How to guide to responsible tourism

Achieving the sustainable development goals isn’t all down to states and international institutions, and in this article, Sam Wigglesworth looks at how the general population have the power to positively influence the rise of sustainable tourism.

Tourism: more than white water rafting and snorkelling tours. There are significant benefits offered by a sector that is often overlooked as a driver for development. It is an industry that is economically as powerful as 9 percent of the world’s GDP, generating an estimated US $1,232 billion in 2015. The head of China’s government noted recently that tourism is one of the “fastest-growing and most resilient industrial sectors…boosting world economic recovery” It plays a vital role in lifting people out of poverty through job creation, and is an effective peace building initiative through the promotion of education, shared culture and history.

In acknowledgment of this, the United Nations has firmly placed tourism on the global agenda as part of the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which consists of 17 goals selected to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all.

The theme across the different goals where tourism is referenced is for the industry to become sustainable. It should meet the needs of present visitors while also protecting and enhancing opportunity for the future.

Sarahchats/Creative Commons License

Sarahchats/Creative Commons License

Unfortunately these goals aren’t often at the forefront of people’s minds when they go on holiday. Mass tourism has been criticised for exploiting those living in poverty and endangering

biodiversity and examples can be found across the world. Thailand recently just made the decision to close the popular Koh Tachai island due to high tourist numbers and in April an elephant died after giving tourists rides around the famous Angkor Wat temples.

Solutions are rarely simple, especially when we consider questions of capacity.  Elephant riding is largely condemned by animals rights groups, but the problem is complex. Elephants cost a lot to maintain, and in Chiang Mai, where it is a renowned tourist activity,  the average monthly income is around 13,400 baht per month (approximately 270 GBP), and an elephant can cost up to 1000 baht a day (20 GBP) to take care of.

So where does the buck stop? It seems challenging to suggest that someone just making a living is in the best position to start implementing wide reaching, regional and global change, despite undoubtedly having a part to play.

There is an argument that local governments are in a strong position to aid the development of sustainable tourism. Local governments are often closest to the problems associated with tourism development, have access to information about the problems existing in a community and have access to a supportive national policy framework. However, this isn’t without challenges, as local governments in developing countries don’t always have the most effective mechanisms in place to implement such initiatives. Go a step to the top, and international institutions are likely to face cultural barriers to the creation of a sustainable tourism agenda.

Perhaps, in this case, tourists themselves are in the best position to achieve change. A growing industry year-on-year, in 2015 1.2 billion people travelled internationally, up 4% from 2014. That’s larger than any government body and the ones with the most power. If all 1.2 billion people took the opportunity to learn about where they were going, and educated themselves about the culture, customers, problems and opportunities facing where they are visiting, there is a greater likelihood of unsustainable practices being phased out, thanks to the ever present logic of supply and demand.

IAEA Imagebank/Creative Commons License

IAEA Imagebank/Creative Commons License

Additionally, if you’re keen to travel responsibly, it doesn’t require hours of study either: when looking at doing something popular in an area, independent reviews are one way to find out if where you want to go will be an authentic experience. One example is the well documented problems faced by the community at the Chong Khneas floating village outside of Siem Reap in Cambodia. A popular trip for those visiting the town, the area is owned by a private company who control the tourist boat service, making it difficult for those who live in the village to make a living.

Ultimately, taking steps to ensure you’re supporting the local community isn’t necessarily any harder, just a different way to approach travelling. However, it is one that will undoubtedly provide a more rewarding experience to your journeys and is likely to be of more benefit to those who rely on the industry for the long term.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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