Decent Work and Economic Growth

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Ecotourism and Sustainable Development

  • Tara FreudeEmail author
Living reference work entry



According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “Tourism is a social, cultural and economic phenomenon which entails the movement of people to countries or places outside their usual environment for personal or business/professional purposes. These people are called visitors (which may be either tourists or excursionists; residents or non-residents) and tourism has to do with their activities, some of which involve tourism expenditure” (UNWTO 2014, p. 1).

Tourism sector

The UNWTO further defined Tourism sector as: “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 2014, p. 12).

Sustainable tourism

Is defined by the UNWTO as “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” (UNEP and UNWTO 2005, p. 12).


Ecotourism is often used as an example of sustainable tourism. An early agent of ecotourism is Héctor Ceballos Lascuráin. His definition of ecotourism is the most commonly used today, stating: “environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations” (Ceballos Lascuráin 1996, cited in Page and Dowling 2002, pp. 24–25)


The United Nations and numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have promoted tourism as a catalyst for development and economic growth, for several decades (Butcher 2007). To raise awareness of this potential, 2017 was celebrated as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. The aim of this special attention was to promote positive effects of sustainable tourism and initiate debates on the contribution of tourism to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (UNWTO 2016). Sustainable tourism is seen to have a great potential to contribute to the SDGs by mobilizing governments, international organizations, the private sector, academia, and nongovernmental organizations (Ibid., 2016).

The international web of tourism actors facilitates money from countries with high GDP to countries with low GDP through private businesses. This flow additionally fosters investments in renewable energy and infrastructure in developing countries. Furthermore, sustainable tourism niches such as ecotourism and sociocultural tourism contribute to the SDGs in raising awareness on environmental and social challenges. Visitors gain regional and cultural knowledge, and therefore import understanding, and respect for other world regions in their area of origin. At the same time, their expenditures create income and a value for the conservation of nature for people in the host destination. Lastly, while the social and environmental awareness of the consumer rises, tourism businesses are motivated to leave unsustainable trajectories and commit to certifications and sustainable practices.

In contrast to the romanticization of ecotourism as catalyst for conservation and development stands a tourism industry with high emissions and demanding working conditions. The tourism sector is currently booming. International tourist arrivals have been steadily growing by 3–5% annually for the last decade. In 2017 arrivals grew 7% culminating in 1,323 million tourists globally (UNWTO 2017, p. 1). However, rising tourist flows also raises concerns due to tourism’s contribution to climate change (Simpson et al. 2008). If the various industries in the tourism sector continue to operate as business as usual, there will be further increase in environmental degradation. This will have significant impacts on production factors that the tourism sector depends on, such as water, biodiversity, coastlines, and people. Therefore, not only from the perspective of social responsibility but also long-term business interests, the tourism industry has a high stake for making businesses sustainable through contributing to the SDG Agenda (Scheyvens et al. 2016). This chapter will explore why sustainable tourism has to move beyond ecotourism to unlock its potential to contribute to the SDGs. First the current environmental impact of the tourism industry is addressed in section “Environmental Impact of the Tourism Industry.” In section “Future Threats to the Tourism Industry,” future threats to the tourism industry will be considered. In section “Evolution of the concepts of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism,” the evolution of the concepts of sustainable tourism and ecotourism will be described to discuss the contribution of tourism to the SDGs in section “Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals.” Finally, section “Conclusion” concludes with summarizing lessons learned for the contribution of tourism to the SDGs.

Environmental Impact of the Tourism Industry

The tourism industry is often acknowledged for being a non-resource consumptive industry. However, in actuality, tourism has a large global impact on the environment because of its intensive use of energy, water, land, and food. Use of these resources is projected to double within the next 25–45 years (Gössling and Peeters 2015, p. 655). Tourism is also a major contributor to climate change contributing 8% to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 2009 and 2013 (Lenzen et al. 2018, p. 523). These numbers are calculated on the base estimates of the direct contribution of tourism to climate change and can be considered an underestimate because they do not include:

lifecycle emissions, rebound effects, indirect emissions embedded in goods and services needed to maintain the tourism system, and aviation’s contribution to radiative forcing through short-lived GHGs. (Scott et al. 2015, p. 55)

