What is sustainable tourism?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Tourists love to flock to beaches like this one, but sustainable tourism will show those tourists how to take care of the places they visit. See more paradise pictures.
Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

Tourism is one of the largest export industries in the world; in some years, it's even rivaled the dollar value of oil exports, food products and automobiles. From 1950 to 2005, international tourist traffic rose from 25 million travelers a year to over 800 million. In 2009, the international tourism industry generated $852 billion [source: World Tourism Organization]. Tourism is even more critical to the economies of developing countries like Cambodia, Morocco and Jamaica, where income from international tourists contributes between 10 and 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) [source: The World Bank].

With so much money riding on tourism, it only makes sense to think of tourist destinations as precious resources that need to be protected. Tourism brings tremendous economic benefits, but also carries serious dangers to the environment and culture of the host community, such as reckless development, misuse of land, displacement of the poor, squandering of natural resources, pollution of the air and water, and crime [source: GRID-Arendal]. There are even examples of tourist destinations being "loved to death," like stunning coral reefs killed off by poorly planned coastal development, as well as reckless snorkelers and boaters [source: Coral Reef Alliance].


For tourism to be successful and sustainable, it must strike a balance between short-term economic interests and the long-term health of the local environment and culture. This more holistic vision of tourism is called sustainable tourism.

The World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations, defines sustainable tourism as "tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities" [source: World Tourism Organization]. Sustainable tourism is different than eco-tourism, which focuses exclusively on endangered environmental destinations like the Costa Rican rainforests or the African savanna. The principles of sustainable tourism, however, apply to all tourist destinations, from a booming urban center to a small fishing village.

According to the Word Tourism Organization, there should be three main goals of every sustainable tourism project:

  • Conserve environmental resources -- Hotels, restaurants and new developments should be designed to meet high standards of energy and water efficiency. Local citizens, tourism workers and visitors should be educated about ways to protect the local biodiversity.
  • Respect and preserve the local cultural heritage -- Preserve both the built and living culture of the host community and promote inter-cultural understanding.
  • Provide socioeconomic benefits to everyone -- All stakeholders in the host community should benefit from tourism, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. A sustainable tourist operation will see the long-term benefits of keeping money in the local economy and training local workers.

In developing countries, sustainable tourism has the potential to raise people out of poverty and protect natural resources. Keep reading to learn more about sustainable tourism in the developing world.


Sustainable Tourism in Developing Countries

Some of the world's poorest countries are rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage. In 2007, tourist destinations in developing countries around the world generated $319 billion in tourism spending. Unfortunately, much of this money doesn't stay in the developing country. Instead, it "leaks" out through imported goods and services, foreign-owned hotels and developments, and foreign airlines. Leakage of tourism income hovers around 40 percent in India, 70 percent in Thailand and scores as high as 85 percent in some African nations [source: UNCTAD].

Sustainable tourism is critical to the economic and health of developing countries because it keeps more money in the hands of local workers, businesspeople and entrepreneurs. According to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which helps develop and implement sustainable tourism initiatives around the world, sustainable tourism breeds small and micro business opportunities in places where few other employment options exist. Women and young people, in particular, can find stable work to help lift their families out of poverty [source: USAID].


The United Nations is a big believer in the power of sustainable tourism to resurrect struggling economies. The UN's World Tourism Organization runs a program called Sustainable Tourism - Eliminating Poverty (ST-EP) that trains local guides and assists communities in developing tourist destinations around existing cultural heritage sites. The ST-EP program also provides funding for small businesses and marketing help for promoting tourist destinations to the wider world [source: World Tourism Organization].

Aside from economic concerns, the negative environmental impacts of tourism are also felt much stronger in developing nations, because they lack the technology, infrastructure and government regulation to protect their resources [source: GRID-Arendal]. In Jamaica, for example, poor regulatory oversight allowed for hotels and restaurants in some of the country's most pristine and beautiful coastal areas to dump untreated sewage and other waste directly into the ocean.

In 1997, as part of a USAID partnership, the owners and staff of small local hotels in Jamaica were trained in the best practices in environmental conservation. Some of these hotels eventually qualified for international "green" certification and recognition as environmentally responsible destinations. The new environmental management systems employed in these Jamaican hotels have resulted in huge short-term savings from decreased energy and water consumption while preserving the long-term viability of the coastal habitat [source: USAID].

To learn more about sustainability revolution, see the the green living links on the next page.


Frequently Answered Questions

What are the 3 main focus of sustainable tourism?
The 3 main focus of sustainable tourism are economic, social, and environmental.

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  • Coral Reef Alliance. "Threats to Coral Reefs" (Accessed April 22, 2011.)http://www.coral.org/resources/about_coral_reefs/threats_to_coral_reefs
  • GRID-Arendal. "Tourism and the environment: Enemies or allies?" February 4, 1999 (Accessed April 22, 2011.)http://www.grida.no/news/press/1905.aspx
  • The World Bank. Global Economic Prospects. "Recovery in remittances, tourism, and commodity prices were positives for low-income countries." January 12, 2011 (Accessed April 23, 2011.)http://go.worldbank.org/ND7HCIVRP1
  • United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "Helping developing countries to become autonomous" (Accessed April 22, 2011.)http://www.unctadxi.org/templates/Startpage____1195.aspx
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  • World Tourism Organization. "Sustainable Development of Tourism" (Accessed April 22, 2011.)http://www.unwto.org/sdt/mission/en/mission.php
  • World Tourism Organization. Sustainable Tourism - Eliminating Poverty. "ST-EP Projects" (Accessed April 22, 2011.)http://www.unwto.org/step/projects/en/projects.php
  • World Tourism Organization. "Why Tourism?" (Accessed April 23, 2011.)http://unwto.org/en/about/tourism