Sustainable Tourism: A Long Road Ahead

March 03, 2020 •

8 min reading

Sustainable Tourism: A Long Road Ahead

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Every single second, more than 30 tourists arrive at their destination worldwide. With more than 1 billion passengers projected to travel in 2020, the effect tourism has on the environment cannot be underestimated. “Sustainability” has been one of the biggest buzz words of the past decade in the industry. Yet, the proliferation of its use is not necessarily a good thing. Like other terms that are often used in marketing to promote some products or services of virtually any company, (e.g. “eco-friendly” or “green”), the word itself has in many instances lost its true meaning.

According to the United Nations, sustainability is defined as activities that “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Therefore, advertisements that, for example, praise a company´s 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as a sustainable development are in themselves, contradictory. Diminished harm does not equal an increased benefit to future generations. Thus, businesses that have not eradicated every unethical and harmful substance from their supply chain and daily operations cannot truly claim to be sustainable. Instead, current “green” transformations in the tourism industry are to be understood as steps in the right direction rather than the final solution to sustainability.

What can tourism industry stakeholders do in order to move towards a more sustainable tourism? What are leading businesses saying about their current impact and future strategies on environmental issues?

What Is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism in general can be defined as actions by individuals, operators, and legislators that aim at reducing or stopping the negative impact of commercial tourism activities on the eco-systems in which they take place. Long-haul flights, over-tourism and travelers’ unawareness of the impact of their actions are among the issues that need to be tackled. In the effort of limiting the damage to our environment, it is also important to understand what the industry is trying to protect. Pristine beaches, stunning wildlife, untouched rainforests or imposing glaciers are some reasons for tourists to start their journey.

The businesses and nations marketing and exploiting these natural resources for financial gain directly depend on their longevity. The incentives to protect these locations should therefore be blatantly obvious to anyone involved.

So what can each group of stakeholders do to ensure that the tourist of the future gets to enjoy the same experiences as us today?

What can be done to travel in a sustainable way?


By Tourists

There are some relatively simple steps tourists can take to reduce the impact of their travels on the locals and the destination to ensure availability for generations of future travelers. Not littering and even picking up trash along the way is an important way to be a respectful visitor. Always staying within boundaries and, where necessary, traveling with a local guide so as not to damage historical sites or the environment are also essential yet easy to adhere to.

Another way of reducing the negative impacts of overtourism specifically, is to travel in the off-season. Not only will this guarantee travelers a less crowded and more enjoyable experience, but it will also save them money on airfare, hotels and tours.

More commitment on the traveler’s part is required in changing from plane to train travel in order to decrease carbon footprint. This is part of the growing “slow travel” trend that encourages people to go to fewer places and spend more time in each one of them. Many popular destinations including Europe, India, Southeast Asia and China have well-developed train infrastructures that travelers can use to implement these changes.

Opting for locally purified water in recyclable glass bottles or carrying re-usable bottles and filling them with boiled or purified drinking water as well as carrying tote bags to street and supermarkets will not only reduce plastic waste but also carbon footprint (as it avoids petroleum-based ingredients used in making plastic bottles and bags).

Steps like these may require a slight effort on part of the traveler, but are vitally important to counteract human-made phenomena such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a huge collection of human trash, including plastic items that will take hundreds of years to break down, stretching across thousands of miles of ocean.

By Governments

In many ways, the most popular destinations are victims of their own success. Overtourism, for instance, can lead to a decrease in the quality of the traveler’s experience, frustration among locals, congested infrastructures and, of course, harm to the local ecosystems. Governments of nations that are most affected by these detrimental influences face a difficult balancing act between economic growth and sustainable resource management. The issue is most difficult to manage in locations whose economies largely depend on tourism revenues. In Thailand and Italy, for instance, the income generated by the tourism sector represents respectively 21% and 13% of the annual GDP. Decisions to curb the number of incoming tourists will therefore often encounter opposition from parts of the population. Nonetheless, many locations have realized the need for change and are working on solutions for a more sustainable approach to tourism: in Thailand, Maya Bay on Phi Phi Leh island, made famous by the 2000 movie The Beach, saw as many as 5,000 tourists a day. As a result, authorities decided to close the beach to visitors in June 2018 until 2021 to allow the environment to recover. Another example of governments intervening to protect a site relates to Machu Picchu, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World and Peru’s most popular tourist attraction. Since the 1980s, the number of visitors to Machu Picchu each year grew by 700% to a baffling 1.2 million in 2013. In response, the Peruvian Ministry of Culture implemented measures which limit entrance to the site to 2,500 tourists a day and access to the Inca Trail, a 4-day trek that leads into Machu Picchu, to 500 permits a day.

