What Is Sustainable Tourism?

Courtesy of the Mexico Tourism Board

When most of us hear about sustainable tourism, ecotourism is usually the first thought that comes to mind. So what exactly is sustainable tourism and what is ecotourism? Are they the same? Do they refer to consumers (a market) or to hotels and destinations (products)?

Hector Ceballos-Lacurrain, a Mexican architect, coined the word ecotourism and its preliminary definition in 1983, to be later adjusted and officially adopted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since then, several ecotourism sites have been developed around the world. According to The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people (1990).”

For example, in Mexico you can enjoy “ecotourism” by participating in activities that range from white water kayaking in Veracruz, to bird watching tours through the Sian K’aan Biosphere Reserve, or hiking through the Sonora desert. But, you can also participate in ecotourism when traveling abroad, by reusing hotel towels, and not requesting new linen sheets every day. In short, ecotourism can refer to both, a tourism product and a market.

However ecotourism is only one form of sustainable tourism, there are many more facets that define this very broad spectrum.

So how did all of this get started?

Environmental issues became the main focus on government agendas after the Rio de Janeiro Summit in the early 90’s, after that several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in protected natural areas such as the Mayan Biosphere Reserve or the Mesoamerican Reef Corridor, identified tourism as a way to obtain revenue to protect these natural areas, while at the same time give an added income to communities. Particularly, communities living inside or around the natural areas whose living depended on extractive activities such as logging, or burn and slash agriculture. These NGOs began developing eco-lodges and eco-tours targeting consumers interested in “nature based experiences” also known as ecotourists. The results were mixed, with both successful and failed experiences. Even though the hotels and destinations were situated around natural protected areas, there was no critical mass in the consumer to make these projects financially sustainable.

It was in early 2000 during the Johannesburg Summit that the governments moved from the environmental only approach, to a more integral concept of sustainability. In Johannesburg the emphasis was human development, in particular, poor people and how they relate to the environment and the economy. This, along with the Millennium Development Goals set clear targets for 2015. Many in the travel and tourism industry, including the UNWTO, launched actions to tackle the three main columns of sustainability: the environment, social issues, and the financial aspects of any activity. Many new projects emerged and consolidated; in Mexico for example, the National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH) was giving concessions for the first time ever, to local Mayan communities to manage and receive a portion of the fees tourists paid to access the archaeological sites. One example is Chac Choben in the south of Quintana Roo. New hotel concepts emerged such as Hotelito Desconocido in Jalisco and Haciendas de Mexico in the Yucatan Peninsula.

But it wasn’t until Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, that mainstream consumers, governments and companies around the world realized that the environment and poverty were not to be left to NGOs and governments only, but that society itself plays a vital role. He also explained that a lot of the responsibility was in our hands to make changes in the way we consume and do business. So now, sustainability issues are becoming a must in order to appeal and satisfy the eco-conscious and consumers who are aware of the problems. In some cases it has become mandatory as far as international legislation goes.

In all, sustainable tourism refers to the practices of destinations, companies and governments to ensure that minimal negative impacts are created. There are no sustainable tourism markets per se, however, there are well known segments and niches that are more sensitive towards “sustainable practices” and they make their choices based on that criteria. These segments include SAVE (scientific, academic, volunteer and educational travel), geotourists, ecotourists and birdwatchers for example.

On October 6th, 2008, the United Nations Foundation Founder and Chairman Ted Turner joined the Rainforest Alliance, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to announce the first-ever globally relevant sustainable tourism criteria at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. The new criteria – based on thousands of best practices culled from the existing standards currently in use around the world – were developed to offer a common framework to guide the emerging practice of sustainable tourism and to help businesses, consumers, governments, non-governmental organizations and education institutions to ensure that tourism helps, rather than harms, local communities and the environment.

Consumers are becoming savvier about their travel choices and are realizing how their lifestyles impact the places they visit in a positive or negative way. That is why in the fall of 2005, Expedia and the UN Foundation have come together to create the World Heritage Alliance with the agreement of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. The Mexico Tourism Board was the first country to join the Alliance. The World Heritage Alliance for Sustainable Tourism is a membership based initiative that works to support World Heritage conservation, sustainable tourism, and local economic development for communities in and around UNESCO World Heritage sites.

So how are all of these commitments making a difference in the environment, community and consumer satisfaction?

The type of experiences consumers will find when visiting these member destinations and hotels include:

  • Guided tours that highlight World Heritage sites given my local communities who now feel more pride in their heritage, protect it and earn a living while doing so

  • Specialized programs where you can rest assured that your dollars are going directly to support local cultural heritage

  • Educational experiences right at your hotel room to help you better understand how your dollars and actions are leaving zero negative footprints behind while empowering local communities

  • Forget about Moctezuma’s revenge and venture into unique Mayan local cuisine in communities that have been trained by five star hotels in food and beverage management

  • High quality handicraft products made by the local community available at your hotel, fair trade prices and authenticity worry free

  • Pamper yourself at spas and restaurants that offer 100% natural, locally produced, and fair trade products.

  • Volunteerism opportunities to dedicate some of your time to local causes

Not finding what you want? Visit www.worldheritagealliance.org for more details and progress as new members join on an ongoing basis.

Curious about what else is happening in sustainable tourism in Mexico? Go to www.visitmexico.com and the Mexican Ministry of Tourism website www.sectur.gob.mx.