The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) reacted to the growing criticism of the tourism industry, declaring they will reduce GHG emission voluntarily. They affirmed a 25% reduction of 2005 GHG emissions of the tourism industry by 2020 and a reduction of 50% of 2005 levels by 2035 (WTTC 2009, pp. 8–9). These promises are not likely to be fulfilled without absolute reductions in aviation because they are the highest emitters (Scott et al. 2010). In addition to airlines, long-haul and luxury cruises are under critique. They generate 18 times the emissions than other methods of travel (Simpson et al. 2008, p. 144). Furthermore, these critical emission reductions are additionally unlikely to be met in the future as emissions by aviation and shipping have been excluded from the Paris Agreement. Another problematic factor can be seen in that fact that the United States did not sign the Paris Agreement. This is especially dramatic as the United States has a high carbon footprint from tourism (Lenzen et al. 2018, p. 523).

Aviation, the aforementioned highest emitter within tourism, accounts for a massive 40% of tourism’s contribution to anthropogenic CO2 in 2005 (UNWTO and UNEP 2008, p. 132). Automobile transportation from tourism makes up 32% of CO2 from the industry. Accommodation contributes 21%, mostly through energy use, e.g., heating, cooling, cleaning, pools, etc. (Ibid., 2008). If tourism remains on a business as usual pathway, CO2 emissions are expected to rise drastically, with some predictions as high as a 135% increase by 2035 (Ibid., p. 141). Currently, the growth of the tourism industry is outpacing its own reduction efforts (Lenzen et al. 2018). However, emission reductions will be expected by investors, consumers, and the international community (Scott et al. 2010). This is only one of the many threats the tourism industry will face in the near future, as will be discussed in the next section.

Future Threats to the Tourism Industry

Rising emissions by the tourism industry coupled with greater environmental awareness of consumers challenge tourism service providers to implement mitigation strategies. The states with the highest stake in the emissions reductions by the tourism sector are the small island developing states (SIDS). SIDS are highly vulnerable to climate change due to their geographic characteristics, i.e., small size and isolation. Simultaneously, their economy often depends on tourism and other climate-sensitive industries such as fishing, agriculture, and forestry (Scheyvens and Momsen 2008). As a result, SIDS have called upon the international community to take action on climate change by reducing emissions and assisting in adaptation efforts at the Second international conference on Climate Change and Tourism (Davos Declaration 2007). It is predicted that extreme events, like flooding, will impact the industry by devastating infrastructure. This will result in high insurance costs and even threaten insurance coverage in some extreme cases. Health concerns will increase, due to a rising risk of vector-borne diseases, storms, and extreme events. Furthermore, coastal tourism facilities are vulnerable to sea-level rise. Energy costs increase, while demand for cooling and air conditioning rises with higher temperatures. Scarcity of essential resources like water, which tourism highly demands, impacts residents and other economic sectors. In some regions, tourism seasons might be shorter in the future due to heavy rain and heat waves. This will result in less stability in income for people who work in tourism in vulnerable destinations. Moreover, there is a lack of knowledge regarding tourists’ perceptions of changes in attractiveness of the destinations due to environmental degradation (e.g., coral bleaching, coastal degradation, and biodiversity loss) (UNWTO and UNEP 2008). The following Table 1 outlines various impacts of climate change on tourism.
Table 1

Assessment of impacts of climate change and implications for tourism. (Source: UNWTO and UNEP 2008, p. 61)

Impacts of climate change

Implication for tourism

Warmer temperatures

Altered seasonality, heat stress for tourists, cooling costs, changes in plant-wildlife-insect populations and distribution, infectious disease ranges

Increasing frequency and intensity of extreme storms

Risk for tourism facilities, increased insurance costs/loss of insurability, business interruption costs

Reduced precipitation and increased evaporation in some regions

Water shortages, competition over water between tourism and other sectors, desertification, increased wildfires threatening infrastructure and affecting demand

Increased frequency of heavy precipitation in some regions

Flooding damage to historic architectural and cultural assets, damage to tourism infrastructure, altered seasonality

Sea-level rise

Coastal erosion, loss of beach area, higher costs to protect and maintain waterfronts

Sea surface temperatures rise

Increased coral bleaching and marine resource and aesthetics degradation in dive and snorkel destinations

Changes in terrestrial and marine biodiversity

Loss of natural attractions and species from destinations, higher risk of diseases in tropical-subtropical countries

More frequent and larger forest fires

Loss of natural attractions; increase of flooding risk; damage to tourism infrastructure

