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Explainer: What is sustainable tourism?

Tourism is responsible for 11% of carbon emissions worldwide. Despite efforts to make it more sustainable, it is hard to achieve.

By Silvia Pellegrino

sustainable tourism, waste, beach
Trashy holiday. Critics are scpetical that sustainable tourism really works, but others argue it is a growing and important market. (Photo by Larina Marina via Shutterstock)
  • The sustainable tourism market is approximately worth $200bn and could reach more than $330bn by 2027.
  • Debate still rages as to whether “sustainable tourism” is even real. Can the two co-exist?
  • The top ten countries in the world for sustainable tourism are in Europe.

After the pandemic subsided, tourism took back its title as one of the largest industries in the world, accounting for 10% of global GDP. 

Even though there are no figures to show the exact impact of tourism on the environment, the United Nation’s World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) shared, in 2019, that climate change is heavily impacted by global carbon dioxide emissions from tourism-related transport. Indeed, this pollution covers 11% of the overall emission quantity worldwide, as reported by the World Travel & Tourism Council in 2022. 

This is where sustainable tourism comes into play. It is classed 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”, as described by the UNWTO. 

There are ambitious plans for sustainable tourism, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development SDG Target 8.9, which has the goal to “devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products”.

How big and how sustainable is this sector?

The sustainable tourism market is believed to be worth roughly $200bn. The Ecotourism Global Market Report 2023 also predicts its market size to reach $331.62bn by 2027. 

Searches for the term ‘sustainable travel’ also grew by 142.6% between April 2019 and April 2022, as documented by Radical Storage

A survey conducted by UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) showed that 80% of people (out of 30,314 respondents) believe that sustainable tourism is important. But does sustainable tourism make a difference? 

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While some believe that eco-tourism creates more opportunities employment-wise, especially in less developed territories, alongside helping to tackle climate change through more environmentally friendly practices, others think that sustainability and tourism cannot co-exist. 

Travelling generates high amounts of greenhouse gases while contributing to energy and water shortages which disrupt local life. In order to have enough infrastructure for visitors, an area must also invest in new buildings and hotels, which often lead to landscaping and, consequently, affect the local biodiversity and environment.

However, as the World Economic Forum explains, even if there is not a set answer to whether sustainable tourism makes a positive difference, it still damages the surrounding environment less than other types of tourism. 

What are the different kinds of sustainable tourism?

To analyse the advantages of sustainable tourism, it is important to categorise the different types. Ecotourism, for instance, particularly focuses on ecological conservation and environmental protection. This means that energy conservation and efficiency, as well as respect for indigenous cultures, are vital elements for it.

Rural tourism, on the other hand, describes travels that focus on rural areas rather than urban ones, such as hiking trips, camping and immersive tourism such as farming. Soft tourism focuses on respecting the local culture too, avoiding tourist hotspots and prioritising traditional experiences of the area to prevent overcrowding. 

All these kinds of sustainable tourism have several objectives in common, which differentiate them from regular tourism:

  • Protecting wildlife by being mindful of local habitats and keeping the animals in the wild rather than in captivity.
  • Protecting the environment by frequenting energy-conscious hotels and other infrastructure to reduce waste, as well as exploring by either public transport or motorless vehicles such as bicycles. 
  • Supporting locals by stimulating the creation of new jobs and financially supporting new projects that interest local businesses. The greater the demand for sustainable tourism, the less exploitative it is on local populations.

Which countries benefit from sustainable tourism?

The latest Euromonitor International’s Sustainable Travel Index outlined the top 10 countries for sustainable tourism in the world, with Europe as the main beneficiary: 

  1. Sweden
  2. Slovakia
  3. Finland
  4. Austria
  5. Estonia
  6. France
  7. Latvia
  8. Iceland
  9. Slovenia
  10. Norway

The evaluation was based on seven factors: environmental, economic and social sustainability, country risk, sustainable tourism demand, transport and accommodations. 

The first country, Sweden, which also has a 2045 plan to reach net zero, provides the most sustainable tourism options, including arctic adventures, forest and lake hikes, foraging and over 30 national parks. The country promotes rural and regional tourism rather than visiting big cities and it also built an array of eco lodgings, accompanied by alternative methods of travelling apart from planes. 

Outside of these areas, there are other destinations that are trying to be more sustainable and provide more environmentally friendly options. For example, Jordan’s Feynan Ecolodge is in the Dana Biosphere Nature Reserve and is a collaborative project with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature, which invested in the establishment by making it totally solar-powered

Another promising example is South Africa, where the hostel Mdumbi Backpackers offers its guests the possibility of participating in hiking, whale watching and sightseeing activities. In addition, all the practices inside the structure are sustainable, with an efficient waste management system, solar panels and the involvement of locals to create new livelihoods. 

What kinds of investments are available?

The information about private or public investments in sustainable tourism is not widely available. However, in the UNWTO’s Tourism Investment Report 2022, the accommodation sub-sector attracted the biggest share of foreign direct investments (FDIs) projects between 2019 and 2021, with 59% of announced investment projects. The top three investors in this sector were Marriott International, Hyatt International and Travel + Leisure Co – not names you would naturally associate with sustainable tourism. 

Henzy Richter, ESG research lead for consumer goods at Morningstar Analytics, told Capital Monitor the UNWTO has ongoing partnerships with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) as well as the Inter-American Development Bank. “One example of the collaboration is the Green Investments for Sustainable Tourism Initiative launched by the UNWTO and the IFC in 2020, focused on helping the tourism sector’s post-COVID-19 recovery while improving the sector’s sustainability.”

Alongside this initiative, in September 2022, the UNWTO also reported that its global investment network of more than 200 investors would support hotel chains in 50 countries with their sustainability efforts, says Ritcher. 

Morningstar data also shows that there are at least 14 EU-funded programmes focused on sustainable tourism, such as InvestEU, LIFE Programme and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). 

To raise awareness of sustainable tourism, the United Nations established World Tourism Day, which recurs every September. “This year’s World Tourism Day with the theme ‘Tourism and Green Investment’ will be a venue for governments, development partners, financial institutions, and private sector investors to highlight the sector’s need for sustainable investments,” Ritcher says.

He adds: “Relevant stakeholders from the tourism sector will aim to address key topics such as the governments’ role in promoting private and international investments, motivating investors and policymakers to support green initiatives, as well as speeding up climate innovation through investments in technology and practices that promote the development of new climate solutions.”

[Read more: SDG8: Decent work and economic growth]

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