RESTART MED!: What is Sustainable Tourism really about?


Sustainable Tourism is a pretty common sentence that far too many of us lately use without understanding the meaning. But what is it really about?

The expression sustainable tourism can be used in the broader context of tourism as an “umbrella” for different sustainable tourism types such as nature, rural, cultural and ecotourism. But what is actually Sustainable Tourism?

Expressed simply, UNWTO – the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations – defines sustainable tourism as "Tourism that 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". Full description here

Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic, and sociocultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability. Thus, sustainable tourism should:

(1) Make optimal use of environmental resources which constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity. Topics that can be included are:

  • Nature and landscape - looking after the preservation of the landscape, protecting natural spaces, and working for the preservation of biodiversity.
  • Water - take into account the efficient consumption of water and manage its sanitation.
  • Energy - optimise energy consumption, promote renewable energy sources and reduce CO2.
  • Mobility - optimise energy consumption, promote renewable energy sources and reduce CO2.
  • Waste - minimise waste through a policy of reduction, reuse, return, proper separation, and recycling.
  • Climate change - measure the emissions and work on mitigating (reducing the emissions).

(2) Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance. Topics that can be included are:

  • Population and culture - work to promote local culture, involve the local population in the tourism activities and promote exchange between visitors and the local population.
  • Specific needs of guests - respond to the specific needs of the customers such as foster care, accessibility, attention to food intolerances or allergies. We work for quality tourism.
  • Working conditions and equal opportunities - have equal working conditions, promote the participation and training of our workers, promote family reconciliation and racial and cultural integration.

(3) Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation. Topics that can be included are:

  • Market (customers) - take into account the ecological impacts of travel, strengthen actions to attract local customers and ensure a balanced mix of guests (proximity-not proximity).
  • Jobs and associations - involvement with associations and local governments to make tourism a sustainable activity in the territory and create well-paid and stable jobs.
  • Innovation and profitability - promote innovation and make investments to improve our facilities / products taking into account economic viability, environmental sustainability and social acceptance

Nonetheless, Sustainable Tourism is a very complex concept and includes numerous interactions, as demonstrated in the following chart. Furthermore, the notion is constantly evolving. (Source: Adaptation from Zhang, S., & Chan, E. S. (2019) taking into account the UNWTO definition of sustainable tourism.).

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As the chart shows, it is very important to take into consideration the actors involved in tourism. In this regard, governance is also another pillar that is needed when talking about sustainable tourism.

(4) Governance: The tourism sector is a local-global system that involves different actors. In this regard, a good governance system is key in order to achieve a balance between the environmental, socio-cultural and economical sustainability aspects and manage them.

All in all, Sustainable Tourism is a goal that we can only achieve together by measuring, checking and making compromises, which is why ENI CBC MED projects are key: they involve partners that need to cooperate for a common goal.

If you want to learn more about sustainable tourism and best practices, take a look at the RESTART MED! training manual, you can find some inspiring cases, learn about sustainabe tourism in the Mediterranean and a deeper analysis on what sustianable tourism is about. This articles is based on the manual.