Sustainable tourism

Throughout my career I have learned that most of the threats to tourism can be grouped under the umbrella of sustainability. Threats to the tourism industry on the one hand and threats tourism poses to other parts of society. In my view sustainable tourism comes down to an equilibrium where local communities and visitors have a mutually beneficial relationship while minimizing the environmental impact.

Sustainable tourism: environmental impact

One of the first things that comes to mind when talking about the sustainability of the tourism industry is the impact travel has on our climate. Travelers are encouraged to take trains over short-haul flights and compensate carbon emissions of the flights they do take. The environmental impact of tourism is relatively easy to measure. Solving the carbon footprint of travel is an enormous undertaking but since it is relatively easy to measure solutions can be focused.


Sustainable tourism: societal impact & over-tourism

A much more difficult, but in my view at least as important, issue in sustainable tourism is that of societal impact. When we travel to a destination we are generally not intimately familiar with the impact our visit has on the local community. On an all-inclusive resort vacation most of the money you spend as a traveler ends up in the pockets of the resort owner, often a foreign corporation, rather than with the local community. Cultural rituals of a local culture are now only performed for the paying tourist, while the paying tourist believes they are part of something authentic.

And then there is the issue of over-tourism. When destinations become overcrowded with foreign visitors locals tend to feel there is no longer room for them. This leads to hostility, although this is usually a one-way street. Locals develop an averse feeling forwards tourists, while tourists are (blissfully) unaware of the impact their visit has on the local community. Over-tourism in its worst form can cross over from being a societal-only issue to also have environmental impacts. Misbehaving tourists (societal) leaving behind their trash (environmental) is a favorite example of scholars.

While environmental impact is relatively easy to quantify, with societal impact of tourism this is much more difficult. After all we can only partially measure (in numbers) what the impact of tourism is on a local community. We can measure how much of the economic gains flow back locally and when can measure the percentage of the local population employed in the tourism industry. But we cannot measure over-tourism.

One of the things I have learned is that the many individual perceptions of the many individual stakeholders play a not insignificant part. I am finding my way towards a clearer picture of what I understand the core of the problem to be, but I am not nearly there yet. What I want to know for myself is: where is the line between (friendly) sustainable tourism and (unfriendly) over-tourism.