Moving beyond eco-tourism

Practising sustainable tourism is not just about protecting the environment, says Harold Goodwin. Before planning their holidays, visitors should also consider the social and cultural impacts of travel.

As domestic and international tourism spreads unchecked across China, it is all too easy for the industry to damage the cultural and natural heritage upon which it ultimately depends. Group travel, which shepherds huge numbers of tourists towards specific hot-spots, can be especially damaging.

One of the challenges, therefore, is to ensure that while harnessing the potential of tourism for economic development, adequate steps are taken to ensure that tourism contributes to the sustainable development of the country – economic development that improves local livelihoods as well as conserving cultural and biological diversity.

Until recently eco-tourism, which takes people to fragile and beautiful areas, has been the only alternative on offer to consumers in search of low impact adventure. But the eco-tourism tag comes with limitations – it is a relatively small niche market, which seeks to create motivation for local communities to conserve their wildlife and natural heritage by generating economic benefits from tourism.

But the arrival of “responsible tourism” offers scope for growth. Responsible tourism matches the idea of maintaining the natural and cultural heritage of the destination with inclusive principles that make no judgement on the ecological importance of the destination. It is something which can be adopted by all forms of tourism enterprises, it can be practised in all destinations and it is being taken up as an approach to travel by increasing numbers of tourists and tour operators, particularly from the established tourist-originating countries.

The concept of
responsible tourism originated in the work of the late Jost Krippendorf. His observation of tourism on the environment and communities of the alpine plateaus of Switzerland, led to the call for a more holistic form of tourism “which will bring the greatest possible benefit to all the participants – travellers, the host population and the tourist business, without causing intolerable ecological and social damage.”

In the 1990’s responsible tourism was used in the South African national tourism policy and in campaigning work by Voluntary Service Overseas. But it was not until the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, that the tourism industry moved away from a narrow green agenda and signed up to the Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations: a set of principles that adopt broad principles of development. In particular, these include poverty reduction and a belief that responsible tourism is about “making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.”

And the broader appeal of the new agenda – which extends to governments and airlines as much as hoteliers and tour operators – has proven infectious. The concept is now used by the World Tourism Organization and ABTA. In the UK, the large outbound operators in the Federation of Tour Operators are making commitments to change and making progress towards sustainable tourism objectives.

Choosier travellers in many western markets including the USA, UK, Germany and the Netherlands have also played their part in the growth of the industry. To them, responsible tourism has become a way of travelling that offers a sense of guiltfree indulgence and a richer experience of the destination, paving the way for a new wave of holidays that are not only environmentally, economically and socially sound, but also economically lucrative. Operators that have tuned in to the new consumer demand have experienced spectacular growth. The travel industry is increasingly positioning its products and services as “responsible.”

But it is collective transparency and accountability that are at the heart of the success of responsible tourism, coupled with social, economic and environmental justice.

Responsible tourism has found a range of backers across the world. For instance, in South Africa the emphasis is on Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and securing economic benefits for historically disadvantaged individuals and communities. In Gambia, the focus is on using marketing to remove barriers between tourists and local entrepreneurs. And in Bhutan, one of the primary areas of concern is the impact of tourism on the traditional culture.

In China, Elizabeth Morrell of Benmo, a company that provides ground arrangements for visitors from Europe and the UK, identifies a number of initiatives already taking place. For example, one bilingual blog encourages tourists to bring a kilo of inexpensive educational materials to schools, where they are encouraged to take time to talk with teachers and pupils. Beijing’s Hutong Tour provides incomes for local people and helps to preserve the city’s cultural heritage. And for the tourists it is a very satisfying experience too, giving a glimpse of the daily lives of ordinary people in Beijing at close quarters, rather than from the windows of a tourist coach. In Xi’an, a Zen Buddhist master has set up a charitable foundation and temple on the edge of a small village, where he is opening a vegetarian restaurant that uses local produce.

Cultural and political challenges do nevertheless remain. In particular, the ethic of responsibility imposes some constraints on the exploitation of China’s cultural and natural heritage. Krippendorf emphasised that individual responsibility, rather than authoritarianism, is key in the transition to responsible tourism. “Orders and prohibitions,” he argued, “will not do the job… is not a bad conscience that we need to make progress, but positive experience.” But, if overcome, responsible tourism opens up many new business development opportunities.

Where the responsible tourism elements contribute to a superior travel experience it will attract consumers predisposed to purchase. The responsible tourism product has one particular advantage over many other ethical products — the consumer will often experience the difference. A cup of fairly traded coffee or tea will not taste significantly different from other teas and coffees — it can taste as good, but not better.

The author: Dr. Harold Goodwin is director of the International Centre for Responsible Tourism, chair of the Academic Advisory Panel of the International Tourism Partnership and chair of the Judging Panel for the First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards.

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