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Definition of Sustainability and Its Underpinnings in Tourism Essay

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Updated: Dec 11th, 2019


Sustainability has become a buzzword in contemporary tourism research and practice. Thousands of businesses claim themselves to be sustainable, because they provide their services without damaging the environment. More often than not, sustainability is understood in the context of environmental protection and community development.

Sustainable tourism is expected to be able to balance its profitability concerns with the needs of communities. Apparently, the tools and resources used to promote sustainable tourism differ considerably across communities and settings.

This paper is a review of the current theoretical and empirical literature related to the topic of sustainable tourism. The main themes to be discussed in this review include: definition of sustainability and its theoretical underpinnings, the problems of measuring sustainability and tourism, as well as the case studies of sustainable tourism presented in literature.

Tourism and Sustainability: Defining the Concept

Sustainability is a common topic in contemporary literature. However, its meaning is often taken for granted. Few, if any, researchers discussed the concept of sustainability in detail. Of all articles retrieved in this literature search, only Lansing and De Vries (2007) decided to review the meaning of the sustainability concept, as applied in tourism.

According to Lansing and De Vries (2007), the concept of sustainability in tourism has numerous categorisations and definitions, and this is also why the debate over sustainable tourism remains so fragmented and confusing. Saarinen (2006) supports this view and suggests that the concept of sustainable tourism continues to interest and irritate researchers. Lansing and De Vries (2007) take the definition of the World Tourism Organisation (WTO) as the starting point for their analysis.

This is also the definition, which is to be used in this review of literature: “sustainability principles refer to the environmental, economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability” (Lansing & De Vries 2007, p.78). In other words, sustainability in tourism emphasises the importance of ethics.

Sustainable tourism enables communities and host countries to retain the benefits of tourism (Lansing & De Vries 2007). Sustainable tourism is impossible without showing respect for the major socio-cultural aspects of community development and growth. All these are the fundamental requirements of sustainability in tourism.

Sustainability in Tourism: Theories and Implications

It should be noted, that sustainability remains a popular topic of research and policy development. Saarinen (2006) writes that sustainability in tourism can be readily associated with almost all scales and kinds of tourist activities. Many sustainability features have been borrowed from the earlier studies and are nothing new.

Still, several essential themes in the study of sustainable tourism can be identified. Saarinen (2006) speaks about three distinct traditions of sustainability in research: activity-based, resource-based, and community-based. The resource-based tradition was developed in response to the growing shortages of various community resources.

Researchers in tourism were trying to find a magic number which, once overstepped, would inevitably result in irreversibly negative impacts on the community and environment (Saarinen 2006). This tradition was closely associated with natural sciences and the positivist philosophy. The activity-based tradition was intended to close the gaps in the resource-based view of sustainability (Saarinen 2006).

This tradition in sustainability research was industry-oriented and tourism-centric (Saarinen 2006). Finally, the community-based tradition came to resolve the existing dualities between the resource-based and activity-based research traditions (Saarinen 2006). At present, it is through the prism of community development that most approaches to sustainable tourism are reconsidered and evaluated.

In the meantime, researchers are developing new theoretical approaches to sustainability and reconsider the concept of sustainable tourism through various theoretical lenses. Mowforth and Munt (2003) discussed the principles and tools of sustainability in tourism.

According to Mowforth and Munt (2003), none of the existing sustainability definitions is entirely satisfactory; therefore, the degree of sustainability in various tourist activities should be judged, based on whether or not they meet a number of criteria. These criteria include but are not limited to: environmental benefits, social, cultural, and economic benefits, educational implications, and local participation (Mowforth & Munt 2003).

The researchers discuss each type of sustainability in detail, but the most interesting is their evaluation of educational sustainability in tourism. Mowforth and Munt (2003) suggest that sustainable tourism must provide an educational input, by informing community members about the benefits of tourism or teaching them to do sustainable tourism right.

As mentioned earlier, the activity- and community-based paradigms in sustainable tourism research came to reflect the dynamics and changeability of sustainable practices in tourism (Saarinen 2006). Farrell and Twining-Ward (2005) further expand this theoretical position and write that a new thought in sustainable tourism depicts the world as constantly changing and full of uncertainty.