Soil changes (e.g., moisture levels, erosion, and acidity)

Loss of archaeological assets and other natural resources, with impacts on destination attractions

These impacts of climate change will have implications for tourism as well as the livelihoods of people living in affected regions. Growing obligations for the tourism sector to reduce emissions and rebuild infrastructure will result in higher costs for accommodation and airfare (Scott et al. 2010). In addition to emission reductions, a rethinking of the current high-volume tourism to high revenue tourism and promoting trips to nearby destinations is considered a crucial mitigation strategy in tourism (Lenzen et al. 2018). Consequently, shifts in demand from holidays in long-haul destinations to nearby locations are probable. This is projected to further negatively impact island destinations whose economy is already threatened by climate change (Simpson et al. 2008).

Evolution of the Concepts of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism

The pressure to reduce emissions and environmental degradation has led to an increased interest in sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism may be one solution for reducing dependence on fossil fuels while at the same time appealing to the rising environmental awareness of consumers (Simpson et al. 2008).

The concept of sustainable tourism developed in the 1960s when researchers drew attention to the impact of human actions on the environment. Simultaneously, international tourism grew constantly, due to cheaper airline fares and a growing economy in the western world. Visitor flows from the Americas to the Caribbean, and from Europe to the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean led to a growing dependency on tourism by Least Developed Countries (LDC) and SIDS (Jafari 2001). In the 1990s, Jost Krippendorf addressed negative side effects of tourism with his book, The Holiday Makers: Understanding the Impact of Leisure and Travel. His claim was not that tourism should be restricted but that people have to be aware of the problems the industry causes in the destinations including potential negative environmental and cultural impacts of traveling.

The conceptualization of sustainable tourism was influenced by the formulation and definition of the concept of sustainable development in The Brundtland Report in 1987. In this Report, the UN defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (p. 41). Sustainability is an integrative mechanism which considers environmental, social, and economic well-being as three fundamental dimensions. These three dimensions can mutually influence each other, whereby any imbalance in this model negatively affects the benefits of all acts involved.

Besides tourism service providers, there are many more actors involved in tourism, such as communities, governments, or public transportation companies. Sustainable tourism raises questions about who is negatively affected by the tourism industry and who should take responsibility for tourism impact. Simultaneously, sustainable tourism provides answers how to reduce negative effects by tourism and how to distribute its benefits fairly. It is therefore defined as “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” (UNEP and UNWTO 2005, p. 12).

In addition to the triple bottom line combining social, environmental, and ecological sustainability, a widely accepted definition of sustainable tourism is based on Müller (1994). He advocates for a balance of economic health, general well-being of the local population, nature conservation, preservation of local culture/customs, and the optimum satisfaction of the guests’ requirements. The following figure displays what he called the “magic pentagon” illustrating the complexity of the task to balance all five elements of sustainable tourism (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The magic pentagon. (Source: Own illustration derived from Müller 1994)

Balancing the five elements of sustainable tourism and their fairly distributing costs and benefits continues to be a global challenge. In 1995, the first World Conference for Sustainable Tourism was held in Lanzarote, Spain. Participants of the conference recognized this tumultuous nature of tourism development stating:

Tourism is an ambivalent phenomenon since it has the potential to contribute to socio-economic and cultural achievement and it can at the same time contribute to the depletion of the environment and the loss of local identity, it should be approached with global methodology. (UNWTO 1995, p. 1)

In the aftermath of the Rio Earth Summit, an Agenda 21 for the Tourism and Travel Industry was formulated in 1997. This Agenda included tangible steps to implement the goals of the Rio Earth Summit for governments and tourism businesses. In addition to an increased awareness of the negative effects of tourism, the sector’s contribution to economic growth was promoted. This is demonstrated in the following declaration:

the effective contribution of tourism to the achievement of several Millennium Development Goals […] especially those relating to poverty alleviation, environmental conservation and creation of employment opportunities for women, indigenous communities and young people. (UNWTO 2005, p. 1)

The above-described period of affirmation and institutionalization of sustainable tourism shifted to a more scientific approach in the 2000s (Jafari 2001).

