What is sustainable tourism?

What are the three pillars of sustainable tourism? And how can you apply them to your tourism strategy?

Sustainability has been incorporated into nearly every industry, from auto-manufacturing to clothing and apparel production. On both a global and local level, principles are being adopted to help combat a growing ecological footprint, limit negative social impact and secure future profits and, therefore, existence. Sustainability, used synonymously with the term sustainable development, originated from the 1987 Brundtland Report as, “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

Traditionally, sustainability has three pillars: economic, social and environment. Simply put –

  1. Economics focuses on society prospering in the long-term and ensuring enterprise viability.
  2. The social component of sustainability is said to generate equal opportunities and distribution of benefits with emphasis on building resiliency within local communities.
  3. The environmental pillar conserves and manages natural resources and seeks to minimize pollution via action.

Sustainability is also being applied to the tourism industry, which can be defined as “temporary movement of people to destinations outside their normal places of work and residence, the activities undertaken during their stay in those destinations, and the facilities created to cater to their needs” according to Mathieson and Wall’s book, Tourism: Economic, physical, and social impacts. However, bridging the concept of sustainability with tourism can be challenging.

The Center for Sustainable Tourism at East Carolina University combined the ideas behind sustainability and tourism to create a working definition for sustainable tourism as “actions that contribute to a balanced and healthy economy by generating tourism related jobs, revenues, and taxes (Economic Pillar) while protecting and enhancing the destinations socio-cultural, historical, natural, and built resources for the enjoyment and well-being of both residents and visitors.(Social and Environmental Pillars).”

There are many factors in creating a sustainable tourism industry. Often it is developed through smaller niche markets, that when combined, work together to support sustainable tourism as a whole, such as:

Further exploration into these areas of tourism is necessary to understand how they can create and support a sustainable tourism industry. Throughout 2014, the Michigan State University Extension tourism team will be offering a program titled “Understanding Tourism for Michigan Communities (UTMC)”. The program will discuss the relationship(s) between sustainability and tourism; niche market areas identified as contributors to sustainable tourism, trends and opportunities, as well as existing resources for communities.

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