Sustainable Tourism: A Journey, Not an EndpointAudrey Scott & Daniel Noll – Uncornered Market
When we first set off to travel around the world over ten years ago, we weren’t especially aware of terms like “sustainable tourism” or “responsible tourism.” We simply traveled to connect with people and cultures, we spent our money locally, and we aimed to respect local communities and their natural environments. We shared what we did, articulating how we did it. The idea: to pursue and advance a style of travel that simultaneous enriches us through a sense of deeper connection, just as it optimizes the impact on the people and places we encounter.
The more we traveled, however, the more we witnessed examples of what we considered tourism gone awry – communities marred by thoughtless over-development, natural environments blighted by tourism traffic, cultures eroded and displaced – just as tourism dollars headed straight back out of the community. Unsurprisingly in the wake of this, a loss of two-way respect between locals and visitors ensued.
How could we help other travelers understand that their travel decisions not only affect them, but also impact — in good ways and bad — the communities they visit?
A couple years into our travels, a friend from the sustainable tourism world shed some light: “You know, you’ve been living, traveling and articulating ‘sustainable tourism’ these last couple of years. You just didn’t realize there was a term for it.”
Beyond the jargon
Perhaps it’s because of our organic relationship with sustainable tourism, that we have a mixed relationship with the term. While it’s useful to group the concerns above under an umbrella of “sustainability”, mainstream travel consumers don’t often understand what it really means. Some read: boring or unnecessarily over-priced. Others read zero sum, whereby the aim of pleasure is traded off for advocacy and doing good. The confusion is only made worse with greenwashing, the opportunistic branding play of slapping the sustainable, eco, ethical label on at will.
But it does not have to be this way. How do we help others grasp the essence, then feel empowered to do themselves and others right at the same time?
We must go beyond the jargon using a simple framework at whose heart is a single concept: respect.
Three pillars of respect
For us, the essence of sustainability is three-pillared: respect for the local environment, respect for local community and socio-economy and respect for local culture. In straightforward conversation, we find each of these elements resonates, as does the whole of how they connect.
For travel consumers, this means making deliberate decisions aligned with this value of respect. It’s about understanding that sustainable tourism, when done right, can be an experience enhancer, rather than a point of trade-off. At once, we can maximize the impact of travel on ourselves, while honoring and respecting the realities of the places we visit. It’s about two-way impact, visitors and communities both better off for the experience, the exchange.
For industry, it’s about creatively meeting that nuanced demand, hinged on a win-win principle. It’s about working with and investing in communities to make them better places not only for tourists to visit, but also for local people to live in today and grow into in the future. It means listening to local people about their community’s concerns, and forging a new shared wisdom which involves and invests everyone.
It’s about supporting local organizations and businesses which work towards community development and shared economic opportunity. Note that all this begins with perhaps the most under-represented dimension of travel and tourism: people.
No, it’s not easy. Nothing ever worth it really is. Value alignment with action – walking the talk, isn’t either.
The more we connect deeply with other cultures and people, the more we understand our shared humanity and interconnectedness, our world and our place in it. Travel can not only be one of the greatest platforms for pleasure and leisure, but also for personal growth and for positive global change.
In this way, perhaps it’s best to think of sustainable tourism not as an endpoint or a destination, but rather a process, the unfolding of which involves continual learning and adjustment around a set of values and goals. Much like life itself.
About Daniel Noll & Audrey Scott – Uncornered market