Following the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, the announcement of the International Year of Ecotourism by the UN General Assembly led to increased attention for the conservation potential of tourism. This high-level support for ecotourism as an example of sustainable tourism in the 1980s coincided with a general “greening” of development aid (Butcher 2007). Terms such as “local,” “community,” “bottom-up,” “participatory,” and “tourism” became prefixes to development (Ibid., 2007). The benefits of ecotourism were strongly advocated by the architect and environmentalist Héctor Ceballos Lascuráin who defined the term as:

environmentally responsible travel and visitation to relatively undisturbed natural areas, in order to enjoy and appreciate nature (and any accompanying cultural features – both past and present) that promotes conservation, has low negative visitor impact, and provides for beneficially active socio-economic involvement of local populations. (Ceballos Lascuráin 1996, cited in Page and Dowling 2002, pp. 24–25)

The ongoing international debate equates ecotourism with sustainable development and it is often favorably compared to mass tourism (Butcher 2007). Fennell (1999) illustrates this relationship in the following figure. He defines ecotourism and sociocultural tourism as examples of alternative tourism (AT) (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Tourism relationships. (Source: Own illustration derived from Fennell 1999, p. 16)

The arrow moving mass tourism from unsustainable to sustainable tourism practices indicates the greening of the industry. Sustainable tourism practices in mass tourism can be triggered by Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The development of environmental management systems or certification leading to a more sustainable behavior has been one tool in combating some the issues with sustainable tourism, e.g., involving local supply chains or recycling waste. Fennell assumes alternative tourism to be generally more sustainable than mass tourism. However, he acknowledges that not all alternative tourism products and services are sustainable.

The fine line dividing unsustainable tourism practices from sustainable tourism practices was analyzed by various researchers in the beginning of the 2000s. These researchers provided general overviews of ecotourism (Fennell 1999; Page and Dowling 2002), critically examined it as a western construct (Cater and Cater 2015), and discussed empowerment through ecotourism (Scheyvens 2002), certification of ecotourism (Honey 2002), pro-poor tourism (Hall 2007), ecotourism for development (Butcher 2007), and ecotourism in practice (Buckley 2009). Collections of case studies not only discuss why specific cases were successful but also criticize poor implementation of ecotourism (e.g., Hill and Gale 2009).

Simultaneously, the recognition of tourism as a strategy for the valuation of nature is growing in conservation research. Conservation projects have begun to adapt tourism in order to increase the value of sustaining natural resources for nearby communities (Western et al. 1995). However, despite their positive reputation, most community-based conservation projects have resulted in disappointing outcomes due to uneven distribution of benefits, excluding residents from natural assets, poor implementation, and overly aspirational targets (Balint 2006). This asymmetry in the magic pentagon (as described above) leads to disputes among different interest groups which backfire on conservation outcomes (Western et al. 1995). Despite increasing recognition of these failures and actions to increase local participation and empowerment, international organizations are criticized for using sustainable tourism to promote neoliberal political agendas with disregard for local concerns.

In addition to the ongoing challenge to balance all five elements of the magic pentagon, the relationship between tourism and climate change is growing in recognition globally (Butcher 2007). Representatives of the tourism sector recognize the contribution of the industry to climate change (Davos Declaration 2007). Due to this widespread recognition, actions for a more sustainable future in the tourism sector have been announced in the Davos Declaration. Representatives of the tourism sector comply to:

mitigate [its] GHG emissions, derived especially from transport and accommodation activities; adapt tourism businesses and destinations to changing climate conditions; apply existing and new technology to improve energy efficiency; secure financial resources to help poor regions and countries. (Davos Declaration 2007, p. 2)

The limits to success of ecotourism described above and the high emissions by the tourism sector emphasize the complexity of using tourism as a development strategy. The unfair distribution of costs and benefits in the past indicate the need for systematic, critical, and integrated approaches. This is especially important when promoting sustainable tourism as catalyst for development and economic growth and leading toward the realization of the SDGs. The relationship of tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be displayed in the following.

