Challenges And Opportunities For Sustainable Tourism – A Policy Perspective

By Richard Denman

The recent pandemic and the path to recovery has seen a notable growth in awareness and discussion about the impacts (both positive and negative) of tourism and the need to plan for a more responsible and sustainable future for the sector. But how is this being reflected in international policy? And what are the main challenges that it needs to address?

Over the last three years, I have been partly working as a consultant with the OECD and the G20 countries on agreed guidelines for the future of tourism, with sustainability at their core. The Tourism Society, the professional membership body for people working in all sectors of the visitor economy, has also been seeking to throw light on this subject at some of our recent meetings. This has helped to inform my own understanding and thoughts about current priorities, which I am pleased to share in this article.

Even before the pandemic, there was widespread recognition of sustainability issues in tourism policies around the world. A study of 73 national tourism policies in 2019 found that all of them referred to sustainability in their vision, however, only half of them contained specific actions to deliver this which has since remained a challenge. International agencies have sought to lead the way in identifying an agenda to follow, such as the UN World Tourism Organization’s One Planet Vision for a Responsible Recovery of the Tourism Sector. The Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria, which are mapped against the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and are backed by multiple public sector and industry bodies, have seen increasing take up. More specific initiatives have sought commitments to action on major themes, such as the Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism and the Global Tourism Plastics Initiative, both of which have attracted signatories from national and local tourism organisations.

Looking at individual countries, a few stand out for their pursuit of an agenda and actions for more sustainable tourism. Notable examples include New Zealand, Norway and Slovenia, which have all established requirements and frameworks for sound management at a local level to deliver their national policies. Other countries are following. The recent commitments in Scotland are encouraging. In its Tourism Recovery Plan, the UK government has undertaken preparations for a Sustainable Tourism Plan, which hopefully will be reflected in all tourism policy rather than being seen as a standalone exercise.

“In 2021, found that 81% of travellers surveyed were aware and concerned about sustainability, with a majority of those prepared to pay more for sustainable options”

For me, three key challenges and opportunities stand out in taking sustainable tourism policies forward. The first concerns transport and the shape of tourism travel. The fact that tourism-related transport is responsible for 5% of all man-made CO2 emissions is a major concern, which is flagged in the G20 tourism guidelines. It requires an urgent and coordinated global effort to develop cleaner fuels. However, in the short and medium term, I believe that tourism policies should pay more attention to how visitors are travelling. ‘Net emissions per visitor night’ should be a key factor in the prioritisation of target markets, favouring alternative transport options, shorter journeys and longer stays.

The second challenge is the need to secure more universal action across tourism businesses and supply chains to embrace sustainability concerns and targets in their operations. In a meeting of the Tourism Society’s Consultants Network in 2022, we heard positive stories about the contribution of certification schemes linked to practical guidance and the outreach work of the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance amongst major hotel companies, including the provision of monitoring and measurement tools and the sharing of data. Much can be achieved by taking simple steps and building this up year on year; however, there is a need for wider take up. National and local tourism policies and initiatives working alongside the industry, including in the provision of information and incentives, can help here.

Thirdly, I would point not to a challenge, but to an opportunity: harnessing the power of the marketplace. In 2021, found that 81% of travellers surveyed were aware and concerned about sustainability, with a majority of those prepared to pay more for sustainable options. There is a particularly notable trend in the corporate purchasing of travel, with many firms now needing to demonstrate that they are selecting more sustainable options to meet company policy. In the world of leisure travel, I believe more can be done to link sustainability to the growing interest in individual travel experiences. More generally, businesses can now place more confidence in promoting their green credentials as a core brand strength. I have long felt that the message “we care for the environment and the local community” should be indicative of values which also implies “we will care for you (the visitor)”. I believe that the market and the industry is now recognising this. The challenge remains to ensure that it is genuine.

I would like to end with a short plug for the Tourism Society, which I have mentioned above and on whose Board I serve. We are all about sharing knowledge, experiences and thoughts between professionals in the sector, including on the topics addressed above and many more besides. Do join us – you can find out more at:


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