Responsible Tourism: the Elephant in the Room

Responsible Tourism: the Elephant in the Room

Reflecting on the two days of Responsible Tourism panels at WTM, London last week it is clear that there is increasing recognition of the role of government in achieving sustainability and that government is not taking its share of the responsibility. Government is both unwilling and ill-equipped to take responsibility, it has little appetite for it and it has lost the skills in many countries. But COVID-19 may be a game changer.

In 2002 the International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations (ICRTD) was held alongside the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit. There was increasing concern then that progress in addressing the multiple challenges of sustainability was too slow. Close to a further twenty years on there is still precious little progress on the major systemic crises of global warming, biodiversity loss and mounting inequality. We know a good deal more about what the solutions are but too few of them are being implemented at any kind of scale.

The ICRTD Conference in 2002 passed the Cape Town Declaration the foundation of the Responsible Tourism movement which has since 2007 informed the WTM’s programmes now at all four shows. The Cape Town Declaration, informed by the South African post-apartheid tourism strategy, recognised that “the devolution of decision making power to democratic local government is necessary to build stable partnerships at a local level, and to the empowerment of local communities…. [and that] the management of tourism requires the participation of a broad range of government agencies and particularly at the local destination level.” From the beginning Responsible Tourism has recognised that good governance is necessary to successful implementation. Responsible Tourism arose out of the frustration felt by increasing numbers of people in the industry at the slow pace of progress. Too often sustainability was claimed without even a statement of the objective, less still any indication of what action was being taken or what was being achieved. It was, and often still is, little more than greenwashing.  

It was half a century ago on 24th December 1968 that we first saw those photographs of Earth from space. Five years earlier Buckminster Fuller had published an Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. I can still recall seeing the images of our planet for the first time, I guess many people can – if they are old enought. That image briefly had impact, but the fragility of our Earth and the realisation that we live on a finite planet quickly faded. Buckminster Fuller envisaged humanity’s realisation of the spaceship character of our planet would lead us to work together to keep the planet functioning properly. He was wrong; it didn’t.

Earth from the moon

Over the last fifty years, we have learned a great deal about solutions, and there are many tried and tested ways of decreasing the negative impacts of tourism and increasing positive ones. But we have been slow to implement them, even when reducing consumption of fossil fuels would save money as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions the majority still fail to act. Inertia, a ‘natural’ predisposition to leave it to others and short-termism. 

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change undertaken for the UK government and published in 2006. The Stern Report was emphatic 

“The effects of our actions now on future changes in the climate have long lead times. What we do now can have only a limited effect on the climate over the next 40 or 50 years. On the other hand what we do in the next 10 or 20 years can have a profound effect on the climate in the second half of this century and in the next.”

Stern concluded that “the benefits of strong, early action considerably outweigh the costs.”

“Tackling climate change is the pro-growth strategy for the longer term, and it can be done in a way that does not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries. The earlier effective action is taken, the less costly it will be.”

Like Buckminster Fuller before him, the advice was ignored.

It was post-Rio, in 1994 at the Oslo Symposium that the objective of sustainable consumption and production (SCP) emerged. It was later included in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted in 2002 at the WSSD. Sustainable consumption and production was identified as one of the three overarching objectives of, and essential requirements for, sustainable development, together with poverty eradication and the management of natural resources in order to foster economic and social development. Sustainable consumption and production is now Goal 12 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is now time to question the order of the words. If we accept the sustainability goal, then we should apply the tests of effectiveness and efficiency. If we put consumption before production, we are working with a model that assumes the main driver of change is consumer choice. Changes in consumer choice will drive production to become more resource-efficient and sustainable. This is the theory behind sustainable tourism certification. Green Globe was launched in 1994, Fair Trade Tourism South Africa in 2001 and a plethora of other schemes followed. The origins of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council can be traced to 2007 which sought to standardise the criteria used in labelling. In the panel on Certification & Consumer Choice, it was broadly accepted that despite all the excellent work done by so many, industry uptake is limited and consumers are confused.

