Why Sustainable Tourism Failed

Why Sustainable Tourism Failed

This is a guest post written by John Swarbrooke. Way back in 1998, John published the seminal text on Sustainable Tourism Management, and it is still in print. It has, for many students, been their introduction to the idea of making tourism sustainable. John had practical experience in destination management. His book recognised three dimensions to sustainability; that many actors needed to act, that priorities are different depending on the geographical milieu and that all forms of tourism could be more sustainable. 


Sadly despite using his textbook, most academics ignored the practical wisdom of his approach and the agenda shrank to ecotourism, community-based tourism and ever more esoteric micro papers, locked away in journals unread by anyone outside the research community. 

This blog site is open for debate about how we best respond to the urgent crisis now upon us and make the essential and possibly painful changes necessary. 


We need the new ‘Platform for Change’ because the sad fact is that the concept of sustainable tourism has been a failure up to now, despite its good intentions. 


While it is clear that some progress has been made on making tourism more sustainable or responsible, the reality is that things are not changing quickly enough. We are moving in the right direction at the pace of a stroll in the park after a heavy lunch while climate change and the other crises we face are overtaking us at the speed of an Olympic sprinter who will soon disappear out of sight. Unfortunately, as far as sustainability and tourism are concerned, this version of the story of the Tortoise and the Hare will not have a happy ending!


So why has sustainable tourism been such a failure? Why, after years of policies, strategies, conferences, and research, is tourism contributing significantly to climate change and negatively impacting the planet? Perhaps a major reason for the failure of sustainable tourism to date has been the reliance on achieving it through the actions of supra governmental organisations such as the United Nations and national governments. The idea was that they would make sustainable tourism a reality through their policies and the use of the instruments at their disposal, including regulation and taxation. Because there was a lot of talk about sustainable tourism by such bodies, it was assumed that the political will was there to do what was necessary. This has simply not happened, which should probably not surprise us because achieving more sustainable tourism would require radical and unpopular changes in tourist behaviour. As tourists are also voters, politicians do not like to upset them.


A second issue is that sustainable tourism has been seen as a technocratic challenge rather than a political issue from the beginning. Policymakers and academics have been more comfortable devising zoning policies or measuring carrying capacity rather than looking at the politics of sustainable tourism. Yet sustainable tourism is inherently political being concerned with distributing resources in ways that will create winners and losers. 


One of the major challenges we face is that despite decades of academic research and official reports, we still do not fully understand how tourism impacts different destinations and locations. There is not enough credible empirical research to identify the challenges facing specific places and the strategies that are most likely to be effective. As a result, we are left with generic ideas that do not recognise that sustainability will look different from one place to another. 


We have failed to recognise that tourism management requires a holistic approach based on systems thinking. Instead, we have tended to focus on one issue at a time. Furthermore, we have concentrated on the impacts of tourism on the physical environment more than on the economic and social dimensions of sustainability. Yet it is surely inconceivable that tourism in an area could be seen as sustainable if its environment enjoyed full protection from tourism, but this was at the expense of the human rights of the local population? 



While climate change is undoubtedly the most urgent challenge facing the planet today, we cannot continue to ignore other issues where tourism is having a negative impact on our world, including the consumption of water resources, wildlife exploitation, worker’s rights, and the role of international travel in spreading disease. Tourism cannot be made sustainable unless all of these issues and more are tackled.  


To their credit, some tourism businesses have engaged with sustainability issues in tourism. However, some having invested heavily in making their business operations more responsible have often found that it brought them little financial reward in the short term because they have been undercut in the market by less scrupulous operators. Furthermore, many businesses seem to have seen sustainable tourism simply as a marketing led corporate social responsibility opportunity, focusing on media-friendly activities around wildlife and supporting local charities in destinations, rather than tackling the impacts of their own businesses on destinations and their contribution to climate change. Or, they have simply used carbon offsetting to make consumers feel less guilty about flying. While offsetting is better than doing nothing, it is not a solution to tourism’s contribution to climate change.   


