Sustainable tourism and ecotourism

By Matt Burdett, 24 January 2018

On this page, we look at the concept of sustainable tourism, including the growth of ecotourism.

  • Near Oodnadatta, Australia. Small groups that don’t reach the carrying capacity of an area are one way to achieve sustainability in tourism.

What is sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism can be defined as:

“Tourism that conserves primary tourist resources and supports the livelihoods and culture of local people.” (IBO, 2009)

The United Nations World Tourism Organisation defines sustainable tourism as:

“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” (UNWTO, 2005)

Sustainable tourism is therefore not just about the environment, but also about the economic and social impacts. This can apply to mass tourist destinations just as much as niche tourism destinations. The key concept is that the area can be used for tourism indefinitely without causing harm.

Environmental sustainability

Natural heritage and biodiversity must be conserved if tourism is to be considered sustainable. Often, tourism development is sustainable if it uses an element of the environment (such as the natural landscape). By using it, the environment becomes an economic asset to people. This can protect it from being harmed by other economic activities.

To achieve environmental sustainability, the consumption of resources should be minimised, as should the production of waste. This includes the consumption and waste of water, which is frequently a point of tension between locals and tourists in drier parts of the world.

Social sustainability

Sustainable tourism should help to conserve cultural heritage of local people and ensure that traditional values are not lost, although it can help to promote intercultural tolerance. However, this is very difficult. The simple act of meeting a group of people can change their attitudes towards others, which makes it harder to preserve the indigenous culture.

Economic sustainability

The economy is not just about income. It is also about the long-term viability of employment, and avoiding the inequality that can occur when one group benefits much more than others from tourism. Tourism can be a powerful force to reduce poverty, especially in rural areas where other economic activities are difficult to implement.

Informed participation

The UNWTO (2005) argues that to be truly sustainable, tourism development must include the informed participation of stakeholders. (Stakeholders are people who have an direct interest in a particular activity.) This requires suitable political leadership to ensure that diverse views continue to be heard as development progresses.

Mutually beneficial

Ultimately all tourism development is only sustainable as long as tourists want to participate. It is vital that tourists have a positive experience, so they (or their representatives) should be included in some way in the decision making process.

International Year of Sustainable Tourism, 2017

2017 was adopted as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development by the United Nations. This was in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, and five pillars of policy development were chosen as shown in the figure below (UNWTO, 2016):

  • Six focus areas for the Year of Sustainable Tourism. Source: UNWTO, 2016.

The sustainable tourism ‘growth paradox’

The term ‘paradox’ refers to a contradictory statement. In this case, the concept of ‘sustainable tourism’ may be contradictory because, possibly, no tourism can ever be truly sustainable.

Mullins (2017) summarises the argument that tourism is inherently unsustainable. The environmental damage from carbon emissions from traveling; the cultural interruption from having locals who have to engage with visitors, who may or may not be respectful of the culture they visit; and the economic disruption that comes from having relatively wealthy visitors who are willing to pay more than locals for basic products. All these are examples of the ways in which tourism, even on a very small scale, may still be unsustainable.

Global scale paradox

On a global scale, the resource consumption of tourism is very high. Travellers make a total of 32 million flights every year (this is the number of planes flying, not the number of passengers – there were around 1.2 billion individual movements!), which produces 781 million tons of carbon. When at their destinations, people generally use around twice the amount of water compared to at home. This suggests that global travel is not environmentally sustainable as the ‘vacation mindset’ involves deliberate indulgence, and therefore resource consumption and waste production, on the part of the tourist (Williams, 2016).

Local scale paradox

The more the tourist activity grows, the more disruption is caused, until the original environment, culture and economy is permanently changed and geared towards tourism. Some would argue this has already happened in many destinations. Many of these began as supposedly ‘sustainable’ destinations, but in fact what made them ‘sustainable’ was simply a very small number of visitors. Tourists to Cambodia in the 1970s, visiting the city of Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor, were greeted with an undeveloped tourist infrastructure allowing freedom to interact with the local culture, heritage and environment. Today, the temples themselves have significant protection including entry tickets and strict rules about eating and drinking to protect them, but the nearby towns do not. The secondary tourist facilities provided in the nearby urban areas have developed the city of Siem Reap beyond recognition. Visitors now arrive to a modern airport that has a Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Yoshinoya and Burger King (Cambodia Airports, 2018). The impact on the centre of Siem Reap city has been to strongly Westernise it, as seen in the photograph below.

  • Siem Reap, Cambodia. The influx of tourists to the nearby heritage site of Angkor Wat has dramatically changed the city. Is this sustainable?


‘Greenwashing’ is a term “used to describe the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service” (Greenpeace, n.d.). The term can be used for many industries including tourism.

Tourism is sometimes accused of being ‘greenwashing’ because the industry presents itself as being sustainable despite the problems that can result from it.


