top of page
  • Writer's picturefromelsewhere

2017 The Year of Sustainable Tourism - what it means

Can holidaying tourists really eradicate poverty and save the planet? How the U.N hopes Sustainable Tourism will help achieve peace and prosperity for all.

The United Nations General assembly has designated 2017 as the "International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development".

The "year of" designation highlights the importance of sustainable international tourism and raises awareness of the sector's role in cultural, environmental and economic development.

By the Numbers

2016 was another big year for tourism with 1,235 million international tourists. That's 3.6% growth on 2015 and the 7th consecutive year of sustained growth. [1]

Although the Middle East and some European countries saw a slight decrease in tourism due to security concerns, all other regions saw an increase in visitors.

This was particularly evident in the Asia and Pacific regions which recorded the highest growth figures (8% and 10% respectively). In that region, where many nations are small or developing, tourism is becoming the most lucrative industry and key driver in socio-economic progress.

As an internationally traded service, tourism is a major trade category and source of foreign exchange income. In 2015, tourism receipts amounted to US$1.4 trillion [3]. On a whole this represented 6% of the world exports of services but for some nations it is significantly higher. In the pacific nation of Vanuatu, where it is estimated 37.9% of the workforce are directly or indirectly tourism related [4], tourism made up 78% of its export economy in 2015 [3].

The Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, must manage the interests of tourism, agriculture and wildlife

Positive Impact

Clearly, tourism is big business, but many travellers are unaware just how much of an impact their dollars make to the lives of ordinary people. Sustainable tourism contributes to the three pillars of sustainable development: economic, social and environmental.

ECONOMIC Sustainable tourism is considered to be one of the ways developing nations can rise out of poverty. Beyond the direct financial benefit to transport, tours and accommodation businesses, there are many other jobs that indirectly service or support the tourism industry - such as trade, agriculture, construction. This puts money into the local communities, providing much needed infrastructure and contributes to the education, health and well being of people. Importantly, tourism provides an employment avenue for youth and women providing economic equality and emancipation.


Generally, tourism leads to greater intercultural awareness and, with understanding, better intercultural relations. A sustainable approach to cultural tourism preserves and promotes the unique heritage and cultural environment but in ways that are inclusive and non-exploitive. Cultural tourism should be an 'authentic' experience managed by the local community, not a 'human zoo' where villages or cultural sites become theme parks.


As tourists seek environment-based experiences, governments and local communities are encouraged to protect natural heritage. Where there is a strong market for sustainably sourced goods and ethically based services there is an incentive to move away from less sustainable environmental, agricultural and industry practices.

Well managed, "sustainable" approaches to tourism have a long lasting and far reaching effect. They can lead to protection and rehabilitation of the environment; preservation of culture; reinvigoration of employment in communities; empowerment of women; improvement in health, wellbeing and education; as well as building inter-cultural relations between the peoples of the world.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the role of sustainable development

In short, sustainable tourism can eradicate poverty, save the planet and bring peace and prosperity to all. Which is where the United Nations comes in.

In 2012, the United Nations renewed its commitment to sustainable development and identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) they hope to be achieved by 2030 [5][2]. Sustainable tourism was identified as playing an especially important part in three of these SDGs and are to be targeted for attention [2[.

  • SDG 8 - promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all - Eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimension is the greatest global challenge. Tourism is a driving economic force, particularly in rural areas and developing countries.

  • SDG12 - Ensure sustainable consumption and production - A tourism sector that adopts sustainable consumption and production practices can play a significant roll in accelerating the global shift towards sustainability. The demand for eco-friendly activities and sustainably sourced support goods and services encourages growth in that area and gives it a continuing market. In fact, sustainable tourism is one of a number of sectors responsible for kickstarting the green economy.

  • SDG14 - Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development - Tourism's biggest segments are coastal and maritime tourism, but the sectors viability relies on healthy marine ecosystems. Tourism development that is part of an integrated coastal zone management plan is the best way forward to preserving both the fragile ecosystem and the 'blue economy'.

A local woman teaches tourists about culture through craft classes in a Vietnamese highlands village

Challenges & The Role of the UN

It is one thing to recognise that tourism is a pathway to sustainable development. It is another to set it in motion. Infrastructure, human capital development, finance and access global tourism networks and distribution channels are all challenges for developing nations.

Only a small number of tourists are intrepid enough to go far off the beaten track. Communities that are remote and lack transport, accommodation or communications infrastructure risk missing out on a business opportunity they may want. There's also the need to balance tourism numbers and operators practices in order to protect fragile ecosystems or integrity of the local culture.

The UN World Tourism Office (UNWTO) works with governments, agencies, international and regional organisations to help achieve the SDGs where tourism is a feature.

The UNWTO provides the technical expertise and capacity building for sustainable tourism solutions. Additionally, the 10YFP Sustainable Tourism Program (STP) is a collaborative platform bringing together existing initiatives and partnerships and facilitating new projects.

What Can We Do

While business practices and government policy at a local, national and international level is important, we, as travellers, also have an important part to play. The decisions and actions we take can matter. Obviously, tourism alone is not going to save the planet or bring peace to all mankind, But it is possible that a small choice between activities or operators can make a big difference to communities or the environment.

Sources & Links:



Recent Posts

bottom of page