As international flights gets cheaper and travel becomes accessible to more and more people, the impact of tourism on the global community is becoming visibly apparent. International tourist numbers have increased exponentially from 25 million in 1950 to 1.1 billion in 2015, and while the global travel and tourism industry creates around 10% of the world’s GDP, in many countries up to 80% of this ends up in foreign pockets.

When you add to that the impact of tourism on the environment, from CO2 emissions caused by transport to the disappearance of species during the development of resorts and attractions, together with the destruction of indigenous peoples’ way of life and loss of resources for local communities, the role of sustainable tourism has never been more important. The decisions you make as a tourist each and every day can have drastic impacts on people’s lives and the environment around them, so why not make them for the better, instead of the worse.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism
Sustainable tourism includes a broad range of subcategories, including ecotourism and both social and economic sustainability for local communities. But in a nutshell it is basically the concept of visiting a place while making a positive (rather than a negative) impact for its people, environment and economy. It is showing respect for the communities who live there, as well as their traditional cultures and customs, without imposing your own on them. It also means leaving a minimal footprint on the surrounding ecosystems, or helping to improve their circumstances.

Sustainable tourism means supporting the local economy and community tourism initiatives. By purchasing local products you are helping support the community and by supporting community tourism initiatives you are ensuring that the financial benefits stay with the people there. This in turn helps to counteract the social problems that result from a lack of employment and helps to establish a sense of dignity, putting local people in charge of their livelihoods, rather than relying on aid. But it’s also important to consider that the financial benefits of tourism are being distributed evenly so that the entire community gains, rather than one family or particular group of people.

Ecotourism is another important aspect of sustainable tourism, focusing particularly on the conservation of the area’s resources, land and wildlife. It doesn’t only mean leaving the environment in the same condition as you found it, but supporting initiatives that are improving the situation. It might mean assisting a wildlife park that is helping to rescue animals from poachers or staying at a guesthouse which is off-the-grid. It also means supporting initiatives which provide an alternative economy for communities that may otherwise be destroying their natural resources to make a living.

The way you spend your money as a tourist can send a strong message to local communities when it comes to resource management. Particularly in developing countries where the issue of poverty often comes before environmental concerns, it’s easy for resources to be destroyed to make a short-term income. Ecotourism initiatives, however, can have long-term economic benefits for communities, while at the same time ensuring their environment stays healthy for future generations.

While much of the focus on sustainable tourism is about ensuring a positive impact on local communities, it also needs to consider the overall experience of the tourist. The initiative will only be successful in the long term if it is engaging and rewarding for the participating tourists and that they play an active role. Such initiatives can help raise awareness about a range of sustainability issues affecting communities around the globe and offer a real-world experience that many tourists are looking for these days.

Sustainable tourism should be a sharing of cultures (without imposing them), helping to promote tolerance and break down barriers. Understanding how others live helps to eliminate stereotypes about different cultures and religions, offering a unique insight that is difficult to experience elsewhere. In a world where fear is constantly brewing about “others”, sustainable tourism in this day and age is more important than ever.

How does sustainable tourism work?

Sustainable tourism
While sustainable tourism can occur at the individual level, with local entrepreneurs coming up with initiatives and independent travelers deciding to follow the concept, it really needs participation from all levels to be successful. It’s not only communities and travelers that need to get on board, but tour operators, local governments and key stakeholders in the region.

Ongoing monitoring of the impacts of sustainable tourism initiatives and relevant adjustments need to occur, ensuring that the outcomes are positive and the benefits are being felt by all. Sustainable tourism should be a continuous process of re-adapting the way we travel and finding a balance between resource consumption, tourist satisfaction and local community interests. It requires setting long-term goals that include the interests of travelers, indigenous people, local communities, industries and governments, and working hand in hand to achieve them.

Sustainable tourism tips

Sustainable tourism

  • Educate yourself about the destination before you travel so that you understand a little of the cultural expectations and current issues affecting people. This will not only enhance your experience greatly, but ensure you don’t cause offense or step on any toes while there.
  • Don’t support the sale of endangered species, whether they are being served up in a local restaurant or sold as a souvenir on the side of the road.
  • Minimize your energy consumption as much as possible – take shorter showers, turn off lights and only charge devices when really necessary.
  • Bring your own reusable bottle for water and purification tablets, rather than purchasing water in disposable plastic bottles. In many countries, these are not recycled and end up in landfill or washing up on beaches and in waterways.
  • Respect cultural differences rather than imposing your own beliefs and observe local dress codes and religious regulations.
  • Opt to take tours with sustainable tourism operators who have been endorsed by other travelers for their ecotourism and social sustainability principles.
  • Select hotels, resorts or guesthouses who employ sustainable practices, whether it be using recycled water, composting waste or imposing fair wages for staff.
  • Shop and stay locally whenever possible, ensuring that the money you spend goes directly into local communities.
  • Volunteer abroad with reputable organizations that support local communities and sustainable projects.