Being an eco-friendly and socially conscious tourist isn’t always at the top of the priority list when making travel plans, but as the world looks more closely at each individual’s effect on their surroundings, sustainability has made its way to the forefront across industry, including travel.
As better-for-the-world travel picks up steam, a few questions come up off the bat: What is “sustainable tourism”? If a company describes themselves as a responsible tourism organization, what does that mean? What about when an expert in the field of tourism uses the term regenerative tourism?
If you’re looking into making your travel planet- and human-friendly, confusion right out the gate can lead to giving up on your efforts pretty quickly. But you’re on a good path, so we don’t want muddied waters to slow your momentum! By the end of this post, you’ll be well on your way to embracing sustainable tourism…or responsible tourism…or regenerative…!
What is Sustainable Tourism?
With a minute (or in the case of Covid-19, lots of minutes) to take a breather, we have the opportunity to learn about the impact of travel and learn how we can minimize our footprint once we do hit the open road.
Pretty quickly upon starting with our series on sustainable travel to consider travel impact, I realized that I didn’t know exactly how to refer to stewardship in the tourism industry.
Was this better-for-the-world tourist experience best referred to as “sustainable,” “responsible,” or “regenerative”? In what context should each term be used? Was the “sustainability” referring to the tourist or the organizations they engaged with, or both?
A simple Google search came up short. After some deliberation with the Grow Ensemble team, we still had nothing definitive. So, we went to the real experts in the better-for-the-world tourism industry in search of some cold hard definitions.
These are the people leading the way in planet- and people-friendly travel, from CEOs to Executive Directors to academics to sustainable travelers themselves.
Here’s some of the guidance they provided…
Responsible vs. Sustainable vs. Regenerative Tourism
We know that sustainability and tourism are two peas in a pod. The United Nations has even dedicated an agency—the World Tourism Organization (WTO)—that draws clear connections between tourism and achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
So which term should we look for when we hit the travel sites?
“I’m curious about what something is called, but ultimately not so invested in the specific terms. It’s a nice exercise, but I’m more impressed and motivated by what folks are doing on the ground to make life better for more of us.”– Anu Taranath, Professor at the University of Washington and Author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World
One thing that rang true in almost all of the feedback I received was that the leaders I spoke with prioritized their efforts making a positive impact instead of fretting over the terms used. Jessica Blotter, Co-Founder of Kind Traveler, aptly said that “all forms of travel should strive to be sustainable.”
Most explained that the definitions each company and organization has for responsible, sustainable, and regenerative tourism varies, but what we should be looking for is whether they offer tourism experiences that not only does no harm, but positively enriches the environment they’re in.
Once we accepted the reality that there aren’t clear cut definitions (honestly, a tough pill to swallow), we had the chance to step back and focus on the work.
Right. Actions speak louder than words, especially when we are way past the time to address the sustainability issues we now face.
Although I didn’t find consensus in the semantics, I did find common themes and insight around a few levels of tourism stewardship that are helpful (and critical) to understanding better-for-the-world travel no matter what term you or an organization chooses to use. That was important in framing where the tourism industry is and, even more exciting, where it’s going.
I categorized the feedback I received into 3 levels of stewardship. No matter which specific term is used, it’s the level of impact being made that we can look to for answers.
The Spectrum of Better-for-the-World Travel
Level 1: The Easy & Expected- Doing What You Have to Do
While many organizations don’t even do this much, the first level of sustainable tourism is doing what’s easy and wholly expected by anyone looking for tourists or tourist organizations to act in a manner that respects the places they visit and work. Lots can fall in this level!
For example, from a tourist’s perspective, Caitlin Muraay, the founder of Purposeful Nomad, explained to me that “everything from bringing a reusable water bottle to making efforts to communicate in the local language to staying and eating at local places” can be seen as “responsible” travel.
While both of these experts used “responsible tourism” to discuss this level of stewardship, they made it clear that this is baseline stuff, and definitely not an adequate standard for true stewardship in tourism.
Other experts echoed that this level of stewardship was a minimum standard.
Yes, these actions have value and they certainly should be practiced. However, this step or level does not sufficiently focus on the longer-term ramifications of behavior and represents merely the actions that are easily within reach of people and organizations, so alone, these practices remain unsustainable for tourism destinations and the global environment.
Level 2: Doing No Harm
Now, let’s get into the more challenging stuff. The next step on the sustainable tourism continuum requires some forethought balancing the needs of visitors while also maintaining their environmental and social impact.
In other words, at this stage, organizations are trying to reduce and offset the negative impacts they may have on the communities and places they are working with or visiting. This requires proactive strides towards leaving a place no worse than when it is found.
Companies and travelers work to not pollute or litter, or at least offset the waste they do emit. In a similar sense, the local people and economy have to be left uninhibited by the travel into their community. Any negative effects of tourism in the area need to be balanced by positive effects as much as possible.
In order to accomplish this, actions have to be brought together in a system, and impact has to be looked at more holistically. If every action isn’t accounted for here, then accurately minimizing impact will be impossible.
This is no easy task and it is definitely a respectable goal. However, once achieved, even with this definition of sustainable travel met, the experts agree that all travelers and organizations should strive to take their stewardship a step further.
Level 3: Creating Positive Impact
Level 3 is where you can really become a sustainably traveling warrior!
Many experts, if they assigned this level of impact a name, called this “sustainable” tourism as well, but it certainly has regenerative characteristics. Paloma Zapata, the CEO at sustainabletravel.org, said that “sustainable tourism focuses both on reducing tourism’s negative impacts, as well as maximizing its positive benefits.”
In other words, not only does tourism in this level entail doing no harm, but it also means actively ensuring tourism creates a positive impact, often providing sustainable tourists the opportunity to participate in tourism activities that allow them to explore and contribute to their host destination. Talk about optimal use of a vacation!