Farrell and Twining-Ward (2005) recognise that changes in community and policy decisions greatly impact the nature of sustainability, and only theoretical approaches based on dynamic activities and change can serve the needs of students and researchers in sustainable tourism.

This uncertainty actually led to the development of various theoretical models. Those models were expected to make the concept of sustainability more comprehensive and full. Macbeth, Carson and Northcote (2004) proposed a regional development perspective on sustainability to tackle with the limitations of more traditional resource-based models.

Macbeth et al. (2004) assert that these models ignore the cultural and community aspects of tourism development, and a successful regional model of sustainable tourism will always contribute to the local social, political, and cultural capital (SPCC). These principles are also echoed in Mowforth and Munt (2003) and Saarinen (2006).

The notions of social theory and social capital are commonly used in sustainable tourism research. Hughes (2004) also applied to social theory in order to reduce the ambivalence surrounding the concept of sustainability in tourism. In Hughes’s (2004) view, sustainable tourism is a relevant response to a deep philosophic shift taking place in the tourism industry, when mass package models give place to individualisation and differentiation in holiday making.

At the same time, researchers like Casagrandi and Rinaldi (2002) admit that implementing sustainability models in practice can be difficult and extremely problematic. Even in the presence of the best theoretical approaches, delivering quality tourism can be impossible without severely impacting the environment (Casagrandi & Rinaldi 2002).

One of the key questions asked by Casagrandi and Rinaldi (2002) is whether at all the concept of sustainability can be implemented in tourism, or whether it is designed merely to help businesses in the tourism industry generate profits. Lansing and De Vries (2007) discuss this issue in their work.

They claim that, because sustainability in tourism is so poorly defined, it is nothing but a marketing ploy (Lansing & De Vries 2007). Sustainable tourism is expected to minimise the harm caused to the environment, but in reality, the level of pollution caused by traveling remains quite high (Lansing & De Vries 2007).

In economic terms, sustainability in tourism does little or nothing to reduce the problems posed by conventional tourism (Lansing & De Vries 2007). These problems are further exacerbated by the lack of sustainability awareness in public. Miller, Rathouse, Scarles, Holmes and Tribe (2010) have explored the public understanding of sustainability in tourism and discovered that the respondents have little understanding of tourism’s effects on their daily behaviours and practices.

Moreover, the public does not feel empowered to manage their touristic and community activities in ways that benefit them (Miller et al. 2010). To a large extent, the tangible effects and benefits of sustainability in tourism remain more theoretical than practical. Nevertheless, the current literature contains numerous case studies of sustainable development in tourism and provides diverse opinions on how sustainability in tourism could be measured.

Measuring Sustainability in Tourism

The question of measuring sustainability is one of the most common themes in modern tourism research. Numerous researchers tried to define the limits and scope of sustainability in tourist activities. Various models have been proposed to enhance the measurability of sustainable activities in tourism.

Nonetheless, the field of tourism lacks a single universal approach to sustainability measurement. Gossling, Hansson, Horstmeier and Saggel (2002) developed a methodological framework to calculate the ecological footprints of leisure tourism. At the core of the model are the impacts of air travel on the host environment: the researchers used the example of the Seychelles to prove that the ecological footprints model could be effectively used to meet the goals of sustainability measurement in tourism (Gossling et al. 2002).

Later, Fernandez and Rivero (2009) recommended using a composite index to measure sustainability in tourism, based on factor loadings. Again, the example of Spanish tourism was used to prove that the proposed index could become a robust measure of sustainability in various tourist activities (Fernandez & Rivero 2009).

Simpson (2007) recommended using an integrated approach to assess the effects of tourism on sustainable livelihoods and community development. The proposed model incorporates the diverse factors and elements that impact sustainability, including geographical contexts, their employment and economic characteristics, ownership structure and governance, etc. (Simpson 2007).

Despite the growing number of measurement models, the gap between theory and industry perceptions of useful sustainability indicators continues to persist (McCool, Moisey & Nickerson 2001). Again, these controversies are rooted in the ambiguities of sustainable tourism, its concept and applications (McCool et al. 2001).