Tourism and the Sustainable Development Goals

Tourism products and services are carried out by an international web of diverse actors. As a result, systematic emission reduction, adaptation to future threats, and a change to sustainable practices will not be achieved by tourism service providers alone but instead demand a similar commitment by governments and travelers (Bread for the World 2016). This integrated change to sustainable practices is believed to have a transformative effect on other sectors as well. In addition to the responsibility to reduce negative effects of their own actions, tourism actors are expected to perform to the highest standard in their contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development in 2017 and the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) emphasize this potential of the tourism sector to take a leadership role in realizing the SDGs. Even though the UNWTO recognizes linkages between tourism and all 17 SDGs (UNWTO 2016), tourism is specifically mentioned in the following targets of Goal 8, Goal 12, and Goal 14 (Table 2).
Table 2

Specific recognition of sustainable tourism in the SDGs. (Source: UN 2015)

Goal 8

Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

Target 8.9: by 2030, devise and implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products

Goal 12

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

Target 12.B: develop and implement tools to monitor sustainable development impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products

Goal 14

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development

Target 14.7: by 2030, increase the economic benefits to small island developing states and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture, and tourism

In the following, tourisms potential to contribute to these three SDGs will be discussed.

Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth

Tourism is already the third most important export sector worldwide, ranking ahead of food and automobile industry (UNWTO 2017, p. 6). Simultaneously, it is one of the fastest growing industries and is about to expand twice as rapidly in emerging economies than in advanced economies by 2030 (UNWTO 2017, p. 14). This growth is especially powerful because the tourism sector is a cluster of production units in different industries. In 2017, tourism supported 9.9% of the total employment and generated 10.4% of the global GDP (WTTC 2018, p. 1). Tourism is argued to be an effective source of foreign currency as it facilitates employment and opportunities for nations to further develop their economy (UNWTO 2016).

The economic benefits of tourism exceed tourist spending in the destination (direct impacts). When sustainable tourism is promoted, visitors support local businesses (indirect impacts of tourism), and tourism employees and entrepreneurs spend their income in the region (induced impacts). This effect of tourist spending is displayed in the following Fig. 3.
Fig. 3

Tourism’s economic impact. (Source: Own illustration derived from Lindberg et al. 1997, p. 26)

However, even though many tourism businesses comply to CSR, promote local products, or offer ecotourism activities in nearby protected areas, international chains are often criticized as transferring their incomes back to their countries of origin. Additionally, many products in tourism are all-inclusive packages which cumulate tourist spending to one company. Moreover, many provide imported products for their guests which prevents induced impacts for the society of the host country (Mitchell et al. 2015). Consequently, the majority of tourism spending leaks to the home countries of the businesses. Therefore, the benefits of tourism leak out of the host region while local stakeholders carry the costs of tourism, e.g. building infrastructure, environmental degradation, and loss of cultural identity. These leakages highlight how the balance of all aspects of sustainability is crucial for positive outcomes of tourism.

Another argument often made for tourism is the creation of jobs. On the one hand, tourism provides wages for many households. Furthermore, it was found that tourism businesses often create employment for “minority groups and migrants, unemployed youth, long-term unemployed, as well as women with family responsibilities who can only work part-time jobs” (UNWTO and ILO 2014, p. 27). On the other hand, we see a lack of studies and measurements of the quality of jobs in tourism. Jobs in the tourism industry are often seasonal, part-time and low paid, and nonprofessional (UNWTO and ILO 2014). In order to contribute to the SDGs the UNWTO suggests to:

promote development in the places where the company operates, by supporting the local economy and local products and by hiring people at destination sites, especially those belonging to vulnerable groups. (UNWTO 2016, p. 41)

Although it is understood that the inclusion of vulnerable groups is important to strengthening tourism, further improvement of working conditions with an emphasis on knowledge building and support for local products and professionals is still needed (Bread for the World 2016).

While tourism has the potential to contribute to economic growth and employment in some cases, the increasing environmental degradation caused by the sector is alarming. It was found that the promotion of growth in tourism will create more emissions than in other sectors. This is the case as global tourism activities emit more carbon per dollar earned than other highly emitting sectors like manufacturing or construction (Lenzen et al. 2018). Sokhanvar et al. (2018) tested causal relationships between international tourism receipts and economic growth in 16 emerging economies. Economic growth through tourism was only evident in Brazil and Mexico. Because of this the authors recommend investments in other industries in all remaining countries analyzed, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Peru. It must be carefully assessed if tourism development is the most sustainable pathway for a certain region compared to other investments.

Goal 12: Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns

The inclusion of local products and professionals is crucial to reducing emissions in the destination. Production in tourism is often a combination of single services, which are packaged and sold as one experience. The more single services that are combined in one tourism product, the higher the financial benefit for this product (McKercher et al. 2010). The most common elements are transport, accommodation, food, and activities. This results in several state and non-state actors being included in production patterns. In order to ensure sustainable consumption and production, tourism producers should “promote social responsibility and sustainability in the supply chain by training and evaluating suppliers and by including the relevant clauses in contracts” (UNWTO 2016, p. 42).