Many individual destinations have talked about sustainable tourism, but few have made much real progress as they often lack the power and resources to make a real difference. The reality is that the international tourism market is largely controlled by corporations that are beyond the influence of destination governments. Meanwhile, many local and national destination management organisations or DMO’s remain prisoners of the idea that the only way of measuring tourism success is through visitor numbers and expenditure. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic the focus appears to be on returning tourism to pre-Covid levels, despite the fact that there were already too many international flights being made and too much irresponsible tourism before the pandemic. If we are to make tourism more sustainable, we cannot go backwards; we have to develop new metrics for evaluating tourism and embrace alternative economic models such as ‘Doughnut Economics’.  


sustainable traveller walking in the mountains

By and large, tourists have not generally engaged with sustainable tourism because they feel they cannot make a difference as individuals. Many destinations and businesses do not mention tourism impacts to potential customers because they fear it may dissuade them from travelling. There has been too much arrogant talk about ‘educating tourists’ as if those in power knew all the answers and just need to teach tourists the right way to behave. Rather than telling tourists what not to do, we should be aiming to work with tourists and encouraging them to adopt more responsible behaviours. Tourists will respond better if we explain why they should behave in a certain way, and it will work better if we can make them feel good about ‘doing the right thing’. 


Despite decades of talk there are still no globally accepted and independently verified sustainable tourism standards to help guide the buying behaviour of those tourists who want to take more sustainable vacations. However, there is no shortage of examples of ‘greenwashing’, which confuses tourists or makes them sceptical about sustainable tourism as a whole.


Our rather simplistic ideas about the concept of community may also have been an obstacle to making progress on sustainable tourism. The conventional wisdom that tourism should be under the control of local communities looks naive in today’s world, where many local communities have little power over their lives in the face of globalisation and totalitarian governments. Furthermore, communities rarely speak with a single voice and nor does everyone in most communities have an equal voice; some seem to have no voice at all. The idea of community has itself changed dramatically in recent years through economic migration, second homeownership and the creation of online social media ‘communities’. 

Sadly, sustainable tourism theory and policy development seem to have failed to keep pace with changes in tourism in recent years, including the rise of Airbnb, the ‘over-tourism movement’, the impact of social media, and the growth of cruise tourism around the world.


We are clinging dangerously to the idea that technological solutions will solve climate change and the other challenges we face so our lifestyles will not need to change. While we are seeing encouraging technological developments, in aviation, for example, we cannot rely on these to solve climate change. We need to reduce our carbon footprint literally today if the planet is to avoid disaster. We know that any technological innovation will take several years to be fully introduced and may create new unforeseen challenges of its own.  


There is no guarantee that tourism can be sustainable; it may be an impossible dream. But the best chance of achieving it is to stop relying on governments and instead encourage everyone to take responsibility for their own behaviour and impacts as far as they can, whether they are tourists, industry entrepreneurs and employees, destination managers, media representatives, local residents or politicians. This also means recognising that sustainable tourism is a political issue and that trying to achieve it will require political activism of the kind we have seen more generally in response to climate change in recent years. 


The ‘Platform for Change’ is a positive initiative designed to help us make tourism more responsible and, as a result, more sustainable.  

This discussion about the failure of sustainable tourism and the need to adopt the alternative approach of responsible tourism will be continued in more depth in a new book, based on the ‘Platform for Change’. The book will be edited by Harold Goodwin and John Swarbrooke and published by Goodfellow in 2022 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism.      


If you would like to respond to John’s blog post, please comment below and ask if you would like to contribute a longer piece.  


WTM is launching a Platform for Change at the beginning of July to promote proven solutions and encourage people to adopt and apply them. 


Glynn O’Leary explains why his company enters the Responsible Tourism Awards: 

Nominations for the Responsible Tourism Awards are now open, and this time they’re global. They’re free to enter, and the deadline is August 31st 2021. Categories:

· Decarbonising Travel & Tourism,

· Sustaining Employees and Communities through the Pandemic,

· Destinations Building Back Better Post-COVID,

· Increasing Diversity in Tourism: How inclusive is our industry?

· Reducing Plastic Waste in the Environment and

· Growing the Local Economic Benefit.

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Harold is WTM’s Responsible Tourism Advisor, he puts together the flagship Responsible Tourism programme at WTM London which attracted 4000 participants in 2020 and the programmes run at WTM Africa, WTM Latin America and Arabian Travel Market. Harold has worked on 4 continents with local communities, their governments and the inbound and outbound tourism industry. He is Managing Director of the Responsible Tourism Partnership and chairs the panels of judges for the World Responsible Tourism Awards and the other Awards in the family, Africa, India and Latin America. Harold works with industry, local communities, governments, and conservationists and undertakes consultancy and evaluations for companies, NGOs, governments, and international organisations. He is also a Director of the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is an Emeritus Professor, and Founder Director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism promotes the principles of the Cape Town Declaration which he drafted.

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