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Sustainability News

September 14, 2017

Sustainable Tourism Thought LeaderA Thought Leader Series Piece

by Kathleen Andereck & Christine Vogt

Note: To celebrate the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute for Sustainability and the Center for Sustainable Tourism in the School of Community Resources and Development at ASU will host Megan Epler Wood – Director of the International Sustainable Tourism Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Wood's lecture will take place at 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 2, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. It will be followed by a dessert reception and book signing.

The origins of sustainable tourism

The concept of sustainability, as we think of it today, emerged from several global initiatives on the heels of the environmental movement. Four initiatives in particular – the Brundtland report Our Common Future released in 1987; the Rio Summit with its Agenda 21 in 1992; and the UN World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, or Rio+10, and then Rio+20 in 2012 – spurred the conceptual development of sustainable tourism.

In the Brundtland report, its authors took a serious look at the impacts of industrial and human activities on the planet. Tourism was flagged in recognition of its contribution to these impacts.

Agenda 21 went further by directly noting the need for the sustainable development of tourism. In fact, the primary global tourism organizations – World Travel and Tourism Council, United Nations World Tourism Organization and the Earth Council – developed an Agenda 21 directed at tourism, specifically addressing environmental sustainability for the tourism industry.

Rio+10 had a more socially-oriented focus, with the UNWTO further recognizing the importance of including all three pillars of sustainability – economic, social and environmental – in the development of tourism. It was UNEP’s 2011 Green Economy report developed in preparation for the 2012 Rio+20 meeting, however, that finally included tourism in a significant way as part of the global sustainability effort.

In the academic community, while some aspects of sustainable tourism have been a topic of research for many years, work with the specific label of "sustainable tourism" generally began in the early 1990s. With the launch of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism in 1993, this area became a mainstream research focus.

Today, in the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, what progress has been made toward the goal of making tourism a sustainable economic- and community-development option for nations around the world?

The end of tourism as we know it

Tourism as an industry and as a leisure activity has seen continuous and substantial growth since the advent of the jet engine.

It is projected to continue escalating. The United Nations predicts travel demand will grow 50 percent in the next 15 years alone. More people from developing countries who have never traveled outside their own borders will add millions to the already 1.2 billion in international travelers – especially as new groups of people, such as Chinese travelers, enter the market.

Along with this growth comes a multitude of benefits for countries and communities, as well as a multitude of negative consequences.

As Megan Epler Wood notes in her new book Sustainable Tourism on a Finite Planet (2017), some of the major challenges to achieving a sustainable tourism industry include a lack of baseline quantitative information and measurable standards, world leaders’ neglect of tourism as a policy issue, and industry investment in marketing to the exclusion of product maintenance.

There are success stories, however. In their 2013 book Sustainable Tourism and the Millennium Development Goals, Bricker, Black and Cottrell compiled examples of how tourism practitioners and academics have contributed to the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Organizations, certificate programs, education, case studies on corporate social responsibility, research providing evidence of positive and negative impacts, and award-winning conservation programs are some of the ways that sustainability in tourism is moving forward.

Many destinations have made a commitment to sustainable tourism development and are making progress. A recent destination sustainability index white paper recognized several cities that are leaders in achieving sustainable tourism, highlighting mostly European cities.

In the Global Destination Sustainability Report (2017), tourists as they are currently perceived are suggested as a dying breed. The City of Copenhagen claims “the end of tourism as we know it” and proclaims “localhood for everyone.” Copenhagen tourism managers see a future where local residents and visitors interact around shared local experiences – building a new heightened cultural exchange and place appreciation.

This is the time for those involved in the tourism industry to reflect on past efforts, then turn to the future with innovative ideas for navigating the opportunities and uncertainties of the expanding tourism industry. Most can agree that a sustainability focus at any level leads to better conditions for the environment and humans, and that many sustainability initiatives save money and attract consumers that live and travel according to their values.

Dr. Kathleen Andereck is vice dean of the Hainan University-Arizona State University International Tourism College and director of the School of Community Resources and Development at Arizona State University, where she also holds the rank of professor. Her research focuses on the tourism experience from the perspective of both visitors and residents particularly as it applies to sustainable tourism. 

Dr. Christine Vogt is director of the Center for Sustainable Tourism in the School of Community Resources and Development, College of Public Service and Community Solutions, at Arizona State University. Vogt has been conducting research for over 20 years in the areas of recreation, parks, tourism, and natural resources, more specifically in the area of tourism and recreation planning; development and marketing; and community assessment in rural and urban areas.