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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.

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

The World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) is the United Nations agency responsible for the promotion of responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism. UNWTO is the world’s leading and largest tourism organisation with a membership of 158 countries and over 500 affiliates from local government, tourism associations, educational institutions, local tourism authorities and private companies such as airlines, hotel groups and tour operators.

It promotes tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive development and environmental sustainability and offers leadership and support to the sector in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide. UNWTO encourages the implementation of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, to maximize tourism’s socio-economic contribution while minimizing its possible negative impacts, and is committed to promoting tourism as an instrument in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), geared towards reducing poverty and fostering sustainable development worldwide.

UNWTO promotes competitive and sustainable tourism policies and instruments, fosters tourism education and training, and works to make tourism an effective tool for development through technical assistance projects in over 100 countries around the world. It was established in 1975 with responsibilities for: mainstreaming tourism in the global agenda; advancing tourism´contribution to poverty reduction and development; improving tourism competitiveness; fostering knowledge, education and capacity building, partnerships creation and promoting sustainable development.

The Sustainable development of Tourism division includes: the Sustainable Tourism programme, the Consulting Unit on tourism and biodiversity, the Network of Observatories (INSTO), among others. The One Planet – Sustainable Tourism program is a collaborative platform to bring together existing initiatives and partnerships and facilitate new projects and activities to accelerate the shift to sustainable consumption and production (SCP) in tourism. It focus in the following main topics: Climate change & Tourism, Ecotourism and Protected areas, Tourism and SIDS, wetlands, resilience of tourism development and facilitation of tourist travel.

The consulting Unit on Tourism and Biodiversity aims to promote tourism development that supports biodiversity conservation, social welfare and economic security in the host countries and communities. It is on a mission to provide consulting services on issues of biodiversity-based tourism, of participatory tourism planning and connecting biodiversity tourism to countries’ overall economic development – building on technical capacity, lessons learnt accumulated experiences and established networks.

There is also the International Network of Sustainable Tourism Observatories- INSTO, which is a network of tourism observatories monitoring the economic, environmental and social impact of tourism at the destination level. It seeks to support and connect destinations that are committed to regular monitoring of economic, environmental and social impacts of tourism, to unlock the power of evidence-based decision making at the destination-level, fostering sustainable tourism practices locally and globally.

The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) is the global initiative dedicated to promoting sustainable tourism practices around the world. The GSTC is an independent and neutral organization, legally registered in the USA as a non-profit organization that represents a diverse and global membership, including UN agencies, NGOs, national and provincial governments, leading travel companies, hotels, tour operators, individuals and communities – all striving to achieve best practices in sustainable tourism. Its purpose is to foster increased understanding of sustainable tourism practices and the adoption of universal sustainable tourism principles.

The GSTC establishes and manages global sustainable standards, known as the GSTC Criteria. These are the guiding principles and minimum requirements that any tourism business or destination should aspire to reach in order to protect and sustain the world’s natural and cultural resources while ensuring tourism meets its potential as a tool for conservation and poverty alleviation. The GSTC Criteria serve as the global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism. The Criteria are used for education and awareness-raising, policy-making for businesses and government agencies and other organization types, measurement and evaluation, and as a basis for certification.

The GSTC Criteria have been built on decades of prior work and experience around the world, and they take into account the numerous guidelines and standards for sustainable tourism from every continent. There are two sets: Destination Criteria for public policy-makers and destination managers, and Industry Criteria for hotels and tour operators. They reflect the goal of attaining a global consensus on sustainable tourism. They are the result of a worldwide effort to develop a common language about sustainability in tourism. This standards can be synthesized in 4 sections:

  1. Demonstrate effective sustainable management.
  2. Maximize social and economic benefits to the host local community and minimize negative impacts.
  3. Maximize benefits to cultural heritage and minimize negative impacts.
  4. Maximize benefits to the environment and minimize negative impacts (including consumption of resources, reducing pollution, and conserving biodiversity and landscapes)

The process of developing the Criteria was designed to adhere to ISO codes of conduct and the standards-setting code of the ISEAL Alliance, the international body providing guidance for the development and management of sustainability standards for all sectors. The GSTC Criteria form the foundation for GSTC’s role as the global Accreditation Body for Certification Programs that certify hotels/accommodations, tour operators, and destinations as having sustainable policies and practices in place. GSTC does not directly certify any products or services, but it accredits those that do. For become certified, you can check their actual “Accredited Certification Bodies” and choose the one that fits better your specific requirements. These are:

Earth Check (Certify: Hotels/Accommodations, Tour operators and Destinations)

Rainforest Alliance (Certify: Hotels/Accommodations)

Ecotourism Australia(Certify: Hotels/Accommodations)

Control Union (Certify: Hotels/Accommodations)

Travelife (Certify: Tour operators)

The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ecotourism by uniting Conservation, Communities and Sustainable Travel. Founded in 1990, TIES has been on the forefront of the development of ecotourism, providing guidelines and standards, training, technical assistance, and educational resources. TIES’ global network of ecotourism professionals and travelers is leading the efforts to make tourism a viable tool for conservation, protection of bio-cultural diversity, and sustainable community development. It is committed to promoting responsible tourism practices that benefit conservation and communities.

