So what is sustainable tourism? The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) (www.unwto.org) has defined sustainable tourism as an enterprise that achieves a balance between the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development so as to guarantee long-term benefits to recipient communities. According to UNWTO, it should:
• Make optimal use of environmental resources, maintaining essential ecosystems and helping conserve biodiversity
• Respect socio-cultural authenticity, conserve built and living cultural heritage, and contribute to cross-cultural understanding and tolerance
• Ensure long-term socio-economic benefits, fairly distributed to all community stakeholders, including stable employment and income-earning opportunities, social services, and poverty alleviation
This is commonly called the triple bottom line for sustainable development: environmental, economic, and cultural returns on investment. Some identify a fourth benefit of well-managed tourism: public education for both visitors and residents to deepen understanding of cultures and ecosystems, though this is also a cultural benefit.
A lot depends on the situation in which a destination finds itself. How wealthy or poor is the region? How well do locals understand and support the characteristics that make their place attractive to tourists? How vulnerable are those assets? Which type of potential tourist is most appropriate? How many tourists come, what do they do, and who gets their money?
When an attraction such as a popular national park or renowned cultural monument is involved, impacts depend a lot on tourist interaction with neighboring towns, called gateway communities. So good management means thinking about the destination as a whole — not just the protected site, but also its human, natural, and cultural settings.
From 2004 through 2010, National Geographic Traveler (http://traveler.nationalgeographic.com/2009/11/destinations-rated/intro-text) has published global “destination stewardship” surveys of expert opinion about the sustainability and quality of whole places. To capture the entire tourism experience and its impact, expert panelists consider six criteria — environment, cultural integrity, built heritage, aesthetics, tourism management, and overall trend — and submit a combined score for each destination.
Responses have shown remarkable consistency over the years. Top-scoring places often escape heavy tourism traffic, such as Norway’s Western Fjords (an excellent 87 out of 100), Portugal’s Douro Valley (76), and Palawan in the Philippines (72). But some very popular places, such as Alhambra/Granada (81) in Spain, still rate well. More often, though, tourist overcrowding, misuse, and crass commercialization along the periphery of the site can lower a score, as it does in Angkor in Cambodia (48) or in the Great Smoky Mountains (49) in the U.S.
(To be continued)