Regarding emission and energy reduction, businesses see a value added in moving toward more sustainable services due to rising energy and fuel prices (McKercher et al. 2010). To contribute to Goal 12, the UNWTO calls businesses to:

raise awareness regarding responsible production and consumption patterns among all interest groups and develop common sustainability standards and methodologies in relation to the life cycle of tourism services and products. (UNWTO 2016, p. 42)

Several environmental management systems and certifications are available to guide tourism actors in implementing systematic change.
Consumers however were found not willing to spend additional money for sustainable services (Sigala 2014). To increase acknowledgment of environmental and social responsibility among consumers, the UNWTO suggests that tourism businesses:

promote awareness among travelers and tourists to make sustainability an attribute of value in the choice of destinations, products and tourism services and raise awareness of the importance of their responsible behavior in the destination. (UNWTO 2016, p. 41)

This awareness raising is crucial for reducing the leakage of money and reducing emissions at the destination. In addition to mitigation in the accommodation and other activities, behavioral change by tourists is expected to reduce transport emissions due to an increased length of stay in the destination and a preference of regional tourism (Simpson et al. 2008). However, a romanticization of presumably sustainable niches such as ecotourism as more responsible forms of travel has trivialized negative effects of tourism in the past. Firstly, consumer awareness about the impact of long-haul flights on the environment still needs to be improved (Higham et al. 2014). Secondly, the ecological impact of ecotourism needs to be assessed (Buckley 2009). Even for effects that have received more research attention, e.g., pedestrians walking on ground-layer vegetation, we lack holistic knowledge of the impacts on ecosystems and species. Buckley (2009) suggests that there is a need for further research related to the impacts of different ecotourism activities for all continents. Another analysis of ecotourism projects demonstrates that the majority of projects do not produce the expected outcome. Many lack proper monitoring, evaluation, and management (Das and Chatterjee 2015). Romero-Brito et al. (2016) further detect a lack of tangible and quantifiable contributions of ecotourism to conservation, e.g. by the viability of threatened species populations or increases in the number of individuals (p. 12).

Experience shows that neither promoting responsible travel behavior nor technological improvements by tourism actors as proposed by the UNWTO created tangible results. Therefore, the industry may be confronted with demands for commitments through carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes (Lenzen et al. 2018).

Goal 14: Life Below Water

Developing countries have requested assistance from the international community in building capacity for the management of issues related to tourism development and climate change impacts (Simpson et al. 2008). LDCs and SIDS are found to be the most vulnerable to climate change. Simultaneously, a high dependence on the tourism sector threatens their income and livelihood. Target 14.7 aims to:

increase the economic benefits to small island developing states and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources, including through sustainable management of fisheries, aquaculture and tourism by 2030. (UN 2015, p. 28)

The Green Climate Fund (GCF), established in 2010, is supposed to delegate finance to climate change mitigation and adaptation measures. It is planned to become the main multilateral financing mechanism to support climate action in developing countries. In 2015, Hela Cheikhrouhou (first executive director of the GCF) announced that climate change adaptation in SIDS will be a priority of the fund. The special attention SIDS receive, e.g. with the International Year of Small Island Development States in 2014, portrays SIDS as climate victims and hinders a discourse on an equal basis. This dynamic is also reflected in the fact that emitters tend to support funding initiatives rather than committing to serious GHG reductions (Dornan and Shah 2016). This is especially questionable because the current finance for climate change mitigation and adaptation is criticized to allow the powers of the free market an ongoing deterioration of environment and livelihoods (Bracking 2015).


Sustainable tourism is being promoted as a way to reduce the tourism sector’s negative effects and to contribute to the SDGs. It is further considered to be a strategy for mobilizing stakeholders, fostering change in policies, and influencing business practices and consumer behavior. However, sustainable tourism is still a niche within the tourism sector and has not yet replaced business as usual methods. Alternative forms of tourism such as ecotourism comprise a small section of the current tourism market and will not reduce the sector’s emissions significantly. There are still many factors that limit the contribution of the tourism sector to the SDGs. Sustainable measures for private actors, promoted by the UNWTO like the support of local economies, the inclusion of vulnerable groups, or carbon offsetting, are well-intentioned market-based approaches. However, the urgency of current rising emissions in the sector might demand for command and control measures. Market-based solutions or certifications of environmental management systems lower concerns about the environmental footprint of tourism products, while the real impact is not transparent and still understudied. There is a risk that celebrating sustainable tourism will result in rising GHG emissions, supporting greenwashing, and transferring the responsibility for reducing emissions to the consumer.

