Let’s Talk Tourism

Travel Sign

Image Credit: Flickr user Kenski1970 under a Creative Commons license

Tourism is recognized by the United Nations as the 4th largest industry in the world. As such, the industry’s global footprint threatens ecosystems and cultures worldwide and contributes to ever-growing carbon emissions. But it doesn’t have to.

The tourism and hospitality industry has made notable changes to business as usual and rightfully so—the natural world is its product after all. Contrary to other industries, tourism doesn’t have smokestacks that make it an obvious offender like some of its industrial counterparts. Nevertheless, given that tourists have to travel to travel, they’re flying, tour busing, driving and cruise boating hundreds of thousands of miles each year. You get the idea.

The relatively new and rapidly emerging field of sustainable tourism seeks to help develop and manage tourism with lower environmental impacts, social and cultural benefits to communities, and positive economic opportunities for countries around the world. You are likely familiar with its marketing buzz cousin, ecotourism. But isn’t that what sustainable tourism is? Sometimes. Let’s talk about what we’re talking about.

By definition, “ecotourism” is nature-based tourism. This includes activities such as biking, diving, rock-climbing, caving, skiing, or rafting. Sustainable tourism on the other hand is more all encompassing and representative of what professionals in the field are trying to accomplish. After all, not all “ecotourism” is sustainable.

As with anything, definitions will run the gamut and vary in their nuances. For example, the United Nations World Tourism Organization, “promotes the sustainable development and management of tourism globally… involving both public and private sectors for the generation of social, economic and cultural benefits for host communities commensurate with global development interests, for ensuring the supply of quality tourism products and avoiding or reducing negative impacts upon the natural and socio-cultural environments.”

The first US organization founded to promote responsible travel, the International Ecotourism Society, “promotes responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.”

I like the Boy Scout’s motto: Help your neighbors and leave the campground better than you found it. At its most basic level, sustainable tourism is about managing environmental impact, preserving cultural heritage, and ensuring positive socio-economic benefits for local communities.

In 2009, tourism in Massachusetts generated $22.9 billion in total domestic and international traveler spending (direct and indirect); total payroll income of $6.5 billion; and 199,100 jobs statewide. And remember, this is in a recession.

Boston area groups have made great strides in developing sustainable tourism initiatives, which are essential to help minimize environmental impacts and protect the numerous natural and historical treasures Boston and greater Massachusetts offer. Click around on some of the great local initiatives below including those by Sustainable Business Leader Program certified participant Boston Duck Tours (now that deserves a Quack! Quack!).

This fall, I am helping teach a course on Environmental Management of International Tourism Development at the Harvard Extension School. This course provides professionals worldwide the opportunity to join the dialog on improving the environmental management of one of the world’s largest industries. We endeavor to expand professional knowledge in the field using student research to dive deeply into international challenges caused by extensive use of natural resources, little government oversight, and rapid growth.

There’s a lot of potential here, which is why avid travelers like me have dedicated their careers to harnessing the tremendous potential of the tourism industry to create positive and lasting change in the world. Now get inspired and get packing!

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Alison Hillegeist is a Sustainable Development Consultant who is currently helping teach courses in the Sustainability and Environmental Management program at Harvard Extension School. Alison has a Master’s Degree in Sustainable Development and 15 years of professional experience in communications and project management. She is motivated by the belief that travel is one of life’s great pleasures and that tourism can be a positive and transformative force for change in the world. Traveling the world has been a major influence in her personal and professional evolution and solidified her desire to pursue conservation and community development as her chosen career path. She is particularly interested in organizational/industry change management—helping organizations fulfill their responsibility to improve the environment and give back to the communities they serve.