Sustainable tourism

13 Is sustainable tourism possible?

When there are so many benefits to tourism, it is clear that we should not just stop leisure travel. But is it possible to enjoy an overseas holiday without contributing to catastrophic climate change? Will our enjoyment of a remote tropical beach literally submerge it under rising sea levels? Is there a balance between the environmental costs of tourism and its benefits? These are returning, but important questions. Sustainable tourism arguably means working out what the balance is between environmental costs and benefits, and then ensuring we stay on the right side of it.

13.1 Everything we do leaves a carbon footprint

Our human carbon footprintAccording to research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), even a homeless person in the USA still produces 8.5 metric tons of carbon footprint! The “floor” below which nobody in the U.S. can reach, no matter a person’s energy choices, turned out to be 8.5 tons, the university found. This was the emissions calculated for a homeless person who ate in soup kitchens and slept in homeless shelters. This might sound like an extreme number and I’ve also found lower carbon footprints for people who live in developed countries, still this study gives a good example of how deep our carbon footprint has been integrated into our daily life. It also shows that it isn’t very realistic to say that each person’s carbon footprint shouldn’t be more than 2 metric ton.

It may seem surprising that even people whose lifestyles don’t appear extravagant like the homeless, monks and children, are responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. A major factor is the array of government services that are available to everyone in the United States (and other developed countries). For the Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, these basic services including police, infra-structure, libraries, the court system, and even the military, were allocated equally to all U.S. citizens. Other, more specific services such as education or Medicare, were allocated only to those who make use of them.

The students conducted detailed interviews and made detailed estimates of the energy usage of 18 lifestyles, spanning the gamut from a vegetarian college student and a 5-year-old up to the ultra-rich Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. The energy impact for the rich was estimated from published sources, while all the others were based on direct interviews. The average annual carbon dioxide emissions per person, they found, were 20 metric tons, this while many people in the US don’t even travel abroad. The Dutch carbon footprint in 2018 was 15.8 metric tons per person, while the world average carbon footprint is currently estimated at 4.7 tons.

13.2 The carbon footprint of tourism

Carbon footprint of tourismIf even the carbon footprint of a homeless man in the USA accounts for 8.5 tons of CO2, how can a luxury activity like tourism ever become sustainable? The answer depends on the implementation of tourism and from which perspective you look at it. Tourism, traveling, or even people moving from A to B will always have an impact on the environment. If we want to decrease this impact and make traveling and tourism sustainable, we will have to change our mentality, re-focus, and adapt. A balance must be found between limits and usage. This requires long term thinking (10, 20+ years) and realizing that change is often cumulative, gradual, and irreversible.

Earlier I gave several examples of either direct or indirect negative consequences from tourism on the environment. We also discussed how tourism can have both a negative and positive effect on local communities. For tourism to have a mainly positive effect on the members of local communities, many things will have to happen. First of all the participants need to be well informed and educated. Then it is necessary that they really want to work together. For this to work there needs to be mutual understanding, respect, and benefits for all participants. For sustainable tourism to be able to work on a global scale, we can use roughly the same criteria involving; information, education, understanding, willingness, and mutual benefit. It’s important to first find out if and how tourism can benefit our environment. Then we need to be willing to make it possible. Economic, social, and environmental aspects of sustainable tourism must include the interests of all stakeholders including indigenous people, local communities, cities, visitors, industries, and governments. We will need to inform and educate all of these participants about the possibilities and their responsibilities. This information needs to be understood and accepted. All participants need to work together to make it happen. Generally speaking, the best ways to make people work together are in case of an emergency, or when there is a real mutual benefit for all.

I believe working together is the main challenge. For most people, the negative effects of climate change are not yet visible, while most measures to reduce it are not easy nor popular. If we find ways where sustainable tourism has benefits for everyone and we can make these benefits visible, it will grow in popularity. This will make it easier to improve the sustainability of tourism and might even allow us to use tourism for protecting our environment.

