Sustainable Tourism, a Buzzword in the Travel Industry?

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Of late, sustainable tourism has become a buzzword in the travel industry as more and more travellers, especially younger ones, try to conserve the environment, sustain the well-being of local people and reduce the carbon footprint. Some destinations, too, are becoming focussed on the issue.

Turquoise blue water, white sandy beach and limestone rocks enveloping the entire landscape made the Thai island of Phi Phi popular among Indian tourists. Later, Leonardo Di Caprio’s 2000 film The Beach highlighted the beauty of this island and this led millions of tourists to head to the area to live their island fantasy. Over the years, almost two decades, the massive number of visitors led to rapid degradation of the island’s ecosystem. Once a clean picture-perfect island with a diverse eco-system, Phi Phi had become an overcrowded island filled with litter. And finally, in 2018, the local government acted to protect its jewel and shut the islands to tourists, to allow the ecosystem there to regenerate and recover from the devastating over tourism. The temporary closure continued through 2019 as well.

Phi Phi was not the first destination that Thailand had to close off to tourists. The South East Asian nation’s success in attracting tourists from all over the world saw nearly 40 million visitors in 2019. And just as the Phi Phi islands, the Thai government had been forced to also shut another top destination, Koh Tachai, in order to regenerate the local ecosystem.

Mass tourism or over-tourism is a real problem that several destinations across the world are facing. Tourism as beneficial as it might be for the economy, over-tourism is the main reason why several ecosystems suffer. The rapid growth of tourism around the world has led to an unprecedented number of people landing up on key spots each year. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, in 2018, 1.4 billion tourists visited various parts of the world, as against only 25 million in 1950! No wonder then that several destinations around the world are facing the stress of over-tourism that is not only hampering the natural ecosystem of that place but also proving to be a problem among locals. For example, Peru received 1,578,030 visitors in 2018 which forced the Peruvian government to put a four-hour time limit on Machu Pichu, similarly Venice which is sinking under the weight of over-tourism being host to 20 million tourists, the residents have complaint about the non-accessibility of their local streets and the city in general which forced the government to restrict tourism.

In 2018, Boracay in the Philippines closed its doors for tourism to focus on redevelopment. “The Boracay experience is the ultimate lesson in balancing development and protecting the environment. The lessons learned here are not for Boracay alone but also the other island destinations around our beautiful country,” says Bernadette Romulo–Puyat secretary, Department of Tourism government of Philippines. Boracay became famous for its white beaches and coral reefs that made it a slice of heaven for people travelling to the Philippines. Sadly, that image of heaven started crumbling as more and more people made their way to Boracay. The island became a ground for unprocessed garbage that was directly dumped into the water. Thus, President Rodrigo Duterte called the beaches a cesspool and decided to close the beaches for visitors.

This is the main reason why the tourism boards across the globe are seriously considering sustainable tourism and destinations are taking measures so overcrowding can be avoided. Some of the destinations focused on developing sustainable tourism:


The Dragon Kingdom is perhaps the best example of a country adopting sustainable tourism as a preventive measure rather than as a cure once devastation has been wrought on the destination. For over three decades now, Bhutan has been pioneering the concept of controlled tourism and used it very effectively in ensuring sustainability in the long run. By limiting the number of tourists allowed to visit the country and setting a minimum amount per night that the tourists have to spend, the tiny Himalayan nation has ensured that tourism has not only contributed significantly to foreign exchange earnings and government revenues but also to generate income and employment generation and regional development to a certain extent.

It has created opportunities for the development of locally owned and operated private sector enterprises. The tourism industry in Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, meaning that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable, which is in line with the operational of sustainable tourism in Bhutan. Therefore, all the visitors to Bhutan are required to book through a registered/ sustainable tour operator for their visit to Bhutan. The country has recently decided to limit the arrivals from its largest market – India, in order to ensure that sustainability prevails!

