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Contention That Sustainable Tourism Is, Perhaps, an Impossible Dream

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The definition of sustainable tourism is much debated. However, a suitable meaning can be inferred from the broadly used definition of sustainable development, an economic process to which sustainable tourism is intrinsically linked. Sustainable tourism would be that which ‘meets our needs today, without compromising the ability of people in the future to meet their needs’ (Swarbrooke, 1999, p. 3). These needs would be those of all involved in the tourism, ‘the host population, tourism guests, tourism organisations and the natural environment’ (Cater, 1995, p. 21). These needs are equitable to the prime interests of said parties, for example the tourist’s need to travel, locals’ need for employment, the tourism organisation’s need to maintain their business and for the environment not to be damaged. Sustainable tourism would be that which allows these present stakeholders to achieve these things, without inhibiting the potential of future stakeholders to do so. Given that ‘there is probably no other economic activity which cuts through so many sectors, levels and interests’ (Cater, 1995, p. 21) as tourism, a fall in its levels would affect a huge amount of people.

This highlights the importance of sustainable tourism and all that it encompasses, such as Ecotourism and Green Tourism. To achieve this ideal tourism must be done in a manner which limits the ‘negative environmental and social impacts’ (Forsyth, 1997, p. 272). The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) definition of Ecotourism reinforces this: ‘Ecotourism is environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas in order to enjoy and appreciate Nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations’ (IUCN, 1996). Many companies do operate in a sustainable manner. For example, Peru Treks and Adventure are a small organisation based in Cusco, Peru, that offer treks around the Inca trails. They pride themselves in their sustainable operation. They are fully aware of their economic responsibility, making sure they employ as many locals as possible (all bar one employee at present), they purchase as much equipment as possible locally and they pay all local taxes (Gonzales, 2009).

This maintains the economic well being of the hosts, ensuring they benefit economically as well as the tourism organisation. They take care of the environment they use, operating a zero tolerance litter policy, utilising clean burning fuels and ensuring any disposable items used are fully biodegradable (Gonzales, 2009). This allows the tourism to occur with a negligible effect on the environment used, allowing the same tourism to continue into the long term. The company also has a socio-cultural agenda; they directly aid numerous welfare projects in the area, for example the construction of two schools in mountain villages (Gonzales, 2009). This further enhances the benefit of the tourism in the area, ensuring that tourism is always an advantage for the region and not a burden. However, tourism such as this is still not entirely sustainable. Tourists still have to travel to the area, usually by aircraft and motor vehicles. These obviously have adverse effects on the environment they travel though, with extensive carbon emissions from the vehicles causing negative environmental effects, such as acid rain and global warming (EnergySavingTrust, 2009).

Whilst various innovations such as catalytic converters are in place, and hydrogen and electrochemical fuel cells are being produced (CarbonTrust, 2009) the negative effects of this travel are yet to be completely removed or compensated for. This effect is exacerbated when tourist origins are taken into account, given that the majority of international tourists originate from Europe and North America (WorldMapper, 2003), trips to sustainable tourist attractions, such as Peru Treks and Adventure, will mean a substantial amount of travelling for most tourists and as a result a substantial amount of emissions. Attempts at remaining sustainable like this by individual companies are on a very small scale when taking the entire tourism industry into account. In order to expand this sustainability, governmental legislation needs to be put into place. Governmental action has been used in some countries to advocate sustainable tourism on a larger scale. Bhutan for example places controls on the number of tourists allowed into the country.

‘The Biodiversity Action Plan for Bhutan advocates that the most derisible approach to control visitor numbers is to maintain the existing fee charged by the royal government, while setting limits to the total number of tourists visiting the country and allocating tradable rights to the existing tour operators’ (Dorji, 2001, p. 98). The government charges a fee to tourists entering the country, by doing so they increase the cost of travel for the tourists and ensure that only tourists with a real interest in the country and what it has to offer, that are willing to pay extra, gain entrance to the country. They also only operate with specific credited tour operators that the country can trust to act in a sustainable manner, independent travel through Bhutan is not allowed. Within the country the Bhutanese government uses the same approach to direct tourists within the country, using ‘either regional quotas or limits in hotel construction in the more busy regions of the country’ (Dorji, 2001, p. 98). Plans like this help to spread the tourism across the whole of the country, ensuring the economic and social benefits of the having the tourists there reach all sectors of the country. Government