13.3 The official definition of sustainable tourism

The year of Tourism and vacation2017 was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Secretary-General Taleb Rifai from the United Nations World Travel Organization, called this:
”… a unique opportunity to advance the contribution of the tourism sector to the three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental, while raising awareness of the true dimensions of a sector which is often undervalued.”
According to the United Nations World Travel Organization, sustainable tourism is the form of tourism that meets the needs of tourists, the tourism industry, and host communities today, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This counts both for tourism organizations and tour operators. To accomplice these goals tourism should make optimal use of environmental resources without damaging essential ecological processes. Ideally tourism even helps to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity. Tourism should also respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values. Tourism should contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance and aim for long-term economic operations. These operations need to provide socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed including stable employment and income-earning opportunities. Only this way tourism will contribute to poverty alleviation. Besides the social and ecological goals of sustainable tourism, we shouldn’t forget the tourists. If there isn’t a high level of tourist satisfaction and meaningful experience for the tourist, all great intentions are worth nothing. To reach a maximal result it is equally important to raise awareness about sustainability issues and promote sustainable behavior among the tourists. This sustainable behavior currently also involves the question how we can limit the spreading of Covid-19 while traveling? This is a very difficult question, as it involves having to make the decision: “How many infections are acceptable?”

To be successful, sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and corrective measures whenever necessary. Following the comments from the United Nations World Travel Organization and the predictions from the Social Pathway Studies, it seems clear that tourism can make a positive contribution to conservation efforts around the world as well as boosting local economies. Exactly how the tourism industry can help the best to meet these goals is an important matter of debate. Looking back at earlier critics about flying, we might have to accept that a limited emission of greenhouse gas from tourism will be inevitable to still reach an overall cleaner air.

British environmental activist George Monbiot argued that, over the years, sustainable development has morphed into sustained growth. The essence of his argument is that little resolve exists to go beyond rhetoric. This is because environmental crises require that we limit the demands we place on the environment, but our economies require endless growth. How we might be able to deal with this I will explain later.

Sustainable tourism is a highly contested concept since it isn’t fully clear who decides what is sustainable. One way to look for more flexibility is to talk about ‘strong sustainability’ and ‘weak sustainability’. ‘Strong sustainability’ is one conceptualization – demanding that stocks of both human-made and natural capital are maintained over time. It is the preferred view of environmentalists opposed to development and imposes impossible problems for governments and businesses (Adams, 2001). Therefore, the notion of ‘weak sustainability’ has been introduced. This involves trade-offs between losses to natural capital in one project and gains elsewhere it allows for the substitution of human-made capital or human-induced ‘natural capital’ for the lost natural capital (Barbier et al., 1990; cited in Adams, 2001). In other words, the strong sustainability approach doesn’t allow an area to change through human influences, while weak sustainability allows humans to interact with their environment, as long as they compensate for their negative effects.

The substitution of natural capital raises questions about the intrinsic value of non-human nature as well as the concept of ‘critical natural capital’, or those aspects of nature which, once lost, cannot be replaced. For example, most greenhouse gases we emit can in theory be sequestered from the atmosphere again, but if flora and fauna die out these species will never return. The extent to which society accepts trade-offs between natural and human-made capital depends on whether sustainable development is seen as merely another form of ‘development’ or as a new concept. This new concept includes having to decide consciously which parts of nature we value enough to protect and which parts we have to accept to change or even disappear.

13.4 Sustainable tourism or responsible tourism?

Bee endangered spiecesAs you can read above, it is often not sure when to use the words ‘sustainable tourism’. For this reason, the tourist industry has included the phrase ‘responsible tourism’. Responsible tourism is an example of ‘weak sustainability’ and accepts certain trade-offs between contamination and conservation. This can include having to accept a limited emission of greenhouse gases to prevent major damage to natural areas that inhabit endangered species of flora and fauna, including bees. “When a species goes extinct, it’s gone forever. Losing species isn’t just deeply sad, it’s also dangerous. It’s like throwing bits of an airplane out the window mid-flight – we don’t know what species are crucial parts of a functioning ecosystem”, explains Dr. Laura Kehoe from the University of Oxford.

The Cape Town Declaration from 2002 stated that responsible tourism should minimize negative social, economic and environmental impacts. It should involve local people in decisions that affect their lives and aiming to enhance the well-being of host communities. This can be accomplished by providing easy access to the tourist industry, improve the working conditions and generate long term sustainable economic benefits for the community. Meanwhile responsible tourism needs to make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage. It needs to improve connections between tourists and local people, creating more mutual respect and a better understanding about cultural, social and environmental issues. Following all these recommendations, responsible tourism will create a more meaningful experience together with local confidence and even pride.