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Sustainable Tourism Practices: Progress and Limits Essay


Sustainable tourism is defined as “satisfying current tourism and host community needs, while protecting and improving future opportunities” (Pineda & Brebbia 2004, p 34). The aim of sustainable tourism is to avoid or reduce negative effects on the economy, environment, as well as, the cultures of the local communities. Sustainability ensures that tourism facilitates development that is beneficial to the local communities, tourism firms and the tourists.

Sustainable tourism promotes effective management of resources in order to meet economic, social, as well as, aesthetic needs (Cohen 2002, pp. 267-276). Sustainability is achieved when these needs are met without interfering with the cultural integrity, ecological processes, as well as, biological diversity of the tourism destination. This can be achieved if best practices or sustainable tourism practices are adopted at all levels of tourism business management.

Best practices are corrective measures which ensure that tourism causes the least possible negative impact; the quality of tourism product is improved and tourism businesses become more efficient. In the last three decades, several initiatives have been implemented to promote best practices in tourism. However, best practice is yet to become the main focus in the tourism industry. This paper analyzes the extent to which disagreement among stakeholders on how to improve sustainability of tourism destinations hinders adoption of sustainable tourism practices.

The Need for Sustainable Practice

The rationale for adopting sustainable practices is demonstrated by the impacts of tourism on the environment and local communities. The impacts of tourism include the following. To begin with, tourism has negative impacts on the environment (Hunter & Shaw 2007, pp. 46-56). Over-consumption of resources such as water by tourists discourages sustainable development. Tourists compete with local communities for scarce resources such as food, and this can increase inequality and injustice.

Transport systems which support tourism leads to pollution through greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, tourism-related activities such as water sports and mountain hiking interfere with fragile ecosystems. Tourists are normally unaware of the impact of their behavior on the cultures of local communities. Thus, they often engage in inappropriate behaviors that may offend the locals. Finally, the economic benefits of tourism can only be sustained if best practices are adopted. The tourism industry contributes nearly 10 percent of the global GDP.

The industry also supports approximately ten percent of jobs in the world (Gossling, Hall & Weaver 2009, p. 78). On average, a tourist spends $ 700 in a tourism destination. These statistics indicate that tourism plays an important role in economic growth, and thus, it should be developed through adoption of sustainable practices. Many countries have recognized the need to promote sustainable practices in tourism. Hence, they have implemented several initiatives to encourage stakeholders in the tourism industry to adopt sustainable practices.

Initiatives to Promote Sustainable Practices

Sustainable practice initiatives have, traditionally, focused on three areas namely, the environment, social-cultural and economic aspects of the tourism destination. The initiatives to protect the environment include implementation of policies that encourage economical use of resources. Governments normally provide incentives to encourage firms to adopt technologies that promote efficient use of energy, and other resources (Saarinen 2006, pp. 1121-1140). Abatement actions such as recycling, reusing, emission fees and fines are used to reduce environmental degradation. The public and the private sector have partnered to protect endangered species by discouraging pouching.

In order to protect the cultures of local communities, cultural activities such as traditional dances and cultural artifacts have been accepted as part of tourism attractions. The government and private firms participate in the development of local communities (Gossling, Hall & Weaver 2009, p. 132). For instance, private firms often build schools for local communities while the government constructs infrastructure that promotes the economic activities of the local communities. Preservation of historical or cultural heritage has become a norm in every tourism destination. This helps in ensuring a steady growth in the number of tourists. It is also a way of respecting the beliefs associated with such cultural heritage.

In most destinations, the economic benefits of tourism are leveraged through laws and regulations that promote fair trade and protect the interests of the consumers. The laws define the expected tourism product quality and the accepted economic activities (Pineda & Brebbia 2004, p 64). Local communities are often given first priority in employment in order to improve their economic status. The design and construction of infrastructure such as roads and resorts is often done in a manner that minimizes interference with the economic activities of the local communities. Empirical studies reveal that nearly every tourism destination has a set of initiatives to promote sustainable tourism. However, the degree to which such initiatives have been adopted varies across the industry.

Extend to Which Sustainable Practices Have Been Adopted

A 2009 study conducted in Canada, US and Europe on best practice in tourism industry revealed that stakeholders have “a very strong pro-sustainability attitude” (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). At least 81% of tourism companies believe that local governments or industry regulators should implement incentive programs to encourage businesses to focus on sustainability. Nearly 96% of businesses agree that their customers prefer firms that make some effort to achieve sustainability.