  • Queensland, Australia: Whale watching is a form of ecotourism as it is focused on the natural environment.

Ecotourism is often perceived as being ‘green’ tourism, such as visiting a rainforest. This misses a key issue, which is that ecotourism must be sustainable.

Today, ecotourism should be defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” (TIES, 2015). A similar definition from the IUCN is “environmentally responsible travel to natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and accompanying cultural features, both past and present) that promote conservation, have a low visitor impact and provide for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local peoples” (IUCN, via The Nature Conservancy, n.d.).

These definitions both have three main elements:

  • Focused on natural areas
  • Ensures well-being of host communities
  • Educational

There are many lists of characteristics of ecotourism (such as The International Ecotourism Society, found here). The United Nations World Tourism Organisation argues that ecotourism has five main features (UNWTO, n.d.):

  • Nature-based forms of tourism with the motivation to appreciate nature as well as culture in natural areas
  • Educational
  • Often specialised, and small group tours
  • Minimises negative impacts
  • Supports natural areas by creating economic benefits for host communities (including employment opportunities) and increasing awareness

The growth of the ecotourism sector

Ecotourism is growing and has been doing so for some time. However, specific figures are very difficult to find. The following is a summary of some anecdotal evidence that suggests ecotourism is growing (general source: Center for Responsible Travel, 2017):

  • Between 2013 and 2016, around a third of all leisure tourists in the USA made a ‘sustainable’ trip, spending US$600 more than typical travellers, and staying 7 days compared to 4 days at their destination
  • In 2016, the UNWTO estimated that there were 14000 protected areas in the world, with a total of 8 billion visitors, contributing US$600 billion to national economies
  • In 2017, 78% of German travellers said that sustainable travel was ‘very important’, up from 52% in 2016 (AIG, 2017)
  • Wellness tourism is increasing (visiting places for the therapeutic benefits e.g. natural hot springs) (Global Wellness Institute, 2017)


AIG, 2017. Report: Consumers Crave Education on Sustainable Travel Practices and Products. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Cambodia Airport, 2018. Dining at Siem Reap International Airport. Accessed 24 January 2018.

Center for Responsible Travel, 2017. The Case for Responsible Travel: Trends & Statistics 2017. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Global Wellness Institute, 2017. Global Wellness Economy Monitor. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Greenpeace, n.d. Greenwashing. Accessed 27 January 2018.

IBO [International Baccalaureate Organisation], 2009. Geography guide First examinations 2011. IBO, Cardiff.

IUCN [World Conservation Union], via The Nature Conservancy, n.d. Eco-Trips and Travel

What is Ecotourism? Accessed 24 January 2018.

Mullis, 2017. The growth paradox: can tourism ever be sustainable? Accessed 23 January 2018.

UNWTO [United Nations World Tourism Organisation], 2005. Making Tourism More Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers, UNEP and UNWTO, 2005, p.11-12. Sourced from Accessed 23 January 2018.

UNWTO [United Nations World Tourism Organisation], 2016. 2017 International Year for Sustainable Tourism Development. Accessed 23 January 2018.

UNWTO [United Nations World Tourism Organisation], n.d. Ecotourism and Protected areas. Accessed 24 January 2018.

TIES [The International Ecotourism Society], 2015. TIES Announces Ecotourism Principles Revision. Accessed 24 Januaray 2018.

Williams, C. 2016. Don’t Forget to Move: Why All Tourism Should Be Sustainable Tourism: Protecting the Future of Travel. Accessed 27 January 2018.

Sustainable tourism and ecotourism: Learning activities


  1. Define sustainable development. [2]
  2. On this page, five features of sustainable tourism are discussed (economic, social, environmental, informed consent, valued experience). Briefly describe each one. [2]
  3. Suggest two further considerations that a tourist might think about when booking a sustainable tourist experience. [2]
  4. When was the International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development?
  5. What were the main aims of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism Development? [5]
  6. Explain the ‘paradox’ of sustainable tourism. [6]
  7. Define ‘greenwashing’. [2]
  8. Do you think sustainable tourism is a paradox? Or is sustainable tourism possible? Explain your answer. [3]
  9. Define ecotourism [3].
  10. Do you consider ecotourism to be sustainable? Explain your answer. [5]

Other tasks

Imagine you are a gorilla. You have learned sign language*, and have been asked to give a presentation to the UN General Assembly about the viability of tourism in your rainforest. Plan your speech with a clear argument. Are you in favour of tourism to your rainforest, or not? Remember to include rebuttal points. Consider the sustainable tourism paradox as the focus of your question.

* Some research indicates that gorillas are capable of learning basic sign language and having simple but meaningful communication with humans, although a presentation on an abstract subject would be too advanced. Search for “Koko the talking gorilla” (or watch this video) to see more. There is also a full website with short clips showing the extent to which gorillas can communicate.

Going further

Look at Destination Better’s infographic, available from by filling in a short form (no cost or login required).