We need to change the way we think about Tourism


Sustainable Travel is NOT a paradox. Sustainable travel is about getting things done well, and that normally implies more work. This is precisely one of the main reasons why most of tourism-related companies worldwide haven’t adopted its policy yet, because applying sustainability into tourism requires research, planning, execution, monitoring, correcting and although these tasks are aimed to improve the performance, yield and stability of our industry, they are just considered like ‘much more work’ by most of tourism actors. And as we have listened so many times… “Why so much work when tourism already works well with the principle of least effort?” (And then we are like “Ôi trời ơi…” which  can be translated as “Oh là là”, “Meine Güte...”, “¡¿Hola?!” or “Oh my goodness!”).

Sustainability key parameters to be applied into tourism are clearly settled and therefore shouldn’t give rise to differing interpretations. Nevertheless, paradoxes come up inevitably when tourism-related companies and governmental authorities claiming to be theoretically ‘responsible’ are not that concerned in practice. And that can of course be misleading.

Let’s start by analyzing the most common definition of ‘sustainable travel’: ‘It’s aimed to maximize the benefits of tourism while minimizing and taking full account of its current and future negative impacts within the social, economic and environmental scopes’.

Using a less academic writing, we can say that ‘Sustainable tourism is the Tourism properly performed´, what basically means that instead of turning a blind eye (as the sector has mostly been doing throughout its 70 years of History), the actors actually take responsibility for their actions, trying to avoid undesirable impacts or applying the necessary corrective measures when any tourism activity is causing a negative effect. So Sustainable Travel is not a bed of roses, but it doesn't mean that it's a paradox.

Thus, the definition clearly states that there are also some negative impacts even when travelling sustainably, because we cannot deny the truth: all human activity has an impact and a great part of a sustainable travel policy precisely consists in tackling those undesirable impacts that can derive from tourism, ensuring that the hosting of visitors is done in a way that maximizes the benefits to stakeholders (host communities, visitors, co-operators and the entity itself), while minimizing the effects, costs, and impacts associated with the success of the destination. 

Indeed, some conventional destinations, especially in Europe, have been victims of their own ‘success’, fundamentally because ministries of tourism, destination marketing organizations, convention bureaux and travel operators have mostly carried out a growth-oriented linear economic model for the development of their destinations, with a relatively short sight-approach which mostly consisted in attracting as many visitors as possible, in generating a return on investment as quickly as possible to increase shareholder’s value, while investing very little in protecting the assets that compound their destinations - even though the success of their businesses directly relies on these assets. In other words, this old school mentality hasn’t managed to put people and planet alongside profit and the consequences of this ‘unilateral’ policy are already obvious in some traditional destinations, where the communities have literally burned out due to lack of proper planning and destination management. Anyway, a picture is worth a thousand words, so let’s better see some concrete examples about this:


This welcoming messages are the last trend adornments on Barcelona’s street walls, lamp-posts and urban furniture.


Such a shocking message, especially coming from Amsterdam. 

Residents protesting in Venice because they feel their city no longer belongs to them.

Majorca. Another shocking, sad message.

These are just some pretty visual examples related to negative impacts of tourism in mature destinations where the implementation of a travel policy with a community mindset failed. Nevertheless, there are sorrowfully other examples of irresponsibility taking also place right now both on consolidated and emerging destinations situated in what we call ‘developing countries’. As if Travel Industry hadn’t learnt its lesson from those traditional western destinations that once were also emerging and are today struggling to redirect their ‘old-school’ tourism policies into the sustainability model – and that’s actually going to imply ‘much more work’, efforts and challenges than  ‘getting things done well’ from the very beginning.

So who should be pleaded guilty to developing tourism destinations without carrying out a proper destination management plan? Tour operators? Public sector? Destination marketing organizations? Yes, they are, as well as somehow the rest of stakeholders involved are too. Let’s have a look into the ones who plays a major role:               

       -Tour operators and hospitality businesses: The tourism sector’s commitment to sustainability is unquestionably weak. It seems that most private entities haven’t realized that their destinations and their people (communities, visitors, employees, suppliers) are our most valuable assets and that without those assets, there will be no way ‘to make any margin’. So even from an individualist/institutional business model perspective, operators and hospitality businesses can’t be successful if they don’t give back, as it’s been already proven in traditional destinations. And we are not talking about charity, marketing or standardized certifications, we are talking about integrating sustainability into our operational DNA, about finally being smarter and looking beyond the end of our noses, about taking care of that well-spring our businesses directly depends upon, about doing business thinking in a community-mindset, about facing our threats and weaknesses and turning them into new social and business opportunities, and about reaping the rewards of that conscious performance.