Consumers can only choose from the goods and services presented to them for purchase. Some enlightened retailers take responsibility, including those travel agents, accommodation providers and tour operators who choose to employ choice editing: cutting out unnecessarily damaging products and putting real environmentally and socially sustainable choices before consumers and encouraging them to purchase responsibly. This is not pointless; it has had some effect over the last twenty years. But we are not achieving change at the scale required to halt or even slow the growth in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere or reduce the rate of biodiversity loss. It is now clear that relying on consumers to drive change is neither effective nor efficient.

Governments have shunned responsibility, preferring to leave it to the market. Where governments are sufficiently motivated, they use the full range of tools at their disposal to effect change; they control the choices presented to consumers. To do this, they regulate, tax and subsidise. Business prefers the language of incentives, but incentives are subsidies.

Governments use taxation and regulation, often including criminal law to increase levels of health and social responsibility with alcohol and tobacco use. Regulations are used to counter air pollution and eventually to ban asbestos and some pesticides and reduce air pollution. Governments have moved across Europe to hasten the demise of the internal combustion engine and the consumption of greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels using regulations, taxes and incentives. Governments have also used subsidies and taxation to make renewables more competitive in the energy market.

In the panel on decarbonising aviation the issue of potential government action to hasten the introduction of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) and Hydrogen. There was more acceptance of mandates for SAFs and some panellists hoped for more ambitious targets on a tighter timeframe. There was reluctance to see any imposition of taxes on aviation fuel, incentives/subsidies were favoured as investments in new technology to speed the transition. Mandates is the preferred code for regulation as governments require the proportion of SAFs in aviation fuel to be increased to meet government defined deadlines.

India is now leading in the development of Responsible Tourism, not least because of the way in which a new national tourism policy and strategy is nearing implementation. It will support and promote Responsible Tourism across the nation, building on the work of the individual states in empowering local government through the panchayats to work with communities and businesses at the local level to make tourism better for communities, businesses and tourists. The introduction of Responsible Tourism in Kerala in 2008, the learning from the initial experiments which has enabled the Responsible Tourism Mission to roll out the approach across the state and achieve impact at scale, has encouraged replication. India’s success with implementing Responsible Tourism and demonstrating the efficiency and efficacy of the approach has demonstrated the important role of national, state and local government in making tourism better for all stakeholders. 

During several panels it was acknowledged that while it is possible to self-isolate from the pandemic, the impact on the communities we live in has negative consequences for us. We cannot self-isolate from the impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change. The latter impacts are already being felt in many countries around the world. The IPPC has warned that the single biggest impact of climate change could be on human migration, in 2018 the World Bank forecast that the worsening impacts of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could see over 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050 and in July the New York Times ran a well-illustrated feature: The Great Climate Migration pointing out that it has already begun.

The efforts of those taking action to counter greenhouse gas emissions cannot continue to undermine these initiatives. In the end the laggards and free loaders denying their responsibility and failing to take action will need to be forced to do the right things through taxation and regulation.

In the final panel, we asked, Can we make tourism better?  Of course, we can.  We know a great deal about what we need to do to achieve it; arguably, most of what we need to know to make tourism better. The question is, will we?

As Justin Francis argued, the ability of the leaders in Responsible Tourism to develop and implement still better practices is limited and undermined by those committed to business-as-usual. Only government regulation and taxation will make adequate progress possible.

Over the next few weeks in this blog we shall be considering what we have learned from this year’s panels about solutions to the many social, economic and environmental sustainability challenges our industry faces and identifying the solutions most likely to achieve the solutions we need to see if our sector is to prosper in a finite world.

Tagged .

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.


  1. It could be perhaps more helpful if we recognised production and consumption, not as two separate elements, but one single provision of service. If this provision is not ‘greener’ then the consumer can not undertake their regular socially accepted activities e.g. washing, eating, sleeping, leisure with a lower footprint. Individuals must also be enabled to reduce their footprint by improving carbon/energy/water/waste literacy so that they use services more responsibly. It is hard to be responsible if you do not have the tools or sufficient understanding. Government has a clear leadership role in enabling through legislation, education and incentives. Already we are beginning to see this in France with the legal requirement to report your energy use annually and to achieve a 40% reduction in energy use by 2030. This has yet to trickle down to provisions fo service, but there is clearly action occurring across the business community stimulated by this policy.

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