The International Year of Sustainable Tourism: What Does it Mean for You?

The UN has declared that 2017 is the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. If you’re like most people, you may be wondering what that means? What is sustainable tourism? How does tourism connect to development? And most importantly what does it mean for you as a traveler?


Tourism is one of the largest economic industries in the world, and it’s growing at a startling rate. The World Tourism Organization expects tourist arrivals to reach 1.8 billion by 2030, up from 1,184 million in 2015.

This means that for many developing countries, tourism is often the main source of revenue. It has the potential to create jobs, improve restoration efforts, and protect natural environments. On the flip side, however, tourism can cause environmental degradation, loss of culture, and can create issues of access for locals. This is why sustainable tourism is so important. The tourism industry can play an integral role in the development efforts of individual countries, or it can be a key contributor to a county’s degeneration.

The crowd hoping to see a condor at Colca Canyon.

Sustainable Tourism Defined

UNWTO defines sustainable tourism 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.”

Simply put, sustainable tourism asks that businesses, travelers, policy makers, and relevant stakeholders be mindful about environmental, economical, and socio-cultural issues.

Current Challenges

Perhaps the biggest challenge to sustainable tourism is the lack of attention the topic receives. Most travelers aren’t thinking about sustainability when they plan their trips, so, in turn, there is not a demand for businesses to employ sustainable practices.

This lack of attention also affects the certification process. You will find that hotels and other tourism businesses may display a sustainability certificate, but there aren’t universal standards on what it means to be a sustainable company. Each certification company has a different process and so you never really know what it means when they say they’re sustainable.

What does this mean for you?

As travelers, we need to start thinking about how we can support sustainable practices.  This topic becomes more urgent every year as the tourism industry continues to grow. We have a responsibility to the destinations and the cultures we visit. There is already a long list of places that have been negatively affected by increased tourism. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia, The Taj Mahal in India, and Machu Picchu in Peru, to name a few.

Effective July 1, 2017, Machu Picchu has two timed entries to evenly distribute the number of visitors each day. They allow 5,000 visitors per day, which is double the recommended number by UNESCO. The new policy also requires visitors to have a tour guide to ensure that everyone sticks to the marked paths (though, this was not yet enforced when I was there on July 7).

What can you do as a traveler?

There are many ways in which you can support sustainable practices. Here are a few to get you started:

  1. Get informed. When you begin researching potential destinations, read about their sustainability practices. Make sustainability an issue you consider when determining where to go, where to stay, and how to get there.
  2. Choose where to spend your money. Hotels and transportation are not the only two places to consider sustainable practices. Tours, shops, and restaurants present great opportunities for supporting the local community.
  3. Be respectful of the culture. Learn about cultural norms before traveling so you aren’t unknowingly offending others. When guidelines are given, make sure you follow them. The policy changes at Machu Picchu were created in direct response to tourists wandering off the marked paths.
  4. Critically examine opportunities to interact with animals and children. Working with kids and animals can create some of the most meaningful memories, but you don’t want to play a part in exploitation or abuse. Don’t give children money on the streets unless you know where the money is going (I would still argue against this, but that’s a topic for another post…), and make sure that animals are treated ethically before you financially support any organization working with them.

Most importantly, be an informed consumer. Spend you money in ways that make the tourism industry value employing sustainable practices.


National Geographic. The Untold Travel Story

World Tourism Organization

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