Sustainable tourism: nice idea, but can we call it something else and actually implement it please?

During the Bangkok2Birmingham trip, the issue which I was investigating in Laos was supposed to be ‘sustainable tourism’. Laos (like many countries) makes a big play about so called ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ tourism – using the terms seemingly interchangeably to promote tourism in the country.

However, during my time in Laos (and throughout the rest of the trip), I began to question whether  ‘sustainable tourism’ actually meant anything and whether so called ‘eco tourism’ was actually a good thing.

Hence this post is a vehicle to explore my thoughts on the subject having given myself some time to think about it. For the rest of this article I argue that although ‘sustainable’ tourism is a nice idea and concept, it is the wrong word to describe what it is trying to achieve. In my view ‘responsible’ tourism is a much better term. Eco tourism is just a subset of this, specifically looking at nature.

I argue that for any of it to have any meaning, all the terms need to be clearly defined, delineated and most importantly guidelines set regarding exactly what they are and aren’t. This then needs to be monitored. Doing so might help move certain companies away from using ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’ or ‘green’ tours as crude marketing gimmicks.

At the outset its worth saying here that I’m not a member of any sustainable, responsible or eco tourism company. Nor have I studied tourism. I’m just an interested traveller and blogger.

Sustainable tourism: a definition

Trying to find a commonly held definition of ‘sustainable’ tourism is an incredibly annoying task. Upon typing it into Google, these were the first 3 things which came up:

‘Tourism that respects both local people and the traveller, cultural heritage and the environment’ Unesco

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’ World Tourism Organisation

‘Sustainable tourism is attempting to make as low an impact on the environment and local culture as possible, while helping to generate future employment for local people’ Wikipedia

Now, I am sure that we all get the overall message they are trying to convey – about doing tourism well and making it beneficial for all. My issue with it is that I’m not sure that ‘sustainable’ is the right word. In fact, I think using it might actually be unhelpful.

The Oxford English dictionary definition of the word sustainable is short and precise. It is defined as ‘able to be upheld at a certain rate or level’. The word itself makes no judgement as to whether this rate should be high, low, good, or bad. The problem is that everybody (myself included in the past) has tried to hijack the word ‘sustainable’ and use it for their own purpose. As seen with the statements above, value statements such as ‘respect’ or ‘low impact’ get added. Often people (again I have certainly been guilty of this before) use the word sustainable as a synonym for the word ‘green’ or ‘environmental’.

I first began to really question the meaning of the word in Laos, when I went to speak to Sengkeo Frichitthavong (Bob for short) about ‘sustainable’ tourism. I thought he would be a great person to talk to as the project he ran (the Sae Lao project) would be what most people would firmly classify as a great example of ‘sustainable’ tourism.

Bob - at the home of the Sae Lao project in Vang Vieng

Bob – at the home of the Sae Lao project in Vang Vieng

Yet his answer to me was particularly interesting when I asked him what the word meant to him. ‘Travel can not be sustainable’ he surprisingly said ‘to me sustainable means staying in one spot and using what you have there without destroying the surrounding nature’. Although I’m not sure I totally agree with his definition, the important thing was that it made me realise just how many different things it can mean to different people. Although Bob was not a native English speaker, to him the phrase ‘sustainable tourism’ was a classic oxymoron.

As well as a problem with definition, there’s also a problem with perspective. The same thing can be ‘sustainable’ from one perspective yet ‘unsustainable’ from another. For example, take the tourist industry. If you use the English dictionary definition of the word, in order for a hotel or restaurant to be ‘sustained’ it needs to have a certain number of customers each day. Hence for a hotel to be ‘sustainable’ it might need say 100 customers per day. Yet those very same 100 customers might be completely unsustainable for the maintenance of local ecosystems, local cultures or even national resources.

The point is not to get bogged down in a petty debate about semantics, but just to say that because ‘sustainable’ is such a poorly defined, malleable, and subjective word it has almost become meaningless. And from my perspective that’s as true for ‘sustainable development’ as it is for ‘sustainable tourism’. It seems to me to act as a cover for getting your way out of a tight situation by saying something like ‘we are doing all we can to make sure our tourism/ development is sustainable’. This has been a big realisation for me during this trip

So what’s better?

To be honest, there’s no word or term which I think is without issues. But I believe that ‘responsible’ is a better word for the message that is trying to be conveyed. Although the word again has several possible meanings in the English dictionary, it involves ‘having an obligation to do something’ and ‘involving important duties’. Although the Oxford English dictionary doesn’t go on to say whether these duties or obligations should be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, the free online dictionary does say in one of its definitions that being ‘responsible’ is characterised by ‘good judgement or sound thinking’.

