What Is Sustainable Tourism?

Countless corporations, travel outfitters, and governments claim to practice sustainable tourism in some way or another, but whom should a well-meaning traveler trust?
Sustainable Tourism Defined
A turtle hatchling near North Island safari lodge in the Seychelles (courtesy Andrew Howard/North Island Lodge)

You've stocked the fridge with produce from the local farmers' market, purchased school supplies for a Haitian orphan, and even fashioned a dog collar from the unused twist ties in your kitchen. Good work! You're trying to do the right thing in this big, complicated, sometimes-cruel world. But applying your good intentions to the world of travel might not be as easy you think.

Is it possible to reconcile the umpteen-thousand tons of CO2 we use in transit, the eight times more water we use on vacation than we do at home, or that a scant 5 percent of our vacation dollars go back into the communities we're visiting? These are the kinds of questions that confuse or downright plague aspiring "sustainable tourists." Throw in the green-travel jargon employed by the tourism business and the 127 different organizations claiming to "certify" travel providers as "sustainable," and it's virtually impossible to know who to trust—let alone make a decision that might do some good for flora, fauna, or humanity.

"If you've got countless logos and sustainable tourism claims to wade through, the entire exercise becomes frustrating and irrelevant," says Erika Harms, executive director of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), an offshoot of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). "I've done the exercise myself, and believe me, it's daunting."

From 2008 until this past fall, the GSTC—with the help of the Rainforest Alliance, The Ecotourism Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and several other partners—studied some 4,000 criteria provided by 80,000 tourism and sustainability experts and 60 sustainable-travel certification groups and governments. Harms and her team boiled those down into 37 tidy line items urging travel companies to push the world in a positive direction.

Trouble is, the GSTC criteria, commendable as they are, don't make sustainable tourism a no-brainer for the consumer. The checklist is essentially a UN memo, written in bureaucratese for businesses and governments. "It's difficult to quantify what constitutes sustainable tourism. It can be a very nebulous concept to a lot of people," says Kristin Lamoureux, a professor of travel and tourism at George Washington University (GWU). "Right now, consumers still have to do some research to be sure they're traveling in a way that fits their philosophy."

The good news is that research isn't as challenging as you may imagine. All you need are: a definition, a basic grasp of the certification process, and a willingness to ask a few questions. Follow these guidelines and you're halfway to being a sustainable tourist. The other half? Booking your trip.

Published: 22 Mar 2011 | Last Updated: 1 Apr 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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