Some commentators and institutions have implied that sustainable tourism is a particular kind of tourism appealing to a market niche that is sensitive to environmental and social impacts, serviced by particular types of products and operators, and usually—in contrast with high-volume tourism—implying small in scale. This is a dangerous misapprehension. It must be clear that the term ‘sustainable tourism’—meaning ‘tourism that is based on the principles of sustainable development’—refers to a fundamental objective: to make all tourism more sustainable. The term should be used to refer to a condition of tourism, not a type of tourism. Well-managed high-volume tourism can, and ought to be, just as sustainable as small-scale, dispersed special interest tourism.
“Box 1.1: The World Tourism Organization’s definition of Sustainable Tourism
Sustainable tourism development guidelines and management practices are applicable to all forms of tourism in all types of destinations, including mass tourism and the various niche tourism segments. Sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability. Thus, sustainable tourism should:
Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural resources and biodiversity.
Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.
Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.
Sustainable tourism development requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and/or corrective measures whenever necessary. Sustainable tourism should also maintain a high level of tourist satisfaction and ensure a meaningful experience to the tourists, raising their awareness about sustainability issues and promoting sustainable tourism practices amongst them.” Moreover, sustainable tourism should not be taken to imply a finite state of tourism. In fact, it is often argued that tourism may never be totally sustainable—sustainable development of tourism is a continuous process of improvement.
Confusion over the meaning of sustainable tourism has been compounded in some countries by use of the term ‘ecotourism’ as meaning the same as ‘sustainable tourism’. Ecotourism does indeed embrace the principles of sustainability, but it refers explicitly to a product niche. It is about tourism in natural areas, normally involving some form of interpretative experience of natural and cultural heritage, positively supporting conservation and indigenous communities, and usually organized for small groups. The development of ecotourism can provide a useful tool within wider strategies towards more sustainable tourism, as was expounded in the Quebec Declaration on Ecotourism, 2002.
The WTO has given the full definition of sustainable tourism presented in Box 1.1 emphasizing the need to make all tourism sustainable. Expressed simply, sustainable tourism can be said to be:
‘Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.’ Making tourism more sustainable means taking these impacts and needs into account in the planning, development and operation of tourism. It is a continual process of improvement and one which applies equally to tourism in cities, resorts, rural and coastal areas, mountains, and protected areas. It can apply to all forms of business and leisure tourism.