In fact, the most successful case studies carried out in this regard came out of organizations that standing for social compliance/shared value/sustainability/conscious capitalism (however you prefer to coin it) are actually outperforming the market. 

       -Public sector, convention bureaux, destination marketing organizations: Canada or the small developing country of Costa Rica have big lessons in sustainability to be shared. As other few concrete destinations, they have already proved how effective (and profitable!) is to coordinate the management of all elements that make up a destination, calling for the coalition of many stakeholders and interests, working towards a common goal and replacing in most cases the activity that was being done by pure destination marketing organizations by the critical activity done by local, regional and state Destination Management Organizations that lead and coordinate a coherent strategy to develop and consolidate their destinations, using tourism as a tool for achieving sustainable development goals, rather than being used by it. 

This irremediably leads us back to the example of those traditional tourism destinations in Europe that, once upon a time, achieved a better quality of life precisely thanks to tourism. Nevertheless, that excitement and enthusiasm which in the case of Barcelona started with the Olympic Games in 1992 as an opportunity to turn the city into a renowned tourism destination are now gone, totally forgotten, with a community evidently stressed due to the dramatic growth of visitors (or better said, due to the lack of a destination management plan), a community which is now blaming ‘tourism’, although once upon a time, tourism played (and keeps on playing - although now, with an obvious negative result on the triple bottom line people-planet-profit) a major role on the city’s infrastructure and social improvements. These communities have many reasons to feel overwhelmed by tourism, nevertheless, they are totally wrong putting the blame on ‘tourism’ or ‘tourists’, instead of on the public and private entities which are supposed to manage their tourism destination strategy.               

       -Host communities: On the early stages of a brand-new tourism destination, local communities are generally open and happy to receive tourists, as tourism represents new jobs, new businesses, a new income. Of course the two first stakeholders on this list have a major responsibility developing a tourism policy committed to social impacts, but let’s be honest, host communities also need to be more conscious and play their respective role towards the stabilization of their destination, which is, above all, their place of residence. Transforming old city centers into sort of thematic parks -as the tourism authorities of the Dutch capital have mentioned while talking about their upcoming tourism strategy- it is not precisely a positive contribution to enhance the cultural, architectonic and historical heritage, among others. So in this case, the fault is on both sides: tourism authorities, because they are not using effective criteria and also residents, for not being concerned enough (didn't they see that the old city center was already packed with souvenir shops?), although it’s duty of the authorities to establish which are the desirable lines to be followed in order to achieve a sustainable destination.

       -Travellers: Guys, wakey, wakey! You are the real changemakers in here. Like most other industries, tourism is a demand-driven market, yet both the demand and the supply don’t seem to be quite aware of it. It’s easy, where there is demand, there will be supply. Conscious travellers and consumers are already rejecting certain types of travel products, nevertheless, the tourism supply chain is not being adjusted accordingly, just because the demand of authentic sustainable travel products is not ‘the norm’ yet. And don’t be misinformed! Sustainability in travel industry is neither a paradox nor a synonym of ecotourism. Sustainable travel is just ‘the way to travel’, either if it’s going to the mountains, to the beach, to the city, staying in a house on stilts or in a fancy accommodation, but of course the industry needs the support of that stakeholder for whom the travel products are designed: Our travellers.

       -Airlines: We are not precisely specialists in aerospace engineering, but just as citizens, it’s very hard for us to accept that in the 21st century we haven’t still managed to find an alternative to fuel eligible to be used in aviation, as well as in other means of transport. We shouldn’t fool ourselves in this case; the environmental costs of travelling are not precisely a positive contribution to that huge sustainability scale which at the same time is made up of many other different scales that involve many different systems, processes, linkages, indicators, appraisals and many other metrics which are still evolving; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the total balance is negative, although CO2 and pollution in general are definitely one of the biggest challenges in sustainability. On the other hand, being one of the key elements of tourism, air carriers also need to become part of a coordinated tourism strategy plan on those regions they are operating in.

Global tourism is expected to keep on growing due to many diverse reasons. We can ‘let it be’, as conventional destinations have been mostly doing, or we can change the way we currently think about tourism and actually transform it into our most powerful tool to achieve sustainable development goals. What are we waiting for?

Travellers, residents, private and public tourism-related companies and organizations, researchers, conservationists or entrepreneurs who have already gone through their own transformation and would really like to join forces in order to develop their activities towards a sustainability framework are more than welcome to get in touch with us, since we are constantly looking for like-minded cooperators. An intense journey full with contrasts (that’s the way we like it, right?) is awaiting us!

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