Sustainable Tourism: Development Challenges

2237 words (9 pages) Essay in Tourism

04/07/18 Tourism Reference this

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Tourism is an ancient phenomenon and already the people during the times of the Mesopotamian society travelled. However, tourism only started to expand significantly post-Cook are of 1880 and mass tourism appeared post-war 1950’s (Weaver and Oppermann, 2000). Following were rapid, uncontrolled and unsustainable tourism destination development as can be observed on the Spanish Coast, where large hotels make the once regional, physical and social structures indistinguishable from many other mass tourism coastal areas (Richards and Hall, 2000). This chaotic mass tourism has led not only to irreversible environmental, socio-cultural and economical damages, but also has it made those destinations undesirable to tourists. And in fact; “There are examples from almost every country in the world, where tourism development has been identified as being the main cause of environmental degradation” (Lickorish and Jenkins, 1999:85).

Therefore, sustainable tourism development seems to be one of the fad words of modern tourism management, and is thus on all the tourist companies’ agendas.

The following assignment will investigate the issue of sustainable tourism, how “serious” and complex the subject really is? It will by no means be an extensive assignment, due to the time and word limitations at hand. Therefore further research would need to be undertaken to gain a full picture of the issue.


Sustainable development and ethical tourism?

Sustainability is a contemporary issue in tourism development that came in fashion during the past 20 years (Winpenny, 1991). Considering the Brundtland Commission in 1987, development is sustainable when “it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (1987, cited in Winpenny, 1991:3). A different definition of sustainability is offered at the Globe ’90 Conference in Vancouver: “Sustainable tourism development is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that we can fulfil economic, social and aesthetic needs while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity and life support systems” (Tourism Stream Action Committee 1990, Ledbury cited in Hein, 1997:30). These definitions show how complex the subject of sustainability is in its very nature of having to encompass so many things. And also “In the USA GNP per capita is $24,240 whilst in Kenya it is $964. Are the needs of either countries population met? And who is to decide what these ‘needs’ are? The UN? Or perhaps the World Bank, who service the ‘needs’ of developed economies by removing greater wealth from Africa through dept repayments than is injected through meagre aid budgets? This reality – that some people meet their needs by preventing others from meeting theirs – is overlooked” (Butcher, 2003:131). Therefore leaving the choices those countries (third world) are faced with is to accept aid or investment on the terms offered, or not accept them at all (Butcher, 2003: 123). Now the question is, is this really sustainable, and most of all ethical?

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The impacts of tourism are divided into three elements; economical, environmental and socio-cultural (Coltman, 1989). Therefore, it could be argued that the sustainable discussion should be looked at in those three headings. According to this concept of sustainable tourism there are three points that are to be achieved through tourism development:

  1. Increasing economic value of tourism
  2. An improvement in the life quality of people
  3. Protection and responsible use of natural resources (Keyser, 2002)

McKercher (1993:131) states that “the inherent vagueness of “sustainability” is its greatest weakness” and he notes on how the term is used to legitimize and justify activities and policies by the industry and the conservation movement for mutually exclusive activities. McKercher is not the only one supporting views along this notion. Smith and Duffy (2003) argue that business ethics is about reacting to customers’ values and expectations and is merely an attempt to improve an industries image and thus increase its sales.

Along with this fad for sustainability, many new terms for alternative tourism have emerged. Hein (1997) actually suggests that many of those new forms of tourism, like green, progressive and alternative tourism is purely a reaction to the contemporary green and environmental movement that we are experiencing in Western societies. Therefore, that would then imply certain superficiality and that this whole trend is more about attracting customers, rather than being really concerned about sustainability. However, Fennell (2003) on the other side notes that the trend has initiated many new fashionable tourism forms, like ecotourism, which when applied properly, should be beneficial. However, caution should be the word to consider, as those labels are easily abused as marketing tools.

The chances of marketing abuse is debatably encouraged by the argument that consumers are driving this movement at least partially, as their demands are changing when it comes to the consumption of tourism services. Goodwin (cited in Jenkins et al. 2002) argues that the movement for responsible forms of tourism is beginning to impact mainstream consumer preferences. And Butcher (2003) notes that there has been an important shift to a growth in ethical consumption, not only in tourism, taking Body Shop as one success example.