To my mind, this is much less open to ambiguity. Sure, what exactly is ‘responsible’ or not is open to some subjective views, but I think it’s much more clear cut than ‘sustainable’. I also think its more in line with what so called ‘sustainable’ tourism is actually trying to achieve – i.e. respecting local cultures, having a low impact on the environment, and generating benefit to both hosts and visitors. To my mind as well, because ‘responsible’ is a much less ‘sexy’ word than ‘sustainable’ it also has more meaning. I wouldn’t get the impression that someone was trying to pull the wool over my eyes if they used the word responsible rather than ‘sustainable’. It also faces less risk of being flatly denied or laughed at by those who would say ‘sustainable tourism was a contradiction in terms.’

Low impact tourism is also another candidate for a word which could be used. Whilst I think this describes well the impact requested of the tourist, I think it doesn’t do justice to the potentially high impact tourism can have on the lives of the local population in a good way. Hence ‘responsible tourism’ can strive to a have a high impact on local people and ecosystems – but for positive reasons. Take Bob’s example where he believes that tourism in Laos can be a vital tool for preserving the remaining forest. ‘It’s the nature that people come here for’ he told me one evening ‘if you preserve that they continue to come, and if you show them the forest local people can earn money to improve their livelihoods. It also means that the tour leader can keep watch on any illegal activity which might be going on with regards to cutting down the forest’.


Eco tourism is another term which is often used, often as a synonym for sustainable tourism. To my mind its not, and should be used as a component of responsible tourism. Specifically it refers to visiting natural areas. Often these are pristine, fragile and relatively undisturbed. The problem with the mislabelling is that eco is often mistaken for ‘responsible’. ‘Eco tourism kayaking to see rare dolphins’ might be inferred as doing the planet a favour. Yet just because its ‘eco’ might not mean that it is in any way ‘responsible’.

Kayaking in Cambodia. Eco, sure. But responsible. That's a question...

Kayaking in Cambodia. Eco, sure. But responsible. That’s a question…

Making it meaningful

Sustainable/ eco/ green tourism. They are all such ‘buzz’ words. If I had a pound for every company I encountered with that in the title on my whole trip I’d be a very poor man by now. The problem is, as Bob pointed out in Laos, ‘they all seem to be used by the marketing men to make more money’. And that’s the thing with all of this. I fear that these words are just being used as masquerades to make more money, and ironically lead to ‘irresponsible’ tourism. Of course there are exceptions and there are some great examples of things being done well in Laos itself (for example the stay another day project).

But for progress to be made on a wider scale, I think we need to just use one umbrella term – ‘responsible tourism’. We need to define that clearly, and then set some agreed guidelines about what it is and what it isn’t. This includes eco tourism which to my mind is a subset of ‘responsible tourism’ – just geared around nature. These guidelines needs to be enforced and measured, and those who are not complying punished There are lots of people trying, such as the UK’s ‘the travel foundation’. But this is only a relatively small UK based charity. These terms and guidelines need to be properly set out and implemented on a local level. We need to ensure that Bob no longer has cause to say ‘In Laos, I don’t see anybody checking that a tour is actually being responsible. Where are the guidelines for what you can and can not do? I don’t see any’…

Perhaps then we can have real ‘responsible tourism’ rather than blindly going on ‘eco tours’ or mindlessly saying one full heartedly supports ‘sustainable tourism’.

Next post

Check out my next blog post to see how I learned how irresponsible tourism in an area where ‘eco’, ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’ tour companies abound resulted in 27 deaths of tourists in 2011 and the near destruction of one of the countries most beautiful natural spots. I’ll be looking at Vang Vieng in Laos.

4 responses to “Sustainable tourism: nice idea, but can we call it something else and actually implement it please?

  1. Ecotourism (one word, not two) IS responsible tourism, and vice versa. I prefer to use ecotourism, which was defined by The International Ecotourism Society in 1991 as “Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Responsible travel is too vague a term for me, while the prefix ECO succinctly conveys the two essential elements of responsible, sustainable travel– ECOlogical and ECOnomic benefits. Just my 2 cents…

  2. Pingback: Top Bloggers Talk Sustainable Travel | Wanderlusters·

  3. Pingback: Vang Vieng: ‘eco’ tourism gone wrong | bangkok2birmingham·

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