Different agents pursue different goals and have different perceptions on which indicators should be used to achieve and measure sustainability. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that scholars will arrive at any conceptual and measurement agreement anytime soon.

Sustainability in Tourism: Application

The current state of literature is rich in sustainability examples. Researchers develop case studies to analyse how sustainability can benefit tourism. Bearing in mind the controversies surrounding the concept of sustainability, the ways in which it is applied in tourism are also different.

Still, the results of the recent real-life analyses can be used to identify and analyse the most common features of sustainable practices in tourism. The hotel industry is one of the most popular targets of sustainable tourism research. Chan and Lam (2003) explored a rooftop hotel pool as an example of sustainable practices in tourism. Chan and Lam (2003) confirmed that, due to considerable cost savings, the rooftop pool could become a relevant alternative to conventional pool equipment.

In a similar fashion, Ayuso (2006) explored the use of voluntary tools of sustainability across several Spanish hotels. The results presented by Ayuso (2006) tell much about motivations behind the use of voluntary practices in tourism. On the one hand, hotel owners and managers display a limited understanding of the sustainability concept (Ayuso 2006).

As a result, they are not always able to define how to meet their sustainability targets. On the other hand, voluntary sustainability practices are driven by factors other than the pursuit of economic profits (Ayuso 2006). Hotel managers often apply to sustainability in response to stakeholder demands or with respect to owners’ environmental concerns (Ayuso 2006). These results do not support the theoretical assumptions of sustainability and its marketing benefits presented by Lansing and De Vries (2007).

Lumsdon (2000) suggested that cycle tourism could become a relevant model of sustainability in tourism. The researcher explored the concept of a planned transport network, as applied in the UK (Lumsdon 2000). The model of planned transport networks incorporates four different stages, but Lumsdon (2000) believes that it has the potential to promote the idea of sustainability in local tourism.

Muller (2000) proposed the model of second home tourism as a potential contributor to sustainability in rural areas. Muller (2000) used the examples of Northern Sweden and Finland to measure the effectiveness of second home tourism in the context of sustainability. Nasser (2003) also referred to sustainability through the prism of heritage places.

The researcher proposed an integrated approach to managing heritage places that would help avoid the major conflicts between conservation and tourism needs (Nasser 2003). The results of these case studies suggest that different researchers have different visions of sustainability in tourism.

Moreover, the way sustainability is defined and applied differs greatly across sites and destinations. The lack of uniformity and standardisation in sustainable applications further exacerbates the theoretical confusion surrounding the concept of sustainability in research.

The current research into sustainability in tourism displays a series of methodological and conceptual limitations. First, sustainability lacks a single conceptual basis (Lansing & De Vries 2007; Saarinen 2006). Second, the lack of clarity in defining and conceptualising sustainability makes it difficult to assess the effectiveness of various sustainability practices in tourism. In the meantime, many questions related to sustainable practices in tourism remain overlooked or ignored.

Researchers do not pay too much attention to the issues of tourist demand (Liu 2003). Others have a limited view of resource sustainability: preservation and conservation of tangible resources is clearly not enough to ensure that tourism is truly sustainable. Researchers and practitioners should appreciate the value of other, non-tangible resources that are essential, dynamic, and changeable (e.g. technological capabilities).

The relationship between sustainability and tourism is often described in terms of meeting the needs of one stakeholder group or one generation of community members, while also ignoring the impacts of tourism on the future generations, as well as the distribution of tourism benefits across multiple stakeholders (Liu 2003). All these questions need relevant answers to ensure that the future research can present a balanced picture of sustainability in tourism.


The current state of literature provides rich information about sustainability in tourism. This review of literature was designed to highlight the major themes and limitations inherent in contemporary sustainable tourism research. To start with, researchers commonly agree that the concept of sustainability in tourism lacks a single universal definition.

The definition of sustainability developed by the World Tourism Organisation is usually taken as the basis for policy development and analysis. Despite these controversies, researchers have applied a number of theories to reconsider the way sustainability in tourism works. Social theories are often used to review the fundamental elements of sustainable tourism.

