What is Sustainable Tourism and Why is it Important?

You may not know this, but I have a degree in Urban and Regional Planning. For my dissertation I focused on tourism planning and learnt a lot about the importance of sustainable tourism.

Many people assume that travelling sustainably is only achievable if you have the funds. However, there are so many aspects to sustainability and tourism that should be considered. You don’t need to stay at a 5-star eco-lodge or carbon offset flights in order to be a responsible traveller.

Here’s an explanation to what sustainable tourism is and why it is so important for the common traveller.

What is Sustainable Tourism?

The term sustainable tourism is often used interchangeably with responsible tourism and ecotourism. While these terms are similar, there is a difference.

Responsible Tourism vs. Sustainable Tourism: Briefly, responsible tourism focuses on the short-term actions that travellers can take that reduce their negative impact on a destination. On the other hand, sustainable tourism focuses on the long-term change to tourism practices.

Ecotourism vs. Sustainable Tourism: Ecotourism has a strong focus on environmental conservation and educating travellers on the local area. Overall, ecotourism is a type of tourism just like adventure tourism or wellness tourism is. However, sustainable tourism can be applied to all types of tourism.

So what exactly is sustainable tourism?

According to the World Tourism Organisation it is 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.”

World Tourism Organisation

Lets simplify that.

Sustainable tourism means travelling in a way that reduces your negative impact on the destination. Additionally, it means finding ways to provide a positive impact on the destination.

It means that the government, local companies and tourists need to work together to ensure that tourism is beneficial to the destination.

Overall, being a sustainable traveller will help you continue to explore and enjoy destinations around the world.

Sustainable tourism requires a balanced approach to ensure that the industry can continue in the long term. It takes these three factors into account:

  • Environment
  • Socio-Culture
  • Economy

Now, lets take a closer look at each of these factors.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability tends to be seen as the most important. This is probably because the environment is what attracts tourist to a destination in the first place. Protecting incredible beaches, mountains and forests is fundamental to attracting tourists into the future. No one wants to visit visit a beach littered in rubbish or a river with no water.

Overall, environmental sustainability is about maintaining and preserving the planet, wildlife and natural heritage of a destination. As tourists we can easily do our part by sticking to the path, caring for animals and following the leave-no-trace mentality.

Socio-Cultural Sustainability

For a destination to be socio-culturally sustainable it needs to respect and conserve the local community, heritage and traditions. In relation to tourism, this means minimising negative impacts and fostering more positive ones.

This can be achieved by providing tourist with the opportunity for cultural exchange. Therefore, local communities can take visitors on a more genuine experience to gain a better understanding for the local area.

Economic Sustainability

The last factor of sustainability revolves around money. For the tourism industry to be sustainable, there needs to be long-term economic benefits for the local community. This means keeping the money local.

While it is important for the government to regulate this, as tourists it we should contribute to the local economy of destinations we visit.

In turn, the financial benefits from tourism should be used to support the other factors of sustainability as well.

The Benefits of Sustainable Tourism

Clearly, travelling sustainably means finding ways to protect and support the local environment, socio-culture and economy. Here are some of the benefits of sustainable tourism:

1. Sustainable Tourism Benefits the Local Economy

As tourists come to a destination, they invest their money into the local economy. For many communities, this boost in money flow improves the economy of the destination. Therefore, providing a benefit to the local community.

2. Sustainable Tourism Preserves Natural Resources

When implementing sustainable travel, people are aware of the importance of caring for the natural environment around them. Not only do they leave-no-trace, but they will also leave it better than they found it.

3. It Gives Tourists a more Genuine Experience

By supporting local tours and businesses you are more likely to learn about their culture. Experiences that provide a cultural exchange will provide you with a better understanding and appreciation of the destination and people that you are visiting.

4. Sustainability Prepares for the Future of Tourism

The traditional tourism industry is not sustainable. With overcrowding, rubbish and emissions many places will loose their attractiveness and therefore tourists.

With sustainable tourism practices, destinations and communities are sure to retain what makes them special. Lower impacts on the environment, supporting the local economy and respecting the culture and heritage will mean they remain attractive far into the future.

5. It Cares About the Wellbeing of Locals

Finally, sustainable tourism is beneficial for the wellbeing of the locals, of the people who live in the destination. By following sustainable practices people are less likely to become displaced or exploited by tourism.

local food in bali sustainable tourism-1

Read More: 5 Benefits of Travelling with Your Family

How to be a Sustainable Tourist

Its good and all to know what sustainable tourism is, but what us travellers need is some actionable steps to take. Here are some things to keep in mind when visiting a new destination:

  • Buy from local businesses (think souvenirs)
  • Minimise your trash (don’t leave anything behind)
  • Don’t disturb the wildlife
  • Respect traditions and culture
  • Eat locally (not at chain restaurants)
  • Don’t exploit animals
  • Travel by sustainable forms of transport (or walk)
  • Stay at locally owned accommodation

Most of these steps towards becoming a sustainable tourist are actually the more affordable options when it comes to travelling.

What to Look Out For When it Comes to Sustainable Tourism:

  • Attractions that exploit people or animals
  • Companies that employ non-local guides
  • Places that are overcrowded and not preserved
Elephant a victim of non Sustainable animal tourims


Overall, the goal of sustainable tourism is to travel in a way that reduces your negative impact on a destination. The best case scenario means that your provide a positive impact on the local community that you are visiting. In most cases, focusing on supporting local businesses is actually a more affordable option!


  • Rachel
    September 22, 2020 at 10:54 pm

    Important topic and you cover it well. Something for me to be more conscious of. I tend to stick with chain hotels, restaurants, etc. b/c it’s a comfort zone thing. I know what to expect, the cleanliness/comfort ratio, and if I’m going to like the food, etc. But I know that supporting locals is more important than big brands. Time to grow out of my comfort zone!

  • Michelle
    September 21, 2020 at 12:14 am

    This is such a great post. Sustainable tourism is so important and definitely something we all need to be more focused on.

    • Megan
      September 21, 2020 at 8:17 pm

      Exactly! Even the smallest of changes can make a difference… but it all starts with understanding & changing your mindset.

  • Kelly
    September 19, 2020 at 2:49 am

    Great post! Sustainable tourism is something that we all should be aware of and strive to do. I also try to be a “sustainable resident” following all of your suggestions while at home as well. We need to preserve the environment for future generations!

    • Megan
      September 21, 2020 at 8:19 pm

      Yes, its not difficult to make small changes to our lifestyle!

  • Carrie
    September 17, 2020 at 2:38 pm

    This is soooo helpful! I’ve been wanting to read more about sustainable tourism and this gives me a lot of great info.

    • Megan
      September 21, 2020 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks so much! I wanted to create a post that would get people interested in the topic to begin with.

  • Kelly
    September 17, 2020 at 2:50 am

    This is such an important topic!! Thank you so much for this well-written post. This needs to be something that becomes more popular and a way of travelling as travel resumes internationally 🙂 I know I will be trying my best to make my travel as sustainable as possible

    • Megan
      September 21, 2020 at 8:21 pm

      so true! we can still enjoy travel while showing appreciation and being considerate of the destinations we visit!


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