Sustainable Tourism Guidelines

These “Sustainable Tourism Guidelines” are a compilation of the base knowledge that any person should learn before going deeper into Sustainable Tourism initiatives. Initially, in order to establish the contextual frame, this article explores an overview of global issues as Sustainability, Sustainable development as well as Tourism and its forms, highlighting the alternative tourism that embraces Ecotourism. All this, for finally reaching out to the Sustainable Tourism concept and its principles.  Then, some crucial steps to develop projects that reach sustainable tourism are pointed out. Additionally,  the reader will find out a glossary with the list of the key terms and also a description of the key reference organizations that would be useful in case somebody wishes to get deeper knowledge about Sustainable Tourism.

Tourism Facts


Global Domestic Product

Tourism generates around 10.4% ($4218 billion US) of Global Domestic Product – GDP.



It accounts for 9.9% of total global employment, offering jobs to 313 million persons.



Tourism industry transport nearly 700 million international travelers per year.


Foreign income

Is the main source of foreign income accounting for the 38%.

Sustainability | Sustainable Development

Sustainability can be defined as the balance between three pillars: environmental protection, social equality and economic growth, according to John Elkington (1994).  This term, also known as the “Triple Bottom Line” consists of three Ps: planet, people and profit (1).  Then, to achieve sustainability it is a must that economic, environmental and social factors are in equal harmony. Sustainability is more than just looking after the natural environment,  it is about considering the social and economic impact of the human actions. In this context, companies should measure their performances in three distinct ways. The first measurement is the traditional profit and loss account, second is an account of social responsibility, and third is an account of environmental impacts. Only a company that produces a TBL is taking account of the full cost involved in doing business.” (1). This may be illustrated with the Sustainability Venn diagram.

The World Commission on Environment and Development outlines Sustainable Development as: ‘forms of progress that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.This implies that it is necessary to look after the planet, resources and people to ensure a sustainable manner of living in a way that could be possible to hand down the planet to the next generations.  The need for the integration of economic development, natural resources management and protection as well as social equity and inclusion was introduced for the first time by the 1987 Brundtland Report called “Our Common Future”. On 25 September 2015, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the universal and integrated 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, along with a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 associated targets (3). According to this perspective, Sustainable Development is the goal to be achieved and Sustainability is the process to achieve it.

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable. Sustainable development can only be pursued if population size and growth are in harmony with the changing productive potential of the ecosystem. Sustainable development is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with future as well as present needs.. Sustainable development requires meeting the basic needs of all and extending to all the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life.  Meeting essential needs requires not only a new era of economic growth for nations in which the majority are poor, but an assurance that those poor get their fair share of the resources required to sustain that growth. Such equity would be aided by political systems that secure effective citizen participation in decision making and by greater democracy in international decision making.

Tourism Industry

The World Tourism Organization outlines that “Tourism comprises the activities of persons traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes” (4). Tourism can be described as the activity of people traveling to a place which is not their home, staying at this place for a certain amount of time, exercising different activities not remunerated at the place (leisure, business or other purposes), and traveling back home (5). Tourism is thus different from travel, which means the dislocation of somebody from one place to the other, because tourism involves, apart from the journey itself, the stay and the activities during this stay as main elements. Tourism is a service industry which means that it depends strongly on human resources and from many different service sectors. Each of these sectors is really an industry of its own.  

The tourism product is defined as the combination of goods and services such as transport, accommodation, catering, guiding services, activities, etc. that are necessary to enables the tourists to have a complex experience which starts at them leaving their home and ends at their return. The quality of tourism products offered by a region is a key factor for the economic success of tourism. It is not only characterized by material criteria like the quality of transport, accommodation and food, but also by non-material criteria like hospitality or the quality of experiences. It is these special qualities or values of places that underpin marketing and create a satisfying experience for the visitor (6).

Tourism is perceived like a chain, as comprises a specific sequence of certain consecutive elements. The basic elements of this chain are the journey to and from the chosen destination and the stay at the destination. Additionally, the preparation phase (selection of the destination, booking and packing) and the wrap-up of the stay at home (6). A destination is the physical space in which a tourist spends their holiday or vacation. It includes a full range of services, products and experiences: the attractions people visit, the accommodation in which they stay, the transport, the food and drink establishments, the outlets in which they shop, the museums and galleries they visit, even the city, town, village, or homes where the local community resides (steps).

What makes that a person choose some specific destination? It is a fact that the outstanding natural and cultural features of a destination – its heritage – is the main motivation for a tourist to visit it. This natural and cultural heritage is what makes a place “special” – and worth for visit. Even if is not the main reason for their visit, many tourists appreciate the nature, culture and traditions around them. The quality of environmental surroundings is important for all forms of tourism. Tourists demand authentic places that are unpolluted and free from waste. Therefore, tourism is bounded to territory and is dependent on the local resources of a country . That's why is so important to preserve and keep this main attractions of the destinations that together form the heritage of a place.

Natural and Cultural Heritage

According to the UNESCO World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Program, the heritage of a region consists of its physical natural and cultural environment, its natural phenomena and its cultural traditions and immaterial cultural goods. Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration. Tourism is expected to be a driving force with regard to the establishment or the enhancement of nature protection and the maintenance of cultural values. To ensure the scarce resources available for tourism development and heritage protection are utilized to their full effect, it is crucial a unified understanding exists across each destination regarding what is successful, what does not work, and what sustainable opportunities exist for growth or development.

Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value. Natural heritage consists not only of flora and fauna, but also of every other part of the natural environment, e.g. the inorganic nature such as rocks, geologic formations, rivers, lakes, mountains as well as the relation between these natural components as ecosystems. The main components of the natural heritage are vegetation and wildlife, geology, hydrology and natural phenomena. Also ‘events’, such as climate, volcanic or astrological incidents, evolution and the changes in the ecosystems are part of the natural heritage. 

Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value. It comprises all existing cultural phenomena from material goods to immaterial goods. This includes immobile historical monuments (historical buildings, gardens, parks, etc.), movable historical monuments (paintings and sculptures, religious artwork, historical handicrafts, historical documents, and objects), cultural expressions such as festivals, rites, costumes, legends, behavior and habits, music, dances and typical culinary. Cultural heritage is based on the past and it forms a part of a tradition. However, contemporary culture like music, theater, literature or fine arts belongs to cultural heritage as well.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

“… Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”. 

United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Sustainable Tourism Principles

Sustainable tourism is characterized by:

  • Enhancing the well-being of communities
  • Supports and ensures the economic, social and cultural well being of the communities in which tourism takes place.
  • Supporting the protection of the natural and cultural environment
  • Allows the use of natural and cultural resources for gaining economic profit while at the same time guaranteeing that these resources are not deteriorated or destroyed (5).

According to UNWTO, Sustainable tourism should:

1) Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity.

2) Respect the socio-cultural authenticity of host communities, conserve their built and living cultural heritage and traditional values, and contribute to inter-cultural understanding and tolerance.

3) Ensure viable, long-term economic operations, providing socio-economic benefits to all stakeholders that are fairly distributed, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities and social services to host communities, and contributing to poverty alleviation.

More specifically, the conditions that Sustainable Tourism must meet are:

  • Contribute to the conservation of biodiversity and cultural diversity
  • Contribute to the well being of local communities and indigenous people
  • Include an interpretation/learning experience
  • Involve responsible action on the part of tourists and tourism industries
  • Be appropriate in scale
  • Require the lowest possible consumption of non-renewable resources
  • Respect physical and social carrying capacities
  • Involve minimal repatriation of earned revenue.

Key Sustainable Tourism Organizations

  • United Nations - World Tourism Organization. UNWTO.
  • Global Sustainable Tourism Council - GSTC
  • The International Ecotourism Society - TIES
  • UNESCO - World Heritage Sustainable Tourism Program
  • SustainAbility - John Elkington

Steps towards Sustainable Tourism

Understanding tourism is the first step to managing a destination more effectively. According to the UNESCO, in order to manage a tourism destination is necessary to have a basic understanding of what it is, how it affects people and places, and what it can potentially become with some interventions.  It means, be clear on where and what the ‘destination’ is. Good data is the key to both being able to monitor threats to the site or the host community, and ensuring interventions are effectively targeted. The following four areas of action are critical to effective destination management as well as crucial to fully understanding of tourism possibilities at one destination:


Every tourism destination should evaluate their knowledge and understanding on these previous 4 main  issues. Before attempting to change anything, every person interested in develop a sustainable tourism project in an specific destination must dedicate some time trying to find the answers to these questions, or similar questions specific to the site. These answers will help to gather the necessary information to begin managing tourism in a destination.  This is not simply some form of onerous conservation regulation. It is as much about developing and managing the destination for the benefit of its businesses and host community, as it is about raising awareness concerning what can and cannot happen in a destination that aims to preserve its heritage in a sustainable way.

Sustainable Tourism Key Terms

Alternative tourism

Tourism based on small groups or even only one visitor, emphasizing the idea of preserving social, natural and historical assets of tourist destinations.


Responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education. Ecologically sustainable tourism that fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation and conservation (TIES).

Mass tourism

The travel by large tourist groups with a travel package, where all the tourist needs (transport, accommodation, food and tours) are catered by one single company ( pioneered by Thomas Cook).


Someone who may be a winner or loser of a decision that influences (positively or negatively) that person or group’s well being now or in the future. Can include Indigenous people, local communities, tourism operators, local and regional governments, etc.


The balance between environmental, social and economic variables.

Sustainable Development

Forms of progress (development) that meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Our Future, Brundtland, 1987).

Travel / Traveler

Travel refers to the activity of travelers. A traveler is someone who moves between different geographic locations, for any purpose and any duration. The visitor is a particular type of traveler and consequently, tourism is a subset of travel.


The activities of persons traveling to and staying in places outside their usual environment for not more than one consecutive year for leisure, business and other purposes (UNWTO).  It is also the business of providing goods and services to facilitate such activities.


A visitor (domestic, inbound or outbound) is classified as a tourist (or overnight visitor), if his/her trip includes an overnight stay, or as a same-day visitor (or excursionist) otherwise (IRTS 2008).

Tourism industries:

The tourism industries comprise all establishments for which the principal activity is a tourism characteristic activity. Tourism industries (also referred to as tourism activities) are the activities that typically produce tourism characteristic products. (UNWTO).

Tourism sector

The tourism sector, is the cluster of production units in different industries that provide consumption goods and services demanded by visitors. Such industries are called tourism industries because visitor acquisition represents such a significant share of their supply that, in the absence of visitors, their production of these would cease to exist in meaningful quantity (UNWTO).


A visitor is a traveler taking a trip to the main destination outside his/her usual environment, for less than a year, for any main purpose (business, leisure or other personal purpose) other than tobe employed by a resident entity in the country or place visited (IRTS 2008).