Sustainability in Tourism

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Sustainability in Tourism


Sustainable Tourism simply means: “Tourism which is developed and maintained in such a manner and at such a scale that it remains viable over an indefinite period and does not degrade or alter the environment (human and physical) in which it exists to such a degree that it prohibits the successful development and wellbeing of other activities and processes”. 

Circular tourism is a part of the logic of the circular economy, a business model consistent with the principles of sustainable development. The economic ‘circular’ wants to create a virtuous circle that produces goods and services without wasting the limited resources of the planet that are the raw materials, water and energy. In the same way, circular tourism proposes a model in which each actor of tourism (traveller, host, tour operator, supplier) adopts an eco-friendly approach.

Creation of circular tourism allows travellers to take a responsible approach at all stages, right from the preparation of the trip to the local experience. The circle would look something like this: 

To go by the current focus on European travellers, it is interesting to note that 9 out of 10 Europeans say they are attentive to the environmental impact of their travels,60 percent of European customers perceive the sustainability of a living as a plus equal delivery and 10 percent of European customers consider sustainability as an essential criterion. Although, the awareness that this sector needs to meet current and future environmental challenges is very high, currently only 17 percent of tourist establishments engage in environmentally sound operations. 

It is largely understood that circular tourism can reconcile tourism and sustainable resource management. And that the objective to produce goods and tourist services while greatly limiting the impact on the environment including the consumption and waste of non-renewable energy sources would have circular, long term benefits for all stakeholders. 

So far, so good. But how real is all this? Or is it a myth? Is sustainable tourism at all possible? Are the two, sustainable & tourism mutually excusive? 

The term ‘sustainable tourism’ first entered the language of tourism development policy some two decades ago. Reflecting the emergence and subsequent widespread adoption of sustainable development more generally, it was seen as an appropriate response to the challenges posed by the scale, scope and consequences of tourism development in particular. The rapid growth of tourism, particularly international mass tourism, and the inexorable global spread of the so-called ‘pleasure periphery’ had been accompanied by increasing calls for restraint in its development. Numerous commentators had drawn attention to the potentially destructive environmental and socio-cultural effects of the unbridled expansion of tourism and, by the end of the 1990s, the ‘alternative [to mass] tourism’ was firmly established, as were concepts such as green, appropriate, low-impact, responsible and soft tourism. The attention to both the perceived negative impacts of tourism and to alternative approaches to its development were re-focused through the specific lens of sustainable tourism and it has maintained a dominant position in both the academic study of tourism and in tourism policy and planning processes. However, a gulf remains between the rhetoric and academic theory of sustainable tourism and the reality of tourism development ‘on the ground’.

What then are the principles and indicators that guide the sustainability in tourism?  The five groups of indicators are: 
•    Economic indicators reflect the contribution that tourism makes to the local economy
•    Tourist satisfaction is necessarily based on tourist surveys carried out at the destination: a) perception of value for money judged by number of repeat visits and b) tourist perception of the quality of tourist facilities, environmental quality (water, traffic congestion, litter, noise) and cultural/social conditions (general cultural interest, friendliness of residents, crime levels)
•    Social indicators are related to social integrity that should be assessed in terms of the subjective well-being of the host population
•    Cultural indicators measure cultural integrity in terms of diversity, individuality and beauty (of cultures and built heritage)
•    Environmental indicators measure environmental quality and the demands made by tourists in terms of different environmental media (water, air, biodiversity, landscape). 

Given the complex nature of tourism systems, it is wise to develop a relevant set of indicators with due consideration to factors that influence the actual selection of working indicators in a particular destination or business. Some factors are the type of approach to sustainability that is adopted, measurability, resource constraints, stakeholder interests, level of public support and politics. It is important that the indicator set is compact yet comprehensive, so that it is not too time-consuming and expensive to operate but still captures critical information. Individual indicators should be understandable, practical, clearly defined and reproducible.

Next is to design a kind of warning system that bands ranges of values for the indicators to highlight whether they are in a critical, containable or sustainable situation and to alert policy makers. The significance of band-colours being:
•    Red zone suggests that the situation is critical and needs to be addressed immediately with an appropriate measure or a halt to further tourism development
•    Yellow zone suggests that the situation is bearable but that, should tourist numbers increase substantially in the future, problems may be encountered and preventative measures will be required; and 
•    Green zone suggests that the situation is sustainable and may reflect success in applying good practice measures in the past and present.

A reality or a myth?
The broader paradigm of sustainable tourism development is challenged in terms of three main areas: Vagueness, Hypocrisy and Delusion. 

The concept is not only vague in terms of meaning and definition; it is also semantically ambiguous. Does it mean development that can be sustained, giving precedence to development, or development restricted by environmental sustainability limits? The vagueness allows it to be appropriated in different ways by different stakeholders. The private tourism industry views it largely in economic and marketing terms. The local community may see it in terms of socio-economic benefits and cultural preservation. An environmental NGO would present more of an ecological perspective. 

Eco-speak may be used to disguise unsustainable activities through what is now referred to as ‘green washing’. Products, services and other activities may have green or eco-labels attached to them yet their environmental credentials may be difficult to identify or measure.

The most significant criticism of sustainable tourism is that it fosters delusions: in as much as it provides a framework for continued development it may distract us from the real problems and potential solutions by ‘diverting’ our attention to the wrong issues. Thus, a continuing focus on ‘sustainable’ may simply hasten ecological collapse and not growth and development.

If sustainable tourism as currently conceived is indeed a myth, is there an alternative approach to ensuring that tourism development meets both destinational needs and environmental parameters? If we accept that tourism is, first and foremost, an economic activity, a form of capitalist endeavour and that environmental sustainability is a prerequisite to the continuation of that endeavour and profits, is there a way of ensuring that sustainability? 

It is not such a conundrum. The alarming effects of irresponsible and linear tourism business models are all around us. There is no gainsaying the fact that a circular tourism is the way to go. The concept of ‘destination capital’ (capital here connotes financial and not geographic) may hold the solution. In addition, the immediacy of designing over arching mechanisms to maximise benefits from tourism as an industry is as relevant as that for any other enterprise.

Vaijayanti Khare is known for her dynamic engagements in the corporate, academic, social and development fields in Kathmandu over the past decade. Her writings are a reflection of her hands-on work, insights, studies, success and challenges.