Making tourism sustainable – there is no plan B

The World Travel Market (WTM) is being held in London this week, and yesterday I was able to attend as editor of Leisuretourism.com. Two issues appear to be centre-stage at this years event. One is the impact of the economic downturn on the travel industry. The other is the need for tourism to be sustainable and responsible. [Actually, a third topic was also high on the agenda after the difficulties everyone has had getting to the exhibition venue this week: the state of the London transport system, and how on earth it will cope with hosting the Olympics. But that’s another story].

With yesterday designated World Responsible Tourism Day, destinations are queuing up to present their green credentials, and among the presentations and meetings held was a passionate talk from Dr. Auliana Poon of Tourism Intelligence International. The message clearly was that sustainability in tourism was the only option – there is no plan B. Driven on the one hand by consumer demand, and on the other by environmental deterioration that will destroy the tourism product if not checked, tourism has to become sustainable if it is to survive and prosper.

For every survey in which consumers say that environmental concerns are important in holiday choices, there seems to be another that says the opposite, or which points out that many consumers are unwilling to pay for green measures in economically troubled times. But the growth of the market for individual or small-group travel rather than mass package holidays show that there is indeed an increasing demand for the ‘new tourism’. And in the long-term, by definition, unless tourism is sustainable, destinations will not survive.

For destinations which depend on nature, wildlife and landscape, sustainability has to be central to tourism development and the tourism product – if the wildlife or the natural beauty disappear, no tourists will come. Sustainability has to be economic as well as environmental, and the UNWTO definition of sustainable tourism recognises that ‘Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability.’

One mainstream destination that has made such principles the core of tourism development is New Zealand, which markets itself as ‘100% pure’. The country was recognised by becoming the overall winner in the Responsible Tourism Awards announced yesterday. The judges said that New Zealand proves ‘that it is possible to develop a national strategy which uses tourism to help make better places to live and to visit.‘ It was judged that the country demonstrates ‘what national government can achieve – working with the private sector, local communities and local government – by harnessing tourism to benefit their people and their environment.’

At the centre of the Tourism Intelligence seminar on sustaining destinations yesterday was Costa Rica. The central American country has been one of the standard bearers for ecotourism, and the commercial success of this can be shown by Costa Rica leading tourism growth in the region, with a 16% rise in arrivals in the first quarter of 2008 [source; WTM catalogue 2008].

In Costa Rica, government policy has led the way in promotion of ecotourism. A national certification scheme, the CST (Certificate of Sustainable Tourism) has been in operation for around 10 years now. With five levels, it is designed to differentiate tourism sector businesses based on the degree to which they comply with a sustainable model of natural, cultural and social resource management. Businesses are judged not just on environmental credentials, but on their relationship with the community. The focus on sustainability is seen to benefit both the country and individual businesses. Costa Rica’s marketing (some $20 million, or 1% of the $2 billion industry, the meeting was told yesterday) focuses on the natural environment and sustainability, with the reputation in these areas attracting the type of tourists the country wants to receive. And those businesses that follow sustainability guidelines, and achieve certification, receive clear benefits themselves. A hotelier who spoke at the seminar said that for those who meet the sustainability criteria, the government pays their expenses to attend international travel business shows such as the WTM in London. They also get links from official tourism websites and priority in any other marketing initiatives. (See reading list at the end of this article for references on tourism development and certification in Costa Rica).

Other countries focusing their marketing on sustainability include Ecuador (where there is a national Plan for Sustainable Tourism Development in Ecuador, Plandetur 2020), Montenegro, and Portugal, where the vice-president of Turismo de Portugal, Dr Frederico Costa, has been highlighting the development of renewable energy. At the WTM this week, the Moroccan National Tourist Office signed an agreement with the Travel Foundation as part of its blueprint for developing Morocco as a sustainable tourist destination. Among destinations known more for mass tourism, the region of Calvia in Majorca, Spain, announced at the WTM that it is to improve its sustainability by working with the Federation of Tour Operators on its Travelife Sustainability System.

The local authority has written to all accommodation owners and managers in the region, which includes the mass tourism resorts of Magaluf, Palma Nova, Santa Ponsa, Peguera, Illetas and Portals Nous, asking them to register for the Travelife Sustainability System and work towards obtaining the awards.

Many tour operators are introducing the Travelife Award scheme through their brochures and websites. The bronze, silver and gold awards reflect performance against environmental and social criteria with additional focus on ethical trading and benefits to local people and communities.

FTO head of responsible tourism Chris Thompson said: "We are hoping that Majorca will become the flagship Travelife destination.

"Securing collaboration with the Calvià region will not only pave the way for the introduction of the system throughout the Balearics and mainland Spain, but also send a clear message to popular destinations everywhere that we want to introduce the Travelife Sustainability System as the tool of choice for British tour operators.

The Travelife system assesses a property’s performance based on energy, waste and water management, nature conservation, client education, fair treatment for staff, choice of local suppliers, and benefiting local communities.

The central problem for all destinations and initiatives, is that while there are many worthwhile initiatives to try and reduce the environmental and social impact of tourism, most destinations are still targeting significant tourism growth. While the current economic situation may well limit tourism growth in the short term, the UNWTO’s longer term forecast is for international tourist numbers to increase from 800 million at present to 1.6 billion in 2020. While tourism must strive to be sustainable – in the long-term, there can indeed be ‘no plan B’ – the pressures tourism development brings, and the efforts that will be needed to bring about that sustainability, can only intensify.

For further information on sustainability in tourism, see:-

Travelife

Forum for the Future sustainable travel projects

The Travel Foundation

References

1. Desirable and possible: community participation, historical and cultural patrimony, environmental quality and sustainable tourism development. Aguirre, J. A. / PASOS: Revista de Turismo y Patrimonio Cultural, 2007, Vol. 5, No. 1, pp. 1-16, 30 ref.

2. Community-based ecotourism and sustainability: cases in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama and Talamanca, Costa Rica. Cusack, D. , Dixon, L. / Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 2006, Vol. 22, No. 1/2, pp. 157-182, 21 ref.

3. The organization of ecotourism in Costa Rica. Geic, S. / Acta Turistica, 2004, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 143-168, 21 ref.

4. Ecotourism and rural development. The case of La Cangreja National Park, Costa Rica. González, E. D. , Koppen, K. van , Breitling, J. , Camino, R. de / Recursos Naturales y Ambiente, 2005, No. 45, pp. 120-126, 10 ref

5. Towards an internationally recognized ecolodge certification. Mehta, H. / Quality assurance and certification in ecotourism, 2007, pp. 415-434, 13 ref.

6. Institutional pressures and voluntary environmental behavior in developing countries: evidence from the Costa Rican hotel industry. Rivera, J. / Society & Natural Resources, 2004, Vol. 17, No. 9, pp. 779-797

3 thoughts on “Making tourism sustainable – there is no plan B

  1. Jessica Nielson February 1, 2009 / 8:36 pm

    Thank you for a very considerate view on the topic. This one really got me thinking about the long term effects of non responsible tourism in the future.

  2. touring caravans April 28, 2009 / 8:29 am

    Hi,
    Nice article….Very nice and useful information about tourism ,it will be useful in future days…..

  3. Madbar / W May 22, 2009 / 8:04 pm

    good explain, with example, development, with ecoturism, to reservation´s cheap hotels, visit hotels madbar, where can you meet quality and cheap hotels about place or any city of world

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