The goal of a single tourism business is short-term gain and profit maximization. Therefore, large impactful, voluntary investments by the tourism industry are unrealistic. Continuous economic growth is conflicting with long-term Sustainable Development Goals. This means that a leading role in committing to sustainability and voluntary emission reduction cannot be expected from the private sector in the current environment. The SDGs must be a commitment for all stakeholders involved: consumers, governments, NGOs, and businesses alike.

Nevertheless, tourism is a sector that has the potential of creating relationships between people, economies, sectors, governments, and regions. The International Year of Tourism for Development already increased awareness of the benefits and limitations of sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism has been an effective starting point for discussions around the implementation of the SDGs.

It is crucial that the praise for sustainable tourism’s contribution to the SDGS does not trivialize the sector’s responsibility, especially emissions that lead to climate change. The airline industry, as the biggest emitter of the tourism sector, should not leave the focus of international debate. In the end, all tourism actors must work together to achieve a significant emission reduction. This is crucial in order to unlock tourism’s potential to contribute to a sustainable future.



  1. Balint PJ (2006) Improving community-based conservation near protected areas. The importance of development variables. Environ Manag 38(1):137–148. Scholar
  2. Bracking S (2015) The anti-politics of climate finance: the creation and performativity of the green climate fund. Antipode 47(2):281–302. Scholar
  3. Bread for the World (2016) Transforming tourism: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Tourism Watch. Available online at
  4. Buckley R (2009) Ecotourism. Principles and practices. CABI (CABI tourism texts), WallingfordGoogle Scholar
  5. Butcher J (2007) Ecotourism, NGOs and development. A critical analysis/Jim Butcher. Routledge, London. (Contemporary geographies of leisure, tourism and mobility, 8). Available online at Scholar
  6. Cater C, Cater E (2015) Ecotourism. In: International encyclopedia of the social & behavioral sciences. Elsevier, Amsterdam, pp 105–109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Ceballos Lascuráin H (1996) Tourism, ecotourism, and protected areas. In: The state of nature-based tourism around the world and guidelines for its development. UICN Publication, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  8. Das M, Chatterjee B (2015) Ecotourism: a panacea or a predicament? Tour Manag Perspect 14:3–16. Scholar
  9. Dornan M, Shah KU (2016) Energy policy, aid, and the development of renewable energy resources in Small Island Developing States. Energy Policy 98:759–767. Scholar
  10. Fennell DA (1999) Ecotourism. An introduction. Repr. Routledge, London/New YorkGoogle Scholar
  11. Gössling S, Peeters P (2015) Assessing tourism’s global environmental impact 1900–2050. J Sustain Tour 23(5):639–659. Scholar
  12. Gowdy J, Hall C, Klitgaard K, Krall L (2010) What every conservation biologist should know about economic theory. Conserv Biol 24(6):1440–1447. Scholar
  13. Hall CM (2007) Pro-poor tourism. In: Hall CM (ed) Who benefits?: perspectives on tourism and poverty reduction. Channel View Publications (Current themes in tourism), ClevedonGoogle Scholar
  14. Higham JES, Cohen SA, Cavaliere CT (2014) Climate change, discretionary air travel, and the “Flyers’ Dilemma”. J Travel Res 53(4):462–475. Scholar
  15. Hill J, Gale T (2009) Ecotourism and environmental sustainability. In: Hill J, Gale T (eds) Principles and practice. Ashgate, Farnham/BurlingtonGoogle Scholar
  16. Honey M (2002) Ecotourism & certification. In: Honey M (ed) Setting standards in practice. Island Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  17. Jafari J (2001) The scientification of tourism. In: Smith VL, Brent M (eds) Hosts and guests revisited. Tourism issues of the 21st century. Cognizant Communication Corp (Tourism dynamics), New YorkGoogle Scholar
  18. Lenzen M, Sun Y-Y, Faturay F, Ting Y-P, Geschke A, Malik A (2018) The carbon footprint of global tourism. Nat Clim Chang 8(6):522–528. Scholar
  19. Lindberg K, Furze B, Staff M, Black R (1997) Ecotourism and other services derived from forests in the Asia-Pacific region: outlook to 2010. Forestry Policy and Planning Division, RomeGoogle Scholar
