With 2017 being the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, now is as good a time as ever to take stock of the opportunities and challenges faced by tourism providers trying to ensure the long-term sustainability of the industry.

While tourism is important to many local and national economies, overcrowding is changing the perception of the benefits of mass tourism. Spain is a prime example of a country struggling with its popularity.

Barcelona’s relationship with tourism has been shaky for a number of years now. Already in 2014, the documentary “Bye Bye Barcelona” highlighted the negative impact of mass tourism on the city. Locals fear that they will be priced out of the housing market, eventually resulting in Barcelona losing population diversity and character. The local government has stopped issuing licences for new hotels and has banned change-of-use permits required for holiday lets.

And Barcelona is not alone. As of 2017, Santorini is limiting the number of cruise visitors to 8,000 per day. Local activists in Venice have asked government to ban cruise ships stopping in its harbour, as cruise visitors have quintupled in the past 15 years. Cinque Terre on the Italian coast is capping the number of visitors to 1.5 million per year. Popular attractions including Machu Picchu and Mount Everest are capping the number of visitors and require visitors to be accompanied by a recognised guide, and Zion National Park is looking at proposals to limit visitors through a reservation system.

Capping tourists is a drastic measure, and surely not something destinations would like to do. It is often seen as a last resort, and the fact that more and more tourist destinations see no other way to remain sustainable and competitive is telling of the apparent failure of other initiatives.

Defining Sustainable Tourism

Sustainable tourism development is not a new phenomenon. Already in 1992 the International Hotels Environment Initiative was launched. And since then the drive by organisations in the tourism industry to implement the concept of sustainability has led to the growth of many alternative formats of tourism. From eco-friendly to ethical, the objective of sustainable tourism is to retain the economic and social advantages of tourism development, while reducing or mitigating any undesirable impacts on the natural, historic, cultural or social environment.

Source: Euromonitor International

Governments, Businesses, and Individuals All Must Take Responsibility

The problem with sustainable tourism development, as most of the key issues of our time, is that it requires the informed participation of all relevant stakeholders, as well as strong political leadership to ensure wide participation and consensus building. As Trump’s recent insinuation that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese shows, this participation and commitment is not always easy to find. Achieving sustainable tourism is a continuous process, and it requires constant monitoring of impacts, introducing the necessary preventive and corrective measures whenever necessary.

Sustainable tourism development can only be achieved if governments, businesses and individuals take responsibility for improving their (and others’) behaviour. While understanding of behaviour is improving, taking responsibility is often lacking.

The Business Case for Sustainable Development Falls Short

Hotel companies provide a good example of what can be achieved through commitment, but also what is still unachievable if efforts are not concerted and far-reaching enough.

The business case for corporate social responsibility (CSR) is one of the strongest arguments in favour of sustainable development in the hotel industry, with many hotels implementing CSR practices to increase their profitability. Most major hotel chains have their own set of targets to reduce the negative impact on the natural environment and provide benefits for the local community. Concerted efforts such as the International Tourism Partnership (ITP) see hotel chains collaborate to increase their influence and to share best practices.

However, hotels implementing sustainability practices to reduce money can only take us so far. The same goes for airlines who are seemingly focusing solely on technological innovations to improve their environmental performances. To achieve genuinely sustainable tourism development, companies will need to go beyond the business case and use truly innovative thinking around traveler expectations, and use sustainability practices to shape and improve experiences.

The Attitude-Behaviour Gap Provides Challenges

One glaring issue here is that there is persistently conflicting data on what travelers really want. While surveys show that individuals feel increasingly responsible about their impact on the environment, this does not necessarily translate into action, a phenomenon that has in the past been referred to as the 30:3 syndrome. While 30% of respondents to a survey claimed to be ethical consumers, only 3% actually bought ethical products.

This provides a difficult situation for tourism players. On the one hand, providing sustainable products and services can be pushed as an entry-level way for people to interact with ideas around sustainable development and their personal impact. On the other hand, it promotes increased consumption, while in the long run reducing consumption might be the key to combating climate issues. Luxury hotels, in particular, have struggled with asking its guests to reduce their consumption after they have paid large amounts to stay in the hotel.

It Starts With Information

Change is in the air, however, and it all starts with information. One thing is beyond doubt: in order to get guests to change their behaviour, companies need to start providing better information. Without providing information, individuals cannot be expected to know why and how to change their current behaviour.

Take the following example: local produce has seen a strong rise in popularity in the past decade, and supermarkets and hospitality establishments are increasingly offering a wide range of locally sourced foods. When considering the environmental impact of food consumption, however, it is often far from clear whether it is better to, for example, buy tomatoes which are produced locally in an artificially heated greenhouse, or whether to opt for the naturally ripened, and subsequently flown in, tomatoes from a country with a warmer climate. This means that for consumers it is often hard to decide whether a product is truly more ethical than alternatives, or whether a company is “greenwashing”. The result is consumers mistrusting information provided by companies, and companies subsequently providing less CSR information, spiralling into a vicious cycle.

The Environmental Certification Landscape Reduces Clarity

One way to combat the fear of greenwashing, is by licensing good behaviour. Environmental certification schemes provide travelers with more accurate information about the environmental performance of destinations and hotels, and offer management a save way of promoting their achievements.

Again, however, there are issues here. The sheer number of certification schemes offered, and the way they are monitored, is a point of concern. There are over 100 sustainability certification schemes for tourism and hospitality organisations. The large number of schemes means that they become less recognisable and less trusted by travelers, especially since each geographical region has its own certification scheme. The proliferation of different certification schemes, and other programmes and standards, has the opposite effect to what it tries to achieve. Instead of providing clarity regarding which hotels are the frontrunners, the sheer number of different programmes only clouds the market.

How to Move Forward

The terms “responsible tourism” and “sustainable tourism” indicate that this is only a part of all tourism, and today this reasoning runs true. However, at the current trajectory, in 10 years, all tourism will have to be responsible and sustainable. As Fabian Cousteau said at the WTTC Global Summit 2016: “I look forward to the day when there is no sustainable tourism. Just tourism.” This shift results in travelers increasingly expecting their airlines, accommodation providers, tour guides and attractions to be environmentally and socially responsible.

In the past decades, tourism has gone from being sidelined to being one of the key industries to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. The tourism industry needs to own up to its responsibility and see sustainable development as an opportunity to improve the longevity of the very product the industry relies on. Working together with all stakeholders, including local communities, regulators, employees, guests and competitors, will be key to the success of the tourism industry in the long run.

Today, the overwhelming reason for tourism businesses to implement environmental practices is to reduce costs. This “light-green” approach to sustainable tourism development falls short, and it is likely that practices which save costs will become the norm. Hotels will need to try and stand out through truly innovative thinking around guest expectations and using sustainability practices to improve experiences. Running a successful business will mean involving employees, local communities, and guests in equal measures in the decision-making process.

Wouter Geerts is Senior Travel Analyst, Euromonitor International

Euromonitor International is a leading provider of global strategic intelligence on consumer markets, with offices in London, Chicago, Singapore, Shanghai, Vilnius, Santiago, Dubai, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Sydney and Bangalore and a network of 800 in-country analysts worldwide. Euromonitor International’s analysis of the global travel industry covers a wide range of categories, including tourist flows and expenditure, lodging, transportation, car rental, cruise, tourist activities, travel intermediaries, online and mobile travel.

Photo Credit: Tourists pose for a photo in a flooded St. Mark's Square. Venice has become the poster child for overtourism. Manuel Silvestri / Reuters