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Inspiring Actions for Sustainable Tourism

Article by Susan T. Jackson


Image by Nick Fewings via Unsplash



Before the pandemic disrupted travel, there were 1.4 billion travelers annually – that is 45 travelers arriving at their destinations every second of the day. Germany saw 185.1 million of those arrivals. Local tourism plays a significant role in many places. Unfortunately, tourism is one of the biggest contributors to plastic waste that causes pollution, contaminates the planet’s oceans, and degradates destinations’ ecosystems. Relying on a business-as-usual approach threatens an industry that is already feeling the impacts of climate change.


What is sustainable tourism?


As the tourism industry continues to rebound from its pandemic lows and navigates the uncertainties caused by the war in Ukraine, fostering sustainable tourism is as important as ever. According to UNEP, sustainable tourism “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.” It aims to minimize negative impacts such as economic leakage and environmental damage, while increasing positive ones such as the creation of decent jobs and preservation of cultural and natural heritage. And demand for it is on the rise.


This kind of holistic approach rests on mainstreaming sustainability into the tourism industry at every level from design to outcome. That means empowering industry workers and visitors to recognize, understand and implement the sustainable development goals in travel experiences. It can be challenging, but there are clear paths forward that those in the tourism industry can start on today.

Empowerment and transparency are key


Regardless of where, the tourism industry shares a variety of challenges that center on people. ‘Leave no one behind’ is a fundamental commitment of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development – the global rights-based plan of action for sustainable environmental, economic and social development. Gender equality and women’s empowerment are part of that commitment. Yet, even though women make up 54% of the people employed in tourism around the world, on average they earn 14.7% less than men in the industry and are relegated to lower-level positions.


Another challenge the industry faces is the lack of data that captures the true costs of the industry on local communities, such as increases in water consumption and waste. Sustainability often is treated as one-dimensional, meaning companies focus on one aspect of sustainability and thus miss out accounting for potential trade offs. There also are issues with cherry-picking data by focusing only on the information that is positive. The lack of rigorous data and reporting can lead to greenwashing, blue (social) washing, and SDG-washing. These kinds of situations make it difficult for travelers who want easy to identify sustainable travel options. Tourists increasingly want to understand how their choices are sustainable so that they can be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

Actions for change

The industry needs sustainability in tourism promotion decisions in order to future-proof itself. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions but there are commonalities the industry can act on.


Leadership → Integrating women and under-represented groups into management and decision-making processes can appeal to travelers and build business resilience. Developing and enacting initiatives is another way to lead sustainably. For example, to take care of the environment and the people in its archipelago, Palau instituted a first-of-its-kind passport pledge to protect the environment that each visitor must sign upon entering the country. A community effort, children helped draft the pledge and visitors are encouraged to frequent local businesses that are certified under the pledge. There also are global and regional initiatives that support company action toward environmental stewardship, such as the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative and Hotel Energy Solutions in the EU.


Innovation → The industry needs to support a widespread shift to climate-friendly modes of transportation to and at destinations. Promoting local tourism and working with local suppliers when possible can help communities find innovative solutions to the challenges they face. Designing and implementing new business models based on net-zero carbon emissions and zero waste is beneficial for people and the environment and for business.


Strategy development → As with any sustainability approach, it is critical to commit to sustainability and build it into the business model. Mainstreaming sustainable tourism criteria into the business model and communicating actions to all stakeholders can contribute to competitiveness and resilience. Tailoring these criteria according to local contexts will increase the chances of success. Establishing partnerships and supporting sustainability training and education are just a few ways companies and destinations can work together. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council’s industry and destination criteria and performance targets provide guidelines for getting started.


Transformative processes → A transformative approach to sustainable tourism is necessary. Storytelling can be a powerful means for changing perspectives and nurturing sustainable tourism as co-production – something that tourists and local communities create together. Considering the SDGs as integrated into tourism, rather than add-ons or separate projects, can contribute to a more dynamic understanding of sustainable tourism, which in turn fosters dynamic problem solving. These kinds of transformative actions can go a long way in integrating sustainability into tourism.



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