is the nexus between community, environment and development? GOOD Travel believes the answer itself is a journey, by putting the community right at the very centre of the tourism development process, and working away from tourism that happens ‘to the community’ in the destination towards tourism development ‘with the community’, ultimately travelling to that pivot where the destination and tourism development will be delivered ‘by the community’. [3]

What is Ecotourism?

eco tourism good travel bali indonesia

Another term used frequently by the tourism sector is “Ecotourism”. The International Ecotourism Society has defined Ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education, … inclusive of both staff and guests.” [4] This definition is slightly biased towards the lens of hotel and lodge types of tourism development, however. Wikipedia defines ecotourism as “a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial mass tourism.”[5]. There is a case for opening up the definition of ecotourism to refer to the need to conserve “socio-ecological processes”, which is a term that describes that complex systemic framework of human-nature interactions across time and space. We need to conserve the fragility of our interdependence on our earth’s natural resources and each other.

What is Regenerative Tourism?

Regenerative tourism, a newer approach to understanding tourism, is based on the concept that tourism should be more than sustainable, in fact tourism should seek to improve upon a place. Regenerative tourism is a holistic approach with the aim of making a tangible, positive impact. Within the context of the tremendous impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the tourism industry and economies, regenerative tourism, tourism that supports communities in rebuilding in a way that is in balance with the environment, is becoming even more important.

GOOD Travel believes that tourism starts with respect and compassion. And from there “provides participants with an understanding of new cultures, a glimpse into how others live, and perspective one can’t gain from their own backyards.[6]” This awareness, through tourism experiences provided with respect for the environment, people and the connections that build resilience, is the first step towards sustainability, and encourages us all to grow, learn and appreciate each other and our global responsibility.

What does this mean for GOOD Travellers?

Understanding these terms can help you as you do your research into where and how to travel. You’ll see mention to eco-tourism and sustainable tourism from many providers and assessing how closely the establishments align to the values that underpin these concepts will help you decide if they are the right choice for your trip and the impact you wish to have. Through these ideas, you can also consider what impact you’ll have as a traveller – will your choices have a positive impact on the environment and people? Are your choices supporting sustainability and regeneration?

In 2021 and beyond, we need this more than ever.

[1] https://webunwto.s3.eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/imported_images/37802/gcetbrochureglobalcodeen.pdf

[2] https://www.unwto.org/EU-guidebook-on-sustainable-tourism-for-development

[3] https://responsibletourismpartnership.org/2020/02/16/overtourism-the-giants-causeway-in-northern-ireland/

[4] https://ecotourism.org/what-is-ecotourism/

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecotourism

[6] Eliza Raymond, Co-founder GoodTravel

July 23, 2023
5 min read