Empirical studies reveal that majority of businesses have adopted some initiatives or practices that promote sustainability. Practices that promote environmental sustainability are the most common among tourism companies (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). The most common sustainability practices include recycling, hiring members of the local communities and obtaining supplies from local suppliers. Businesses avoid sustainability practices that require significant financial and human capital. Consequently, capital intensive practices such as using renewable energy, green certification and green building are hardly adopted by firms in the tourism industry. In general, a practice that promotes sustainability is likely to be adopted if it is associated with little financial and human capital.

Approximately, 64% of tourism companies make the decision to adopt best practices on their own (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). Once they make such decisions, they rely on internal resources and knowledge to implement the identified practices. Approximately 18% of businesses borrow ideas on sustainable practices from their peers. Such businesses have to modify the borrowed ideas to fit their needs.

Majority of businesses are motivated to adopt sustainable practices due to altruistic reasons. Such reasons include the company’s commitment or values about sustainability, as well as, the desire to protect natural resources. Approximately 30% of businesses are motivated to adopt sustainability practices due to business reasons (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). Such reasons include improving the company’s brand image, reducing costs and attracting new customers or markets.

Research indicates that less than 2% of businesses are motivated by incentive programs to adopt sustainable practices. This is, perhaps, an indication that the incentives are ineffective or there is a disagreement on the type of incentives to be implemented. It is estimated that only 27% of firms are fully committed to sustainability (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). Thus, even though most firms have adopted some sustainability practices, only a few of them are committed to pursuing such practices. This confirms the view that sustainable practices are yet to become the norm in the tourism industry.

Factors that Hinder Adoption of Sustainable Practice

The reluctance to adopt sustainable practices in the tourism industry can be attributed to several factors. Some scholars attribute the reluctance to the disagreements among stakeholders on how sustainability should be achieved. However, some stakeholders and scholars have identified factors such as financial constraints, lack of information, and technical capability as the main barriers to sustainable practices. The significance of each of these factors can be explained as follows.

Disagreements on how to Improve Sustainability

The disagreements among stakeholders on how to ensure sustainability in tourism destinations discourages adoption of best practice in the following ways. First, sustainable tourism is an evolving concept. Stakeholders agree that the main objectives of sustainability should be to protect the culture of the local people, discourage environmental degradation and promote economic growth (Liu 2003, pp. 459-475).

However, there has never been a consensus on which objective to give priority. Consequently, stakeholders often disagree on how to allocate resources in order to enhance sustainability in the industry. For instance, an initiative by the government to encourage hiring of locals will not be adopted if the businesses believe that the locals lack the required skills and competence. The interpretation of sustainability has also changed over time. Sustainable tourism has, traditionally, been associated with economic benefits such as market expansion and investments (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38).

The main ideology behind this perspective is that economic prosperity will make it easier to finance social programs, thereby improving community sustainability. However, recent studies consider the economic perspective of sustainability to be overly simplistic. Such studies emphasize the need to take into account the impacts of tourism on the local communities. Lack of consensus on what is ‘sustainable’, thus, impedes adoption of best practices. This is because a business will only embark on a practice that reflects its interpretation of sustainability.

Second, sustainable tourism is based on the principle of good governance. In this context, good governance refers to “the establishment of appropriate institutional arrangements to manage tourism and its positive and negative impacts” (Pineda & Brebbia 2004, p 87). The elements of good governance include accountability, efficiency, equity, and participation. It also includes transparency, and relationship management. These elements can be conceptualized as the ethical positions that inform the decisions made in regard to sustainable tourism. Good governance is shaped by the social, political, as well as, cultural norms of the community.

Thus, it is based on the values, ideas, as well as, the ethics associated with the community. Since values and norms vary across communities, there have been disagreements on the exact meaning of good governance. Failure to achieve consensus on the meaning of good governance can prevent adoption of sustainable practices in tourism. For instance, the government and tourism businesses may focus on efficiency, equity and accountability as the main tenets of good governance. The local community, on the other hand, might consider transparency and participation as the most important elements of good governance. In this case, the community can reject an initiative meant to promote efficiency simply because its members did not participate in the formulation of the initiative.

Third, disagreements limit the stakeholders’ ability to work together, negotiate and achieve positive change. Policy entrepreneurialism can only be achieved if the tourism industry stakeholders are able to work together in a constructive manner. Policy entrepreneurialism describes the approach used by stakeholders to articulate tourism problems and how solutions are developed through positive dialogue (Gossling, Hall & Weaver 2009, p. 165). Innovativeness and transformational thinking can not be achieved if stakeholders are not able to acknowledge each other’s ideas and opinions. Additionally, stakeholders will not be able to pursue multiple objectives in order to achieve a win-win solution if they can not agree on practices to be adopted.