Through membership services, industry outreach and educational programs, TIES is committed to helping organizations, communities and individuals promote and practice the principles of ecotourism. TIES currently has members in more than 190 countries and territories, representing various professional fields and industry segments including: academics, consultants, conservation professionals and organizations, governments, architects, tour operators, lodge owners and managers, general development experts, and ecotourists. Its mission is:

  • Engage. Through a global network of industry professionals and business leaders, TIES engages and connects communities, providing valuable networking and professional development opportunities.

  • Inspire. Utilizing the global ecotourism development experiences, TIES helps mainstream sustainability in tourism and inspire positive changes in the industry.

  • Empower. Sharing knowledge and resources to empower stakeholders, TIES offers practical educational tools and promotes capacity building opportunities for professionals and communities.

The UNESCO World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Program represents a new approach based on dialogue and stakeholder cooperation where planning for tourism and heritage management is integrated at a destination level, the natural and cultural assets are valued and protected, and appropriate tourism developed. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. This is embodied in an international treaty called the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted by UNESCO in 1972. Sustainable planning and management of tourism is one of the most pressing challenges concerning the future of the World Heritage Convention and is the focus of the UNESCO World Heritage and Sustainable Tourism Programme.

Sustainable Tourism Toolkit

These ‘How To’ guides for World Heritage key stakeholders will enable a growing number of World Heritage Site communities to make positive changes to the way they proactively manage tourism. The guides are focused on best practice approaches to sustainable economic development through tourism. The ‘How To’ resources offer direction and guidance to managers of World Heritage tourism destinations and other stakeholders to help identify the most suitable solutions for circumstances in their local environments and aid in developing general know-how for the management of each destination. The ‘How To’ guides bring best practice knowledge to the full WH community, so that site managers, tourism professionals, conservation professionals, and communities around the world understand the possibilities of sustainable tourism and what key issues have already been achieved.

These series of guides have been structured as a step-by-step process:

  • Guides 1-4 establish the basic foundations for sustainable tourism.

  • Guides 5-10 are tailored to more specific issues, which will have greater relevance at some sites than at others. The next links could be also of your interest:

UNESCO- World Heritage Center

UNESCO – World Heritage Marine Program

Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform – United Nations.

SustainAbility is a think tank and advisory firm, which inspire and enable business to lead the way to a sustainable economy. Their vision is a just and sustainable world for present and future generations. Founded in 1987 by Julia Hailes and John Elkington (who coined the “Triple Bottom Line” Sustainability term), it has helped define and evolve the sustainable development agenda and the role of business within it. They help clients make better decisions, integrate sustainability into their business and create innovative solutions. They have worked with business and its stakeholders to foster trust – a fundamental enabler of a more fair and sustainable economy, leadership – the courage and ability to go first and farthest, to rally others to do what’s required; and innovation – new ideas, new tools, and whole new ways of creating and delivering value.

Following the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), global companies and other key actors are more committed than ever to the urgent, generational challenge of sustainability and to the large-scale social, political and economic transformations it requires. In response, SustainAbility is increasingly focused on driving deep integration of business and sustainability imperatives, both within individual companies and industries, and in the systems that support and govern them. They are more determined than ever to push themselves and their partners to uncover what’s next on this journey, and to evolve from current best-in-class approaches to entirely new and sustainable business models and systems. Such a transformation will ensure the long-term competitiveness of businesses and economies – and a sustainable world for us all.

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:

Perhaps this one is the most important issue: understanding the heritage of the destination – what can and cannot happen in its proximity. It is critical for effective management that the personnel in charge of the natural or cultural attraction understand and monitor the past, present, and potential future ecological, cultural, and social impacts of tourism. In many sites there will be ways to sustainably manage tourism and tourism growth, but site managers need to understand the point at which impacts are destructive and require intervention. It is important to monitor risks and negative impacts over time so that areas of concern can be managed in the appropriate way at the appropriate times.

This is the tourist and excursionist side. How many people want to visit? Is the demand growing or declining? Who are the visitors, and when do they visit? Why do they come, and how long do they stay? How much do they spend and what do they purchase? Where do they come from? What do they want to experience, and how do they learn about the site, its values, and the host community? Are visitors satisfied with the experience? All destinations should at the very least measure visitor satisfaction levels.

It is critical that destinations think carefully about the potential positive and negative impacts that tourism may have on the host community and their intangible cultural heritage. It is very important to communicate with the host community to understand their needs, concerns, and aspirations. It is a basic tenet of sustainable tourism that host communities have a voice in shaping the tourism processes that affect them. There is a tendency to think about the community’s wishes after everything has already been decided, which is a grave mistake and one likely to breed mistrust and apathy on the part of local residents.

Perhaps this one is the most important issue: understanding the heritage of the destination – what can and cannot happen in its proximity. It is critical for effective management that the personnel in charge of the natural or cultural attraction understand and monitor the past, present, and potential future ecological, cultural, and social impacts of tourism. In many sites there will be ways to sustainably manage tourism and tourism growth, but site managers need to understand the point at which impacts are destructive and require intervention. It is important to monitor risks and negative impacts over time so that areas of concern can be managed in the appropriate way at the appropriate times.

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).