Specifically, sustainable tourism of this definition takes full account of the effects travel can have on the environment as well as sustainable development and preservation of local cultures and communities. Dr. Jonathon Day, an associate professor in the school of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Purdue University and author of An Introduction to Sustainable Tourism and Responsible Travel, explained sustainable tourism as being “big picture and long term,” including three main ideas:
- Leaving assets for future generations;
- Balancing, and optimizing, benefits (and reducing negative impacts) against the triple bottom line of [planet, people, and profit]; and
- Doing tourism with people, not to them.
The Global Sustainable Tourism Counsel (GSTC) refers to this level of tourism as an “aspiration.” Those sentiments being stated, this sort of stewardship requires constant, intentional effort focused on the lasting effects of your impact—considering the true endgame of your traveling. And while aspirational for the industry as a whole, there are some making it happen already.
Paloma agreed, explaining that sustainable tourism as defined by this Level 3 stewardship exists as the “state we want tourism to achieve.” While a complete industry shift may seem far off (as all collective change tends to feel) reaching for it, step by step, helps bring tourism closer to being a sustainable industry, and leaders in the space are showing it’s possible now.
Realizing the impact this level of stewardship could have for the entire industry is the first step in achieving it universally. The negative impacts of tourism would be mitigated and the positive impacts brought forth—resources wouldn’t be depleted, bi-directional relationships would be formed, and with host communities and local residents considered all stakeholders, local cultural heritage could be preserved. Unlike other levels of stewardship that aim at maintaining the status quo, this kind of tourism can actually be sustained.
Three Dimensions of Sustainable Tourism
All experts agreed that Level 3 stewardship and “sustainable tourism” have three core dimensions: impact on the local people, on the local economy, and on the local, and global, environment.
Let’s take a look at real life examples of sustainable tourism businesses that strive to contribute exemplary community support, economic benefits, and environmental sustainability. Each provides great indicators to look out for when searching for an organization is on the right track with their sustainable tourism efforts.
Sustainable Travel International
Travelers can explore their experiences around the world based on the area or the cause they’d be interested in working on. From safeguarding natural heritage, supporting sustainable economic development, to combating climate change, Sustainable International Travel brings together wanderlust and meaningful impact.
Bodhi Surf + Yoga
Bodhi Surf + Yoga, is a certified B Corporation and an amazing guest on our podcast. They use their surf and yoga camp as a force for good, inspiring environmental stewardship in each guest both during their time at Bodhi and once they go home. Bodhi provides elevated ecotourism through their connection to the environment and local communities.
The company spearheads a number of community programs aimed at bettering the community and minding their environmental impact. They use the relaxation and joy you feel on vacation to inspire advocacy for the beautiful natural resources around you, both during your visit and once you’re home.
When surfing and doing yoga on a breathtaking beach in Costa Rica, who wouldn’t be ready to come together to save the planet!? Talk about elevating your quality of life!
The Bodhi team exchanges surf or yoga instruction for service hours dedicated to activities like trash clean-ups or education programs. They encourage guests to interact with the community and reduce their own company’s environmental footprint through things like composting, recycling, and using biodegradable cleaning products.
Intrepid Travel, the world’s largest travel B Corp (we have a healthy obsession with B Corps, I swear!), is a travel operator with an unbelievable amount of impact as their backbone. The company prides itself on sustaining the communities they work with, helping the planet, and forefronting issues of diversity and inclusion.
They are carbon neutral, have a nonprofit offshoot called The Intrepid Foundation that supports local social good organizations across the world, exist as a leader in animal welfare issues, and the list goes on. Intrepid Travel also just became the first travel company to embrace Science Based Targets, and they are on a mission to welcome more in the industry into the commitment—huge deal!
Your Actions Can Help Push a Movement Forward
There is no question that the most impactful change in the world of responsible travel will come from all nonprofit efforts, private business ventures, and governmental regulations. All are needed to address the harm tourism is capable of creating and transform the industry to be a force of good.
Individuals, however, also have a great opportunity to push global tourism further and further up the better-for-the-world travel continuum.
After all, what systemic change came without someone, or a group of someones, starting a movement within themselves and their community? As the push for truly sustainable tourism begins to take hold, we all have the incredible opportunity to join in and create change through our own travel practices and standards.
A movement to normalize sustainable tourism practices is about creating a culture where people feel encouraged to learn about alternatives to harmful, or even not-sufficiently-positive, tourism and place pressure on companies and governments to change their practices and regulations. By changing tourism policy and elevating consumer demands, sustainable tourism becomes more accessible and convenient.
Doing things as simple as researching the impact and practices that operators or lodges hold and opting to vote with your dollar for the companies leading the charge can help push this movement forward. And when you look at our examples above, finding those travel opportunities that promise positive impact is synonymous with finding the best travel experiences!
Don’t Think Little Ole You Can Make a Difference?
Professor Krista Millich, an Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, disagrees, and laid out her logic through the example of plastic bags:
“It is now common for there to be plastic bag bans in a number of cities around the country, but these bans only happened after there was a mainstream, alternative culture to using plastic bags. The rise in awareness about the harms of plastic bags, and the push to use reusable bags by individuals is what ultimately lead to reusable bags being widely available and governments having the support necessary to begin restricting plastic bag use.
With that said, the goal should be to not only do something that makes you personally feel good, but to use it to enact bigger change—putting market pressure on companies to improve their practices, fighting for government regulations, and using your vote.”
Sam Shonfeld is from Chicago, IL and is currently a senior at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s passionate about corporate impact, he loves backpacking and being active, and he strives to positively affect the people and the world around him.