Sustainability Corner: Sustainable Tourism…going somewhere or nowhere?

Sustainable Tourism...going somewhere or nowhere
with Romein VAN STADEN,Ebenezer ASUMANG& Linda Gräber
  • “We recommend changing your travel habits as one of the important steps you can take to remedy your impact on the climate.” Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac, authors of The Future We Choose.

Our lives as humans are often one long quest for happiness, and the means to this often-elusive end are myriad, whether you’re a trepidatious traveler who wants to see the world but is worried about the dangers. Or a seasoned sightseer who is always looking for new ways to see the world.

For the majority, there are ample reasons for staying home and not to travel: travel seems too dangerous, travel costs are so expensive, or some think travel and, in particular, air travel is not sustainable. Others believe not enough is being done in sustainable tourism. But in reality, what is sustainable tourism? We look no further than World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) to answer that question.

UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) is a United Nations specialized agency that promotes responsible, sustainable, and universally accessible tourism. UNWTO eloquently describes 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.”

In 2017, United Nations, in its quest to put tourism on the map, dubbed it the International Year of “Sustainable Tourism for Development” supporting sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism is identified as an indispensable component to ensure the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8, 12, and 14 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

No one in the world would contest that the coronavirus pandemic affected every aspect of our modern life. No industry nor sector has escaped the brunt of this vicious and precarious pandemic. Travel and tourism have taken an unprecedented dip. It is no wonder that tourism is one of the sectors most affected by the pandemic, affecting economies, livelihoods, public services, and opportunities on all continents. And not sparing any of its symbiotic partners and dealers in its vast value chain any of the brunt.

Hence in facing this merciless pandemic and paving the future of tourism, a question springs to mind? How can we think more deeply about sustainable tourism?

Sustainable Tourism: Discovering the new and voyaging forward

Tourism in its current form of journeys made by choice and recreation has existed since around the mid-nineteenth century. Before that, for hundreds of years, voluntary travel without immediate need remained a privilege of the upper classes. However, after the “democratization of travel” (Steinecke, 2010) following World War II, tourism developed into a new industry, becoming an essential economic factor in many countries from the mid-twentieth century.

Over the decades, tourism and indeed travel have evolved. Now it’s all about discovering new cultures, learning foreign languages, spontaneous “spur of the moment” bookings, and living like the locals. Modern travelers ask questions more consciously and intentionally think more sustainably. Which begs the question, “Is it not better to ask more challenging questions and seek finer details?” If one thing is sure about the future, the new traveler doesn’t want to be seen as a tourist. And what better way to avoid that than by being immersed in the neighbourhood creative scene and hanging out with the locals.

To gather those kinds of insights, we have to make a conscious choice to travel with an open mind. To remember, the point of this kind of travel and tourism is to broaden our horizons and discover a new and fascinating world. This sort of tourism means that our ingrained ideas and preconceptions of a place, its people, culture, and environment will be challenged. Can we dare to say that travel is usually far less glamorous than the dreams one has of it? But, of course, traveling still has a world of wonders to reveal, and it’s just about adjusting our modern approach to it.

Taking the idea of the adage that when in Rome, do as the Romans do, takes on a whole new meaning. Travel is not about fitting in but rather experiencing life as the locals do and understanding what makes them tick and contributes to their livelihood. By taking greater pleasure in learning ways to be more sustainable, be it the miracle of air travel, learning about local cultures and ecosystems, or the beauty of nature and traditional practices, we can find more sustainability in tourism.

The aftermath of COVID-19 on tourism threatens to increase poverty (SDG 1 – No Poverty) and inequality (SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities) and reverse nature and cultural conservation efforts. The pandemic also jeopardizes slowing down progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Tourism is directly referenced in three SDG goals: SDG 8, “decent work and economic growth”, SDG 12, “responsible consumption and production”, and SDG 14, “life below water”.

At the same time, the tourism sector notoriously has a high climate and environmental footprint, requiring heavy energy and fuel consumption and placing stress on land systems. According to Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, “Travel is undoubtedly a major contributor to climate change”. They further elaborate that “Tourism accounts for 8% of global emissions, taking into account travel, souvenirs, food consumption and so on.”

Remodeling tourism is also an opportunity for transformation, focusing on strengthening its impact on destinations visited and building more resilient communities and businesses through innovation, digitalization, sustainability, and partnerships.

Tourism has become one of the significant sectors in international trade while representing one of the primary income sources for many developing countries. For example, in Africa, the tourism sector represented 10 percent of all exports in 2019.

Sustainable tourism and the digital age

The marriage between sustainable tourism and the digital revolution is about being agile and flourishing by taking advantage of whatever the uncertain future may bring. How can sustainable tourism become disruptive in the fast-changing global ecosystem? How can we make the most of new digital technologies without being shackled to them? The recovery of tourism destinations and companies will depend entirely on their capacity to utilize technology to understand better and monitor travelers’ needs and trends.

In turn, also create and market innovative experiences, use digital platforms to enhance the competitiveness and agility of MSMEs to reach customers, provide added-value jobs, and implement effective health protocols. In addition, artificial intelligence and big data can help manage flows and protect communities and resources.

Building tourism innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystems can help advance digital transformation. Innovation could focus on adopting digital models for managing the sector and creating new jobs and new sustainable products and experiences that link travelers with nature and creative industries, empower communities and promote safe journeys through technology. Instead of patching a “broken” outdated system that is not sustainable, fundamental changes must genuinely adapt.

Final destination

How do we reshape our understanding of sustainable tourism? Only through collective action and international cooperation will we transform tourism. Firstly, advance its contribution to the 2030 Agenda and shift towards an inclusive and carbon-neutral sector that harnesses innovation and digitalization. Secondly, embrace local values, cultures, and communities and create decent job opportunities for all, leaving no one behind.

Thirdly, tourism development should have a sustainable approach to promote growth in the long term while maintaining a balanced use of resources. Lastly, this approach should be supported at local, national, regional, and international levels.

Tourism should not only be about traveling but about redefining trends. For example, with the pandemic still part of our livelihood, what better way would it be if travelers could grab a desk in a co-working space while visiting a new city. To bear in mind that in exploring and perhaps preparing for the next big thing, one should try and see one, two, or even three steps down the road. 


Figueres, Christiana, and Rivett-Carnac, Tom (2020): The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis. Knopf Publishers.

The World Tourism Organization – UNWTO( 2013): EU Guideline on Sustainable Tourism for Development.

The World Bank Group (2017): Tourism for Development: 20 Reasons Sustainable Tourism Counts for Development. Washington.

German Environmental Agency (2019): Sustainability in tourism: developments, approaches, and clarification of terms – Paper. Umweltbundesamt.

United Nations (2020): Policy Briefing: COVID-19 and Transforming Tourism.

De Botton, Alain (2004): The Art of Travel. Vintage.

Steves, Rick (2009, updated in 2018): Travel as a Political Act. Rick Steves.

Steinecke, Albrecht (2010): Culture – A Tourist Attraction: Importance – Expectations – Potential. Universitat Paderborn. 

About the Writers:

Romein  is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. Romein is a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors related to Sustainability. Contact him via ([email protected])

Ebenezer  is a Development Communication Specialist, MSME & SDG Enthusiast, Finance & Investment Nomad, and a WriterPreneur. He`s Country Director (Ag) of PIRON Global Development GmbH, Ghana (   Contact him via ([email protected])

Linda is a sustainable tourism scholar and an explorer by nature. She is an astute tour guide and has a refined palate for all things gastronomic. She is proud to say that she is an adventure junkie. Contact her via ([email protected])


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