Is Sustainable Tourism Really Possible? Scientific Answer

The significance of sustainable tourism is evident when you consider its opposite. Beaches were littered with plastics; monument walls were smeared with graffiti, and indigenous people driven away from their land. As a responsible citizen of the world, you’re not alone in wondering if sustainable tourism is really possible.

Sustainable tourism with net-zero negative impact isn’t possible because every industry has some carbon and social footprint. However, tourism can become more sustainable if all stakeholders adopt the global best practices of environmental conservation, social inclusion, and circular economy.

All efforts to achieve sustainability in tourism must begin with understanding the adverse effects of tourism. This article explains how to achieve sustainability by following the framework provided by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Understanding Sustainable Tourism

The tourism industry is a giant employer. According to the World Economic Forum, one person in every ten works in tourism. Tourism can boost the economy of local communities.

However, popular tourist destinations like the Zion National Park and Machu Picchu limit the number of visitors. Amsterdam, Seychelles, and Barcelona have put a cap on large-scale development for tourist accommodation. Bhutan and Venice levy hefty tourist taxes.

So, why aren’t these places keen on grabbing a bigger piece of the tourism pie? That’s because, right now, the adverse effects of tourism far outweigh the benefits of the sector. Recognizing these negative effects is crucial for formulating scientific and feasible solutions to make tourism sustainable.

What Are the Negative Impacts of Tourism?

There are multiple players in the tourism sector. The cross-cutting nature of the industry means that the adverse effects of tourism arise from the harmful effects of its constituent industries that including transportation, food and waste management, building and construction, and hospitality.

The following are the negative impacts of tourism:

  • Air, water, and land pollution: According to an article published in the Nature Climate Change, emissions related to tourism across industries like transportation, food and beverage, services, accommodation, construction, and hospitality account for about 4.3 billion metric tons (4.3 trillion kg) every year.
  • Ecological degradation from land-use changes: Clearing forests, excavating land, and constructing buildings destroy wildlife habitats, trigger erosion, induce flooding, and mar the scenic value of a place.
  • Increases in real estate prices: Inflated prices prevent or make it challenging for locals to rent or own real estate.
  • Increased stress on resources and infrastructure: Increased tourist influx depletes water resources and strains the public infrastructure. In Venice, increased tourist footfall has damaged fragile historical buildings.
  • Dissatisfaction among locals: The locals of Amsterdam have long been complaining about rowdy tourists who litter their public spaces and cause excessive noise.
  • Cultural homogenization: With increased tourism, businesses in these destinations begin to cater to the tastes and pockets of the tourist rather than to those of the residents.
  • No concrete policies. About 50% of UNESCO World Heritage sites don’t have concrete policies and regulations to prevent the harmful effects of tourism. The lack of tourism management plans usually stems from a lack of understanding of how to educate and enlist the participation of the various players in the tourism sector, such as tour operators, hotel and resort owners, property developers, and the tourists themselves.

How To Make Tourism Sustainable

The UNWTO has outlined a guidance plan for the tourism industry to recover from the current untenable situation and become more sustainable. The UNWTO plan has proposed recommendations spanning the following five action areas:

  • Climate action
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Circular economy
  • Social inclusion
  • Governance and finance

The UNWTO recommends that the stakeholders in the tourism sector should take inspiration from the global sustainability trends in all relevant industries to formulate their course of action.

Read on to learn more about UNWTO’s recommendations across the five action areas mentioned above.

Climate Action

The UNWTO recommends the following measures as part of its climate action policy:

  • Monitoring and reporting emissions: Monitoring and reporting emissions to introduce accountability. Monitoring emissions also let tourist destinations identify points across the value chain emitting more than the permitted levels.
  • Decreasing the carbon footprint of tourist operations: Players in the tourism sector can adopt global sustainability trends in green transportation, green building and construction, land use, and waste disposal to reduce the volume of carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Initiating carbon removal projects: Carbon removal initiatives using natural methods include restoring the tree cover in an area and restocking degraded forests. Carbon can be removed using technological methods like adding alkaline substances to oceans.

Case Study

According to the UNWTO, emissions from tourism-related travel are expected to increase by 25% by 2030. The pre-pandemic value was 1,600 million tons (1.6 trillion kg)!

British Airways has pledged to reduce its net carbon dioxide emissions by 50% by 2050. It’s collaborating with renewable company Velocys to set up a plant to generate its fuel from domestic waste. According to the airline giant, this fuel will emit 60% less carbon than the jet fuel that’s in use today.

Biodiversity Conservation

According to the UNWTO, biodiversity conservation in tourist destinations can be achieved through the following measures:

  • Promoting tourism in less-visited spots: May sound counterintuitive, but increased tourist activity brings in the revenue needed to protect, preserve, and maintain marine and terrestrial ecosystems, wildlife species, and cultural and historical sites.
  • By tackling illegal activities in wildlife destinations: Poaching, encroachment, and over-exploitation of resources in wildlife degrade the area and deter tourists.
  • By setting up nature-based solutions: Nature-based solutions like restoring mangrove forests in coastal areas, regulating fisheries, and expanding green and blue habitats preserve and protect the ecological systems in the region.
  • By undertaking proper waste management practices: Indiscriminate waste disposal practices like dumping toxic waste into landfills and rivers degrade soil quality and harm aquatic wildlife.