Due to the pressure of mass tourism many countries are taking the sustainable route

Due to the pressure of mass tourism many countries are taking the sustainable route

Costa Rica

Another notable example of sustainable tourism put in practice before its ecology was threatened is the Central American nation of Costa Rica. The tiny nation, blessed with a rich biodiversity and lush green forests dating back thousands of years, has taken a range of initiatives to promote tourism that sustains and indeed enhances its environment. One of the primary eco-destinations in the world, Costa Rica has an extensively developed sustainable tourism sector with a large number of ecotels or hotels following sustainable practices. From greener infrastructure to using locally grown products and involving the local community, Costa Rica has made several changes in how they view tourism. Few notable hotels encouraging sustainable tourism in the country are:

Finca Bellavista treehouse

A planned, modern and sustainable treehouse community, it has taken up several initiatives which include fresh food, working with local communities, and organic farming.

Almonds and Coral

Awarded the highest level of eco-certification, Almonds and Corals has attempted to integrate their hotel into natural surroundings and conserve nature. Practices include green building design, recycling as well as a ban on use of chemical fertilisers in its farms.


There are plenty of ways to travel responsibly around Thailand. “TAT is determined to protect and conserve the environment as part of our on-going Lot Lok Luea (Reduce Plastic Waste) project, which invites the general public and the travel industry to stop using single-use plastic and opt to use alternative natural materials. This not only protects the environment but also promotes the use of organic materials that save the Earth and adds value to local resources,” says Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, deputy governor for international marketing – Asia and South Asia Tourism Authority of Thailand. In place of plastics, visitors are encouraged to use reusable environmentally friendly alternatives. In 2012 when ecotourism and adventure travel association came to audit Lisu lodge as a part of their certification process, the lodge was awarded ninety-seven out of a hundred. The building has been constructed around key pillars as preserving the environment and keeping the local community intact by respecting their culture and providing employment opportunities. The structure is entirely made out of locally sourced material. Preserving local culture was another speciality. Lisu village is open to visitors who can experience the song and dance by the hill-tribe members. They can also consult the local shaman, ritual doctor, to help them with health or mystical issues. Another example that is raising the standard of sustainable tourism in Thailand is Kho Khao. Kho Khao is an island celebrated for its sustainable tourism, and conservation of its biodiversity where they recycle waste, save water and energy. The new hotels that have been built in recent years are energy efficient and designed to reduce the island’s carbon footprint by 20 pc.


Maldives, since the time of the former President in 2009 has been working on being the first carbon-neutral destination by 2020. The coral reef is a big attraction in the Maldives and the government and the hotels are trying to conserve that. The resorts are trying to reduce their footprints by choosing ways to conserve energy, manage water, and recycling their waste. Rainwater harvesting is also something resorts are adopting because that would save an approx 109,500 litres of water every year. Furthermore, to reduce the damage they have started planting endemic species like the jade tree, sea hibiscus, and malikuruva rose so the ecosystem can be balanced.


Tourism is rooted in Nepal as it is the largest industry and provides the largest source of revenue and foreign exchange. Though often it ends up in the news of the wrong kind such as ecological destruction in the Himalayas and the garbage dumps all along the mountain peaks, Nepal has been moving along the sustainable tourism route for a while now.

It was in 1973 that the country enacted laws on protecting its National Parks and the rich wildlife they are home to, leading to the establishment of the various protected area for the conservation of ecosystem and development of the community. Another major landmark was attained way back in 1986, when the Annapurna Conservation Area project was set up. In 2013, WWF Nepal, together with government of Nepal, launched the Sustainable Communities Initiative in Amaltari village, Nawalparasi under Terai Arc Landscape program. This is not only for promoting sustainable tourism but also to serve as a major source of income to conserve biodiversity and foster the local economy.


The ministry of tourism in Colombia is putting a lot of effort into ensuring that more tourism means more opportunity for local people. The best example of that is the Caribbean island of Providencia. This tiny slice of paradise is an incredible example of harnessing the power of tourism to empower and benefit the local community. Locals have banded together to refuse big chains coming in and building resorts and instead have insisted that local people should reap the monetary benefits of tourism.

Baja Peninsula, Mexico

Baja Peninsula has a fragile ecosystem that has been compared to the Galapagos Islands. Protecting those precious reefs is especially important with the rapid growth of tourism. This is why they are adopting sustainable tourism and effective ways to recycle waste and protect their ecosystem. The hotels are using more locally sourced materials and involving the locals so that the tourist not only feel they made an eco-friendly choice but also take back home a unique experience.

Published in India Outbound Magazine February 2020

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