  20. McKercher B, Prideaux B, Cheung C, Law R (2010) Achieving voluntary reductions in the carbon footprint of tourism and climate change. J Sustain Tour 18(3):297–317. Scholar
  21. Mitchell J, Font X, Li SN (2015) What is the impact of hotels on local economic development? Applying value chain analysis to individual businesses. Anatolia 26(3):347–358. Scholar
  22. Müller H (1994) The thorny path to sustainable tourism development. J Sustain Tour 2(3):131–136. Scholar
  23. Page SJ, Dowling RK (2002) Ecotourism. Prentice Hall (Themes in tourism), HarlowGoogle Scholar
  24. Romero-Brito TP, Buckley RC, Byrne J (2016) NGO Partnerships in using ecotourism for conservation: systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One 11(11):e0166919. Scholar
  25. Scheyvens R (2002) Tourism for development. Empowering communities. Prentice Hall (Themes in tourism), HarlowGoogle Scholar
  26. Scheyvens R, Momsen JH (2008) Tourism and poverty reduction: issues for small island states. Tour Geogr 10(1):22–41. Scholar
  27. Scheyvens R, Banks G, Hughes E (2016) The private sector and the SDGs: the need to move beyond ‘Business as usual’. Sustain Dev 24(6):371–382. Scholar
  28. Scott D, Peeters P, Gössling S (2010) Can tourism deliver its “aspirational” greenhouse gas emission reduction targets? J Sustain Tour 18(3):393–408. Scholar
  29. Scott D, Gössling S, Hall CM, Peeters P (2015) Can tourism be part of the decarbonized global economy? The costs and risks of alternate carbon reduction policy pathways. J Sustain Tour 24:52–72. Scholar
  30. Second international conference on Climate Change and Tourism (ed) (2007) Davos declaration. Climate change and tourism. Responding to global challenges. UNWTO, Davos. Available online at
  31. Sigala M (2014) Customer involvement in sustainable supply chain management. Cornell Hosp Q 55(1):76–88. Scholar
  32. Simpson MC, Gössling S, Scott D, Hall CM, Gladin E (2008) Climate change adaptation and mitigation in the tourism sector: frameworks, tools and practices. UNEP, University of Oxford, UNWTO, WMO, ParisGoogle Scholar
  33. Sokhanvar A, Çiftçioğlu S, Javid E (2018) Another look at tourism- economic development nexus. Tour Manag Perspect 26:97–106. Scholar
  34. The Brundtland Report. World Commission on Environment Development (1987) Our common future. Oxford University Press, Oxford/New YorkGoogle Scholar
  35. United Nations (UN) General Assembly (2015) Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Available online at
  36. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2005) Making tourism more sustainable. A guide for policy makers, Paris. Available online at
  37. Western D, Wright RM, Strum SC (eds) (1995) Natural connections. Perspectives in community-based conservation. Island Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  38. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (1995) Charter for sustainable tourism. Sustainable tourism world conference. Available online at
  39. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2005) Harnessing tourism for the millennium development goals. Declaration. New York, 13 September 2005. Available online at
  40. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2014) Glossary of tourism terms. Last update February 2014. Available online at
  41. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2016) The tourism sector and the sustainable development goals. Responsible tourism, a global commitment. UNWTO, Madrid. Available online at Scholar
  42. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (2017) UNWTO tourism highlights: 2017 Edition. UNWTO, Madrid. Available online at Scholar
  43. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (2008) Climate change and tourism. Responding to global challenges. UNWTO/UNEP, Madrid. Available online at Scholar
  44. World Tourism Organization and International Labour Organization (ILO) (2014) Measuring employment in the tourism industries. Guide with best practice. UNWTO, Madrid. Available online at Scholar
  45. World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) (2009) Leading the challenge on climate change. WTTC, London. Available online at Scholar
  46. World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) (2018) Travel & tourism. Economic impact 2018. WTTC, London. Available online at Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana UniversityLüneburgGermany
  2. 2.School of Sustainability, Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Rimjhim M Aggarwal
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Sustainability Arizona State UniversityTempeUSA