Finally, disagreements among stakeholders impede effective planning for the adoption of sustainable practices (Hall & Lew 1998, p. 12). Formulation of sustainable practice policies has evolved in most tourism destinations. The industry regulator no longer has the sole responsibility of formulating best practice policies. It is now common practice to include representatives of the community, industry and the government in committees that formulate important tourism policies. Since the representatives have varied interests and opinions, consensus must be reached before any policy can be implemented. Besides, sustainable practices can only be uniformly adopted if the stakeholders agree to pursue common practices.

Financial Constraints

Adopting practices that promote sustainability can be very expensive, especially, in the short run. For instance, substituting fossil fuels with clean or renewable sources of energy may require huge financial investments. Similarly, hiring members of the local community might necessitate expensive training programs, especially, if the locals lack the required skills. The high costs discourage firms from adopting sustainable practices.

Additionally, investments in sustainable practices might not have immediate financial benefits to the firms (Gossling, Hall & Weaver 2009, p. 177). Thus, firms that are interested in immediate financial benefits are not likely to adopt expensive sustainable tourism practices. Financial incentives such as tax rebates often promote implementation of best practices which stakeholders consider to be expensive. However, financial incentives are not often available in most destinations. Thus, even if stakeholders agree on the practices to be adopted, lack of adequate financing can prevent implementation of the identified practices.

Lack of Information

Sustainable tourism practice is still a new concept in the tourism industry. Thus, not all firms have adequate information about it. Recent studies have revealed that tourism firms fail to adopt sustainable practices due to lack of adequate information on acceptable practices. In particular, some businesses are unaware of the benefits associated with sustainable tourism practices (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). Since businesses are driven by the profit motive, they adopt only practices whose benefits are clearly defined. In some cases, businesses are unaware of the impact of their actions on the environment and the local community. Lack of effective communication among stakeholders is the main cause of inadequate information about sustainable tourism practices. In general, a practice that is not known to a majority of firms is less likely to be adopted.

Lack of Technical Capability

Adopting sustainable tourism practices requires innovation and creativity. Both product and process innovation can only be achieved through technologies that promote efficiency and sustainability (Nistoreanu, Roxana & Elena 2011, pp. 35-38). Thus, firms that intend to embark on innovation must be ready to invest in new technologies or talented employees who are able to use their creativity to promote best practice. In most countries, technological advancements and discoveries are protected through patents and copyrights. This limits access to new technologies and implementation of practices that promote sustainability.


The aim of this paper was to analyze the extent to which disagreements among stakeholders hinder adoption of sustainable practices in the tourism industry. Sustainable tourism practices are those that enhance economic prosperity, protect the environment and preserve the cultures of the local communities (Liu 2003, pp. 459-475). As stated earlier, most tourism businesses are willing to adopt sustainable tourism practices. Contrary to the popular belief, most businesses are engaged in at least one practice that is meant to enhance sustainability.

However, only a few of the businesses are fully committed to pursuing sustainable tourism practices. Thus, it is apparent that the numerous initiatives to promote sustainable tourism practices have born little results. Disagreement among stakeholders on how to improve the sustainability of tourism destinations is one of the main barriers to adoption of sustainable tourism practices. The other barriers include financial constraints, lack of information and technical capabilities. Disagreement among stakeholders is the main barrier to sustainability at the industry level. However, at the firm level, factors such as financial constraints are the main barriers to sustainable tourism practices.


Cohen, E 2002, ‘Authenticity, Equity and Sustainability in Tourism’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol. 10 no. 4, pp. 267-276.

Gossling, S, Hall, C & Weaver, D 2009, Sustainable Tourism Futures, Cengage Learning, New York.

Hall, C & Lew, A 1998, Sustainable Tourism, Addison Wesley Longman, Harlow.

Hunter, C & Shaw, J 2007, ‘The Ecological Footprint as a Key Indicator of Sustainable Tourism’, Tourism Management, vol. 28 no. 1, pp. 46-56.

Liu, Z 2003, ‘Sustainable Tourism Development: A Critique’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol. 11 no. 66, pp. 459-475.

Nistoreanu, P, Roxana, D & Elena, C 2011, ‘The Trilateral relationship Ecotourism-Sustainable Tourism’, Journal of Tourism, vol. 11 no. 11, pp. 35-38.

Pineda, F & Brebbia, A 2004, Sustainable Tourism, Sage, London.

Saarinen, J 2006, ‘Traditions of Sustainability in Tourism Studies, Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 33 no. 4, pp. 1121-1140.

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