The Gambian government also put plans into place to foster sustainable tourism. In 1999 the Gambian government set legislation in place to outlaw all inclusive tourism (TourismConcern, 2009). This move was made given the nature of all inclusive tourism. This brand of tourism shuts off the tourists from the country itself, providing them with food, drink, transport, and entertainment. This drastically limits the potential of the host nation to benefit from the tourism. By outlawing these types of holiday, it forces interaction of tourists and locals, allowing the tourists to gain more from their holidays and the locals to reap the economic and social benefits from the new inflow of custom they experience. However, this move by the government was met by heavy resistance from many European tour operators, forcing the government to abandon the law just one year after its passing (TourismConcern, 2009). The popularity of this brand of tourism made it economically non-viable for the tour operators to continue operations in Gambia without the availability of all inclusive holidays. This shows that despite the obvious benefits of sustainable tourism, it can be very difficult to implement.

The Gambian example highlights the conflicting ideals of the many stakeholders in the tourism industry, which make sustainable tourism a struggle to achieve. If ever we are to arrive at the most sustainable outcome there will be inevitable trade-offs, and ‘it is unlikely to be optimal either from the point of view of the environmentalist or the developmentalist’ (Cater, 1995, p. 27). Until these trade-offs are accepted by all stakeholders, sustainable tourism will remain stagnant. As mentioned above, governmental tools can be used to foster this; however, the regulation of tourism is very difficult, as Gambia proved further. Regulation is hard as tourism is not a tangible product; it is based on image, opinion and perception (Urry, 1990). The problems of tourism are created by different sectors within the industry, for example transport or accommodation, ‘therefore not all environmental problems are the responsibility of the industry as a whole’ (Forsyth, 1997, p. 272) increasing the difficulties of regulation. Even when some business and governments do succeed to some extent, such as Peru Trek and Adventure and Bhutan, the tourism is still not entirely sustainable and unsustainable tourism will still thrive elsewhere. In order for truly sustainable tourism to be achieved cooperation between all governments, businesses and individuals is needed.

Milne states that ‘while truly sustainable tourism can probably never be achieved, it remains an ideal that we must strive to attain’ (Milne, 1998, p. 35). However, considering that sustainable tourism as a concept owes its origins to the idea of sustainable development (Hunter, 1997) it is yet to have a concrete definition. Theoretically this means that sustainable tourism will mean different things to different people, and as we have seen can incorporate a plethora of differing themes. Hunter argues that ‘sustainable tourism must be regarded as an adaptive paradigm capable of addressing widely differing situations, and articulating different goals in terms of utilisation of natural resources’ (Hunter, 1997, p. 864). This quote epitomises my viewpoint. Sustainable tourism is not an ‘ideal’ or a ‘dream’ but a process, applicable to all sectors of the industry, which ensures the long term prospects of the industry itself are maintained. The extent to which this process achieves these goals is dependent on the extent of the process’s integration. If full integration can in fact be achieved, optimal sustainability will be experienced.


CarbonTrust. (2009). Innovations. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from The Carbon Trust: http://www.carbontrust.co.uk/technology Cater, E. (1995). Environmental Contradictions in Sustainable Tourism. The Geographical Journal , 21-28. Dorji, T. (2001). Sustainability of Tourism in Bhutan. Journel of Bhutan Studies , 84-104. EnergySavingTrust. (2009). Climate Change, CO2 Emissions and Global Warming. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Energy Saving Trust: http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Your-impact-on-climate-change Forsyth, T. (1997). Environmental Responsability and Business Regulation: The Case of Sustainable Tourism. The Geographical Journal , 270-280. Gonzales, G. (2009). Peru Trek and Adventure, Responsible Tourism. Retrieved April 2, 2009, from Peru Trek and Adventure: http://www.perutreks.com/responsible_tourism.html Hunter, C. (1997). Sustainable Tourism as an Adaptive Paradigm. The Annals of Tourism Research , 850-867. IUCN. (1996). World Conservation congress. Montreal.

Milne, S. (1998). Tourism and Sustainable Development: Exploring the Global-Local Nexus. Essex: Pearson Education Limited. Swarbrooke, J. (1999). Sustainable Tourism Management. CABI. TourismConcern. (2009). Tourism Concern. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from Tourism Concern: http://www.tourismconcern.org.uk/index.php?page=livelihoods Urry, J. (1990). The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies. London: Sage Publications. WorldMapper. (2003). Tourist Origins. Retrieved April 3, 2009, from World Mapper: http://www.worldmapper.org/display.php?selected=20

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