Some researchers acknowledge that sustainable tourism should contribute to the development of social and cultural capital. Nevertheless, the public remains unaware of the meaning of sustainability. Also, community members often feel disempowered to change the most common tourist practices.

Contemporary researchers also lack any agreement on how sustainability in tourism should be measured. These difficulties stem from the lack of an adequate conceptual definition of sustainable tourism. In addition, the case studies of sustainable practices in tourism uncover a wide diversity of visions, decisions, and processes used by businesses to achieve and maintain a vision of sustainability in tourism. Unfortunately, the methodological and conceptual limitations of sustainable tourism research cannot be ignored.

Researchers tend to ignore the importance of tourism demand, while also disregarding the ways, in which the benefits of sustainable tourism should be distributed among various community groups. Future researchers should focus on the analysis of sustainability and its conceptual underpinnings to arrive at a single and universally comprehensive definition of sustainability in tourism.


Ayuso, S 2006, ‘Adoption of voluntary environmental tools for sustainable tourism: Analysing the experience of Spanish hotels’, Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, vol.13, pp.207-226.

Casagrandi, R & Rinaldi, S 2002, ‘A theoretical approach to tourism sustainability’, Conservation Ecology, vol.6, no.1, pp.13-20.

Chan, WW & Lam, JC 2003, ‘Energy-saving supporting tourism sustainability: A case study of hotel swimming pool heat pump’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol.11, no.1, pp.74-83.

Farrell, B & Twining-Ward, L 2005, ‘Seven steps towards sustainability: Tourism in the context of new knowledge’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol.13, no.2, pp.109-122.

Fernandez, JI & Rivero, MS 2009, ‘Measuring tourism sustainability: Proposal for a composite index’, Tourism Economics, vol.15, no.2, pp.277-296.

Gossling, S, Hansson, CB, Horstmeier, O & Saggel, S 2002, ‘Ecological footprint analysis as a tool to assess tourism sustainability’, Ecological Economics, vol.43, pp.199-211.

Hughes, G 2004, ‘Tourism, sustainability, and social theory’, in AA Lew, CM Hall & AM Williams (eds), A companion to tourism, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford,pp.498-505.

Lansing, P & De Vries, P 2007, ‘Sustainable tourism: Ethical alternative or marketing ploy?’, Journal of Business Ethics, vol.72, pp.77-85.

Liu, Z 2003, ‘Sustainable tourism development: A critique’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol.11, no.6, pp.459-475.

Lumsdon, L 2000, ‘Transport and tourism: Cycle tourism – A model for sustainable development?’, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, vol.8, no.5, pp.361-377.

McBeth, J, Carson, D & Northcote, J 2004, ‘Social capital, tourism and regional development: SPCC as a basis for innovation and sustainability’, Current Issues in Tourism, vol.7, no.6, pp.502-522.

McCool, SF, Moisey, RN & Nickerson, NP 2001, ‘What should tourism sustain? The disconnect with industry perceptions of useful indicators’, Journal of Travel Research, vol.40, 124-131.

Mowforth, M & Munt, I 2003, ‘The principles of sustainability in tourism’, in M Mowforth & I Munt (eds), Tourism and sustainability: New tourism in the Third World, Routledge, New York, pp.105-119.

Miller, G, Rathouse, K, Scarles, C, Holmes, K & Tribe, J 2010, ‘Public understanding of sustainable tourism’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol.37, no.3, pp.627- 645.

Muller, DK 2002, ‘Second home tourism and sustainable development in north European peripheries’, Tourism and Hospitality Research Surrey Quarterly Review, vol.3, pp.1-20.

Nasser, N 2003, ‘Planning for urban heritage places: Reconciling conservation, tourism, and sustainable development’, Journal of Planning Literature, vol.17, no.4, pp.467-479.

Saarinen, J 2006, ‘Traditions of sustainability in tourism studies’, Annals of Tourism Research, vol.33, no.4, pp.1121-1140.

Simpson, MC 2007, ‘An integrated approach to assess the impacts of tourism on community development and sustainable livelihoods’, Community Development Journal, vol.44, no.2, pp.186-208.

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