Closing or limiting access to individual sites is not all that governments are doing to counter overtourism and increase sustainability in their countries and cities. In 2019, 19 million tourists flocked to Amsterdam, a city with just 850,000 inhabitants. This number is expected to rise to 29 million in 2025. In order to protect its citizens, cultural sites and environment from the effects of mass-tourism, the ‘City in Balance’ program was introduced. Under the program, the building of new hotels, souvenir shops and ticket sales outlets has been stopped and even the famous “I amsterdam” sign outside the Rijksmuseum has been removed. The city has also imposed stark restrictions on private rental platforms, such as AirBnB. Thus, homeowners are only allowed to sublet their apartments via such platforms for up to 30 days per year. Fines for minor offenses such as drinking alcohol or urinating in public have also been raised in an attempt to get tourists to behave better. Cities such as Berlin, Barcelona, Lisbon and Venice face similar problems and are taking measures to the same effect.

Ultimately, governments will need to educate their citizens right from the start, so that everyone can practice sustainable tourism. Italy is the first country to take steps in this direction. As of September 2020, Italy’s school curriculum will include one hour per week on climate change and sustainable development. By making climate change lessons compulsory, Italy puts itself at the forefront of environmental education – an example that other countries should be encouraged to follow.

By Companies

The companies involved in the tourism supply chain are diverse. From large international airlines to the owner of a small bar on the Caribbean coast, each business has its very own challenges to deal with. Some general truths do, however, ring true no matter the organization. Reducing the resources used to deliver services and products to customers, getting rid of single-use materials and encouraging all clients to do the same is among the most important. Research suggests that a simple reminder of how much electricity and water a consumer is using can lead to a change of thinking that results in decreased consumption. Companies can use the behavioral tendencies of their clients to illicit positive change for the environment. Furthermore, businesses have to realize that they will benefit in the long run from switching to renewable energy suppliers and using recyclable materials in all stages of service delivery even if hurts the bottom line in the short run. For some sectors, particularly transportation, the dependency on fossil fuels could well be insurmountable. Yet, offsetting-schemes for greenhouse gas emissions can provide at least a short-term answer to the question "how airlines, cruise-liners and on-land transportation firms can do their part without dialing down their operations." According to greenhotelier, a hotel in a tropical or Mediterranean region uses an average of 820 liters of water per guest per year. There are various ways in which hospitality firms can reduce their consumption. For instance, it will be important to install water and electricity-saving infrastructure (e.g. low-flow shower heads, toilets, etc.) and establishing a water management plan that allows for reliable measurements of actual results. Additionally, F&B operations worldwide can contribute a lot to the fight against climate change by increasing the number and quality of plant-based products they offer to their patrons, so as to encourage a reduction in meat consumption.

What are hospitality leaders' perspectives on sustainable tourism?

Many leading executives seem to have heard the warnings. KLM’s, the Dutch national carrier, CEO Pieter Elbers, published a letter in June 2019 urging their passengers to re-think whether all their flights are really necessary while also encouraging them to participate in the airline’s carbon gas offsetting scheme. Johan Lundgren, CEO of EasyJet, went one step further last November declaring that the budget air-carrier will offset carbon gas emissions of all its flights, costing the airline 25 million GBP. While some critics have quickly dismissed these messages as simple acts of greenwashing, they certainly represent a step in the right direction. Speaking at the International Hotel Investment Forum 2019, Hilton's CEO, Chris Nassetta, said:

“The hotel industry is the second-biggest industry, but one of the risks of that is the stewardship of that responsibility”

adding that hotel companies “fight over customers and development, but sustainability is one thing we should not fight over. You can be a provider of fantastic experiences and be environmentally conscious.” Keith Barr, CEO of InterContinental Hotel Group spoke to the same tune at another 2019 conference, saying:

“I think as a hotel company and we as an industry have to get out in front about sustainability. That’s single-use plastics, that’s reducing carbon footprint, that is about building with more sustainable materials and understanding your ongoing impact on the environment. And so I think governments will legislate, but in fact businesses have to get out in front of it now."


It is big statements like these that companies all around the globe are making. Now, at the beginning of a new decade, it will come down to consumers to make sure that these firms put their money where their mouth is by choosing responsibly when booking their next trip.

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EHL Alumni 2019