The words “sustainable” and “responsible” have become buzzwords in tourism in recent years, right up there with “eco-friendly”, as the newest thing to strive to for all in the travel business. But what is sustainable tourism and why should we in the travel business care about it?

When words like these come up, it’s a natural reaction for us to stop paying real attention. We assume that it is not for us to worry about and that in the grander scheme of things a small business/establishment like ours won’t make such a big impact.

To most people, “sustainable” is pretty much the same as “eco-friendly.” They think of complicated conservation efforts and companies concerned with their carbon footprints. And it’s true that being environmentally-conscious is a big part of being sustainable. But it’s not the only thing to consider. An attraction or destination or establishment can be as “green” as possible, but still not be sustainable.

When it comes to sustainability, there are three main sections we need to look at and can be considered the pillars of sustainable

1) Environmental Sustainability

The environment is obviously important to tourism – without the place, tourism would not exist. Both the natural environment (such as beaches, forests, and waterways) and the built environment (such as historic buildings and ruins) must be preserved for an area to be environmentally sustainable.

Environmental sustainability means making sure resources in an area can be preserved for use by future generations of both locals and tourists. It means being aware of the impact that lots of visitors can have on a destination and finding ways to make that impact as positive as possible. The current water shortage in the Western Cape is a perfect example of this. Natural resources must always be used sparingly and only when needed, our earth only has so much to give.

2) Socio-Cultural Sustainability

When an area starts being visited by tourists, there are bound to be some social and cultural impacts of those tourists on the host community. Locals may see increased congestion and overcrowding in towns and cities and the introduction of new languages and values. Some destinations may even see an increase in crime.

Socio-cultural sustainability, then, means minimizing these negative impacts and focusing on more positive ones, such as promoting cultural exchange and preserving local traditions. This can usually be achieved by getting the locals involved in the tourism industry. This could be as simple as encouraging the sharing of interesting local customs (like artwork or dancing), or as involved as making it easier for locals to start or own new businesses to serve tourists.

Having the community involved will not only offer visitors a more genuine experience, but the locals will be more likely to see tourism in a positive light because they will feel a sense of ownership and pride in it.

3) Economic Sustainability

The last pillar of sustainability revolves around perhaps the most important part: the money. Many people don’t take into account economics when thinking about sustainability, but it’s really the key to making a tourism venture sustainable.

In simple terms, this key here is keeping the money local. A hotel or company owned and operated by a foreigner or huge international brand is not likely to contribute much to the local economy – the money will likely “leak” overseas instead. This is not sustainable in the long run because it means the destination will not see any of those tourism dollars, and may begin to question the tourism industry altogether. Here many international OTA’s are a brilliant example. Thousands of Rands leave the country annually in commission to international OTA’s which their country of origin then benefits from. None of the money gets put back into our local tourism industry.

So why does all of this matter? Clearly tourism has survived up until now without such a huge discussion about sustainable, responsible travel.
But here’s the thing we have to remember: it’s only in the last couple of decades that tourism has truly exploded. More people around the world have disposable income and an interest in travel today than ever before. This is putting a strain on the tourism industry as a whole – and especially on the most popular destinations, like South Africa.

Next time we look at Best practice in Sustainable Tourism and why implementing it is key to the success of South African tourism.