The long road to sustainable tourism

  • Published: 6 December 2017
  • Author: Sze Zen Wong

Sustainable tourism exists for many years but it is still considered a distinct niche activity involving upmarket eco-resorts rather than a fundamental element of what all tourism could be.

The travel and tourism sector in Asia Pacific is growing fast and its contribution to the GDP in Asia represented nearly 65% the size of the banking sector and more than the mining, chemical and automotive manufacturing sectors. This sector also sustained a total of 67.3 million direct jobs in 2016, supporting nearly twice as many jobs as the financial services sector.

As the sector is rapidly growing, it is also driving environmental and social opportunities and risks. There is an urgent need for sustainable practices to become mainstream in the sector.

Redefining Tourism

By 2020, there will be 2 billion travellers, spending just over $2 trillion, in all corners of the world.

When on holiday we can consume double the amount of water we do at home, and can create up to three times the amount of waste. We can alienate local communities by wearing inappropriate clothes, or by going to areas they hold sacred. We can trample on precious biodiversity, or visit places that cannot cope with our presence. We take 32 million flights creating 781 million tonnes of carbon each year.

We need to change how we think about travel if we really want to be sure that the positive impacts outweigh the negative.

We need to combine the forces of the businesses who provide the means for tourism to happen, and the experts who know how to deliver sustainable development on the ground, with the power of the people who travel.

Tourism and the SDGs

To highlight the potential of tourism to advance the universal 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 2017 was declared the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations General Assembly.

An ever-increasing number of destinations worldwide have opened up to, and invested in tourism. The International Year aims to support a change in policies, business practices and consumer behaviour towards a more sustainable tourism sector that can contribute effectively to the SDGs.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization is working closely with governments, public and private partners, development banks, international and regional finance institutions to help achieve the SDGs, placing an emphasis on Goals 8,12 and 14, in which tourism is featured.

The role of consumers

A study carried out on American consumers* has helped define the profile of the ‘sustainable traveller’ gauging how significant sustainable practices are to travellers and how they perceive sustainability.

For the sustainable traveller, authenticity is critical. The research found that sustainable travellers buy from companies that invest in employee training and development in ways that allow them to advance in their career and contribute to the community (74%), educate customers about the unique features of a destination – its history, culture, residents, and resources (79%), offer travellers experiences that reflect the unique character of the destination (81%).

In ASEAN also, the trend for responsible tourism is growing. Sustainable tourism operators in Southeast Asia can now enter the new ASEAN Sustainable Tourism Awards (ASTA).
According to Mr Sounh Manivong, Director General of Tourism Marketing Department, Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism in Lao, the main objective of the awards is to “boost the profile and importance of sustainable tourism businesses in Southeast Asia, promote responsible tourism in all ASEAN countries, combat seasonality, and rebalance tourist flows towards best practice tourism experiences”

The role of governments and policymakers

Over the next decade one in ten of all tourism investment dollars will go into the ASEAN region.

Given the strong demand for travel to this region (and average growth of 6.3% per annum in the next 10 years), countries are still at risks of not investing enough to meet forecast growth. Investment spending will be dominated by five major destinations: Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia; accounting for 80% of international arrivals and total travel and tourism GDP.

Future investments in the ASEAN Travel and Tourism sector must be smart, sustainable and well-targeted. Governments have a key influence on the development of their national tourism sectors through setting policy frameworks. For instance, in Bhutan the government’s tourism policy emphasises a “high value – low impact” type of tourism. To implement this overarching policy, a number of tools including a tariff structure, mandatory involvement of local tour operators and strong environmental protection policies have been put in place.
During the last two decades, Vietnam’s tourism sector has strongly grown, with an impressive rate of 12% per year. Today, Vietnams tourism development is facing challenges, especially concerning the competitiveness of destinations and sustainability. Hence a responsible tourism policy is being discussed to be codified in the Vietnam Tourism Law and the legal documents guiding this law’s implementation.

The Myanmar Responsible Tourism Policy was launched in September 2012. As Myanmar is just opening up for strong development of the tourism sector, sustainable tourist solutions shall be implemented from the outset. A master plan for tourism along the guidelines of a “Responsible Tourism Policy” will show how Myanmar will respond to the challenges brought about by emerging mass tourism. The challenge for governments is to align their sustainable tourism policies with industry stakeholders in the tourism industry.

In the case of Bhutan, the SWITCH-Asia project “Low-carbon Tourism in Bhutan” supports the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators to realise the policy objectives of “high value – low impact” tourism in their particular tourism operations (see

Exclusive Strategic Partner Series

With this consumer trend in the horizon, the hospitality sector has initiated many programmes. This sector may have a more obvious role in driving sustainable tourism but there are numerous facets to sustainable tourism throughout the value chain. CSR Asia’s Strategic Partnership Programme will be bringing together key players in the industry to breakdown the intricacies, share best practices and seek collective solutions in support of Sustainable Tourism in a series of roundtable discussions.

To usher in the new line up of programmes kickstarting in 2018, Strategic Partners will be exclusively invited to a series of webinars starting with the topic of gender conducted by CARE International on 7 December 2017. Do look out for the invitation.