And while this ethical tourism is debatably having a clean image of being “good”, it may not be all as shiny as it sounds. “Ethical consumption ends up moralizing about exaggerated problems between people, hosts and tourists, and moreover, neglects an assessment of the social inequalities that characterize relationships between nations” (Butcher, 2003:3). He also argues that the promotion of nature-based tourism shows little prospects in regards to the potential to address the real problem, namely the poverty and inequality.

A good example is Ethiopia and the case of the 5 star Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa. The owner of the hotel was praised for his sensitive treatment and re-homing of the shack-dwellers who used to live there. However, the area of this luxurious hotel is surrounded by poverty. And for being in one of the poorest countries in the world, it is questionable of how moral it is to rub such wealth of a luxury 5 star Sheraton Hotel into the faces of the people who have to live under extreme poverty (Smith and Duffy, 2003).

Codes of ethics and chain of distribution and the impact on the tourism industry

Firstly one should outline what exactly a code of ethics is. A “….codes of ethics or conduct are lists designed to elicit a change in behaviour of particular stakeholder groups; a form of compliance for acceptable behaviour at a tourism setting” (Fennell, 2003:11).

Environmental commitment, responsibility, integrated planning, environmentally sound management, cooperation between decision makers, and public awareness, are according to Genot (1995, cited in Fennell, 2003) the core principals of any code of ethics.

One can easily recognise the complexity of the subject, especially when considering that it has to be applied to everyone involved in the tourism process and hence all the chains of distributions. Arguably a code of ethics could have positive impacts on the tourism industry and its channel of distributions. Simply because it would clarify what exactly ethical and sustainable development and tourism is. However it would prove almost impossible to monitor al the chain of distribution outlets. And also may the codes be against certain chains own value system, which bring us to the locality of ethics which will be discussed later on in the assignment. Wheeler (1994, cited in Fennell, 2003:186) is also critical of the implementation of codes of ethics and the sustainability and ecotourism trends, and so he notes: “… a never-ending series of laughable codes of ethics: codes of ethics for travellers; codes of ethics for tourists, for government and for tourism businesses. Codes for all – or, more likely, codeine for all…. But who really believes these codes are effective?”

In Zimbabwe there is the aid-funded Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (Campfire). Limited ecotourism and game hunting are organized here where the revenues support the rural population. While this is advertised as appropriate development but is this symbiosis per se a good thing? (Butcher, 2003). And moreover, how is it going to be possible to ensure that everyone adheres to the code of ethics, when the people are rural and unable to identify with the Western values and ethics system?

Fair trade and ethical tourism

Ethical tourism has been said to be synonymous with sustainable tourism, alternative tourism, appropriate tourism or sympathetic tourism (Hall and Lew, 1998). Hall and Lew (1998) argue that it is Western values and ethics that provide the base for the implementation of the concept of ethical tourism, and in thus impose its Western culture on the host domination. Is this then ethical in itself?

Following are some examples for fair trade and ethical tourism initiatives illustrated in the case of the Gambia:

  • Fair Trade practices in tourism (just like Fair Trade bananas) are being established by the Gambia Experience in conjunction with Tourism Concern (Author Unknown, 2002).
  • TUI and First Choice take part in a revolutionary scheme to raise awareness of under-aged prostitution. Therefore the Crimestoppers lines in the UK now accept calls from holidaying British people. Those tourists have on their flight into the Gambia been taught the signs, and encouraged to report inappropriate behaviour of under-aged prostitution (Baldwin, 2004).
  • The Gambia Tourism Concern has various initiatives; a street newspaper called Concern Magazine, an in-flight video aiming to raise awareness and encourage appropriate behaviour (Smith, 2002) and there is a weekly radio programme for the locals, educating them about issues of tourism (Williams, 2002). This debatably is to inform both, the tourist and the locals, of appropriate ethical behaviour towards the other party.


The definition of sustainability and hence the term sustainable tourism can be interpreted in various ways, and thus makes measurement a difficult task. It is questionable whether sustainability in tourism really does exist as there are always some aspects of concern. However, sustainability and ethical consumption seems to be in fashion, and hence making the possibilities of the terms being (ab)used for marketing purposes even bigger.

To clarify the standards for sustainability, ethical codes should be implemented across the tourism industry. However, this again in itself might pose an unethical aspect, as it might impose culturally dependable aspects on host communities, and what is right in one community, may not be right in another community. Also would it be impossible to control the adherence of the different chains of distribution units.

To conclude, it could be said that there is no single answer to this complex conundrum of sustainable and ethical tourism. And while there may be some superficiality in its use within the industry, it may be questioned whether it is not at least better to have some effort, than none at all.


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