Case Study

The Iberostar Group has announced its “2030 Agenda” to reduce waste, use responsibly-sourced seafood in its hotels, reduce carbon emissions, and preserve and build the health of ecosystems around its locations. As part of its program, the global hotel chain will plant or restore 560,000 mangroves or 2,240,000 land plants within the next few years.

This action alone will achieve multiple objectives. Besides removing carbon from the atmosphere, creating new forest ecosystems will promote biodiversity, arrest soil erosion, and reduce storm and flooding damage in coastal communities.

Circular Economy

A circular economy is a systems-centric approach designed to eliminate as much waste and pollution as possible and keep products and materials in use by sharing, leasing, repairing, refurbishing, reusing, and recycling them.

In a tourist destination, a circular economy keeps wealth generated through tourism-related activities within the community. Creating a circular economy also reduces the amount of waste that clogs landfills and decreases the volume of emissions from production and manufacturing activities.

Here’s what the UNWTO recommends for creating circular economies in tourist destinations:

  • Transforming tourist value chains to introduce circularity: Reducing use and reusing products and materials introduce circularity at the user level. Repairing and refurbishing create circularity between users and businesses. Recycling and repurposing introduce circularity at the business level.
  • Enforcing measures to reuse and recycle plastics: The industries operating in the tourism sector can reduce plastic use, reuse plastics safely, and increase their use of recyclable and biodegradable plastics.
  • Making the food and beverages sector sustainable: The sector can become more sustainable by sourcing locally, procuring organic ingredients, planning plant-based menus, reducing food wastage, and disposing of waste properly.

Case Study

As part of its sustainability strategy, the TUI Group had removed 112 million single-use plastic items from its hotels and resorts in various locations by the end of 2018. They aim to remove 250 million single-use plastic items across all their businesses within the next couple of years.

Social Inclusion

In theory, tourism boosts the local economy. However, in the real world, the economic benefits of tourism often elude the local residents. This reality keeps many locals from working in the tourism sector, even in popular tourist destinations.

The UNWTO recommends the following measures to increase the local community’s participation in the tourism sector and, consequently, benefit from tourism-related activities:

  • Supporting and involving vulnerable communities: The industries operating within the tourism sector should create stable jobs that ensure fair pay and occupational safety for rural people, youth, women, indigenous communities, and other vulnerable sections of the society.
  • Identifying and focusing on the needs of small businesses: Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) should be trained to help them embrace digital technologies, identify new audiences and diversify customer base, and build capacity.
  • Redesigning tourism as an economic booster: Tourism needs to be re-envisioned and made to boost local economies. Providing business mentorship to local entrepreneurs, creating local tourist value chains, and building local supply networks are some ways to increase community participation in tourism-related economic activities.

Case Study

The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC) has supported 678 indigenous tourism businesses, mostly small and medium-sized enterprises, with non-repayable grants to tide over the slump in earnings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

With the grant they received from ITAC, Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours have supported their artists and performers throughout the pandemic. This small business has also helped its performers go online and share their art with a global audience, thereby giving them fame and creating for them an additional channel for earning money.

Governance and Finance

The success of the measures intended for creating sustainable tourism depends on how strictly the rules and regulations are implemented and whether adequate funds are available to execute the projects.

Businesses catering to tourists, hotel and resort owners, shops selling souvenirs, restaurants in tourist hotspots, and tour operators need the government’s direction, backing, and financial support to embrace sustainability.

The UNWTO recommends the following measures relating to governance and finance to make tourism more sustainable at a particular destination:

  • Measuring beyond economic effects to decide policies: Besides economic parameters, decision-making should also be guided by factors like reducing the negative effects on climate, preserving and building biodiversity, meeting the needs of the local people, and creating circular economies.
  • Making funds available for sustainability projects: The state should direct funds to initiate and execute sustainability projects.
  • Increasing partnerships for more effective implementation: Public-private partnerships between the government, business owners, worker groups, and other members of the public make for improved execution of sustainability projects.

Case Study

In an attempt to look beyond economic parameters, countries like Germany and Austria now include factors like the gender pay gap to evaluate sustainability in domestic tourism.

Saudi Arabia monitors emissions from transportation related to domestic tourism, and accommodation services, while Canada monitors water and energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions in its tourism industry.

Implications of the UNWTO Recommendations

The recommendations by the UNWTO call for support from all stakeholders in the tourism sector and demand multi-pronged action plans.

The climate and biodiversity action plans need participation from the food and beverage, hospitality, and building and construction sectors. The social inclusion action plan requires participation from the government and local businesses.

Eliciting cooperation and cohesion across different industries might seem challenging. However, the recommendations by the UNWTO are thoughtful and have the potential to achieve multiple far-reaching positive consequences.

For instance, just by reducing the use of and reusing plastics, there’ll be a reduction in littering that’ll, in turn, enhance the scenic value of tourist places. Less plastic circulating in the environment means less plastic ends up in landfills and the rivers and seas. This reduces pollution and protects and enhances biodiversity in various ecosystems.

Final Words

Sustainable tourism is possible by redesigning existing systems and pathways and envisioning new ones. Sustainability can be achieved when all the stakeholders collaborate to brainstorm, innovate, and implement.

Most importantly, sustainability has to be achieved by breaking down silos. The various players need to look beyond their balance sheets, take stock of the negative impacts of tourism, and consider how their actions affect local communities.

The UNWTO has provided a guideline to make tourism sustainable, and their recommendations encompass five key areas:

  • Climate action
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Circular economy
  • Social inclusion
  • Governance and finance


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