Jan 2015
Prague (Photo by Piera Chen)

Promoting Sustainable Tourism

The Smokeless Industry and Its Problems

Tourism has the nickname 'smokeless industry' because while tourism provides employment and contributes to the economy, it was believed that unlike manufacturing, there are no factories emitting fumes that pollute the environment. The tourists come and go, spend money, and then disappear without altering the surroundings. As a service industry that is a major source of income and employment for many countries, the rise of tourism has been welcomed, particularly in developing countries, as a way to address poverty.

Tourism is one of the world's fastest growing industries. There were around 25.3 million international tourist arrivals in 1960. This figure rose to 425 million by 1990, 17 times the earlier figure. By 2008, it has more than doubled, to 982 million. The World Tourism Organization forecasts that this figure could rise to 1.6 billion by 2020.

With this rapid growth, the worldwide contribution of tourism to GDP is estimated to be around 5% and spending on international tourism is around US$944 billion in 2008. However, like other forms of development, tourism can also cause problems, such as social dislocation, loss of cultural heritage, economic dependence, and ecological degradation. In order to combat these negative impacts, many people are seeking more responsible holidays. These are sometimes referred to as 'alternative tourism' or 'sustainable tourism'.

Mass Tourism Versus Sustainable Tourism

Mass tourism refers to the organized movement of large groups of people to specialized tourist locations. Package tours and cruises are examples of mass tourism. A consequence of mass tourism is that some destinations are developed to cater to large number of tourists such as resort towns, theme parks, and tourism business districts. This type of tourism often includes fixed programmes that focus on 'sights' or 'experiences', The tourist needs to do little or no background research, nor does he or she need to attempt to learn the local language and customs.

A sustainable approach to tourism means that neither the natural environment nor the socio-cultural fabric of the host communities will be impacted by the arrival of tourists. Rather, the natural environment and the local communities should benefit economically and culturally from tourism. Rather than being a consumer of the 'sights' and 'experiences', the tourist is expected to be a contributor to help conserve the resources of the host community and to improve or sustain the cultural and economic vitality of the local system. Further, tourism resources should not be utilized by the host or tourist in a way that its use by future generation is compromised.

Yao minority woman in Guangxi, China (Photo by Piera Chen)

Travel Forever

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is a multi-stakeholder member organization that started in 2010 to ensure the sustainability of tourism. Its stated vision is that 'tourism fulfils its potential as a vehicle for the conservation of destinations and their natural and cultural heritages and the generation of socio-economic benefits for all stakeholders'. The organization's tagline 'Travel Forever' is both attention grabbing and thought provoking.

Through establishing international criteria for hotels and tour operations and for destinations, GSTC seeks to ensure that there is a set of standards accepted and practiced by different member organizations in different countries. These criteria are guided by four guiding principles: (1) effective sustainability planning; (2) maximizing social and economic benefits for the local community; (3) enhancing cultural heritage; and (4) reducing negative impacts to the environment. In conjunction with the listed guided principles, performance indicators are also established to measure compliance.

Source: The Global Sustainable Tourism Council

What Can the Individual Tourist Do?

While the GSTC's efforts are aimed at industry practitioners, what can an individual tourist who is committed to sustainable tourism do when traveling? Prof. Lawal Marafa from the CUHK Department of Geography and Resource Management says, 'An individual tourist committed to sustainable tourism will have to be responsible and show concern for the local environment. There has to be some attempt to minimize negative impacts at the destination, some of which might include overuse of natural resources, vandalism, crime, etc. The tourist should have respect for the local culture and be willing to get immersed in the local socio-cultural environment.'

UNESCO has a Sustainable Tourism module under its Teaching and Learning for a Sustainable Future education programme, that advises the tourist to prepare for the journey in advance, choose the right tour operator, respect local customs, cultures and lifestyles, consider the impact of their presence, and to continue the experience when they return to their home countries.

What Can Governments Do?

According to Professor Marafa, sustainable tourism can be based on three major aspects, namely, quality of the experience for the visitors and the host community, and protecting the quality of the environment; continuity of the natural environment, local culture and visitor interest in order to sustain tourism; and balancing the needs of the visitors, the hosts and the environment in which tourism operates.

'To pursue sustainable tourism development in a destination like Hong Kong, governments must take the lead and create partnerships to consolidate what has been successful thus far in the tourism industry. For continuous sustainability, the leadership in the industry must strive to offer products that are high quality, competitive and that will continue to benefit the local community. The tourism industry should be promoted in such a way that it will attract tourists who are aware and seek quality, and also those who are educated in promoting tourism,' remarked Professor Marafa.


The Sustainable Campus e-newsletter is published by the Information Services Office and the Campus Planning and Sustainability Office, CUHK.