Finding your way through the jungle of sustainable tourism

The concept of sustainability has become increasingly prevalent in our society and daily life. It starts with our morning coffee as a fair trade product, the use of reusable bags during grocery shopping, taking the bike instead of the car to work and also in the news is every second topic related to a more sustainable approach in any actions. Sustainability is everywhere and there is practical no escape from it. The concept is firmly anchored in our mindset and especially the tourism industry loves to juggle with sustainability in terms of natural protection, economic growth and local involvement. Sustainable tourism is regarded as better alternative for mass tourism and increasingly aimed by developing countries in order to develop themselves and stimulate their economy with a more future focused approach. But since the term of sustainability is used so frequently and on such a broad scope its meaning becomes more and more vague so that the consumer of sustainable products doesn’t really know what to expect and to what extent sustainability is implemented. That’s why it is finally time to shed some light on the jungle of sustainable tourism and its different forms.

What is sustainability

The confusion already starts with the tourism service providers since many of them declare their products as sustainable and green even if this is just partial or minimal the case. So the first question to raise is therefore how sustainable tourism is characterized. The UNWTO defines it 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”.[1] This means that a balance between the three levels of economic, socio-cultural and environmental aspects has to be created with regard to long-term orientation on the different stakeholders and the full participation of every party. Key elements within this play the optimal use of resources and their maintenance in order to conserve the natural biodiversity of flora and fauna as base of the tourism industry, the respect for the living and built cultural heritage of locals and indigenous people in the tourism destination and with that the cross cultural understanding for their traditions and way of life. Lastly, feasible economic operations on a long-term basis offering socio-cultural benefits such as stable employment and income and the active support of decreasing poverty within the country. Sustainable tourism furthermore needs to consider as well the tourist satisfaction by providing a significant experience and increasing their awareness for sustainable travelling.

According to this a sustainable tourism approach must therefore include all these aspects in order to be justified as sustainable. In the tourism industry there are several practices of tourism that are considered to be sustainable or to have a sustainable approach. In the last two to three decades the forms of eco-tourism, pro-poor tourism and community based tourism became increasingly popular among the sustainable sector. For experts these terms seem to be completely clear but when I first came across these labels during my current studies of community based tourism I wasn’t sure how they differ from each other, if there is a difference and to what extent these forms relate to the official sustainability definition in tourism.


Eco -Tourism

Let’s begin with the eco-tourism as one of the earliest forms of sustainable tourism. It basically encompasses a responsible and nature based tourism that focuses on the conservation of environment and the well-being of local people. The motivation of eco-tourists is primarily driven by the observation and appreciation of nature as well as the interest in different cultures. It aims on one hand to minimize the negative impacts on the natural and cultural environment and to increase at the same time the awareness of the tourists and locals regarding these factors by creating a positive experience via educational and interpretative features. The protection of natural habitat is primarily achieved by creating financial benefits for the host communities and organizations who are responsible for the conservation activities. Eco-tourism is furthermore used as a tool for poverty reduction through the creation of job opportunities and with that the increase of livelihood within the local communities as well as the creation of understanding for the indigenous beliefs. [2]


Eco-tourism in Estonia


Pro-poor tourism

Latter is especially the central focus point of pro-poor tourism (PPT). It is nevertheless not specifically considered as a tourism form but rather as an approach for the alleviation of poverty using tourism. Poor communities are considered as such due to their economically circumstances but have a greater value in regard to their natural resources and culture which can be used to attract tourists in order to develop the local economy and increase with that the community’s livelihood. Within PPT exist several ways for the community to generate income and benefit from tourism. These are the creation of employment opportunities in the tourism and tourism related industries through special trainings and education in these sectors as well as the sales of handmade goods such as potential souvenir products to tourism businesses or directly to tourists. Net benefits of PPT for the communities are the protection and maintenance of natural areas as base of the tourism, increasing health situation through improved facilities and income and an improved infrastructure in order to provide the tourists with a general standard of proper roads, electricity and running water. Furthermore, can pro poor tourism be applied on different levels: enterprise, destination and country. [3]

Pro-Poor Khowarib Community Campsite, Namibia


Community Based Tourism

Community based tourism shows also similarities with eco and pro-poor tourism but is nevertheless different in its approach. CBT is based on the 3 pillars of culture, nature and local people and includes a high involvement on the part of the community members as well as of the part of the tourists. Visitors get a direct insight into the community’s culture and way of life. Community based tourism can be operated in two different ways, either in spending just a day with the host community and accompany them during their daily activities or including a homestay in the community. Unique of community based tourism is that it could be considered as a tourism that is organized and run by the community itself in consultation with their partners such as tour operators and CBT organizations. Their services include accommodation, traditional gastronomy and cultural activities that offer the visitors a special and really authentic experience of the local culture and the rural and more traditional way of life. The benefits of community based tourism lay in the cross-cultural exchange and the mutual benefits for all parties, tourists and community members. The concept is based on the understanding for foreign cultures and the interest for each other. Especially the learning of the English language is part of the cultural exchange. Another benefit is the natural conservation in order to be able to show the visitors the unique character of the region and their cultural basis.[4]

community stay

Baan Rim Klong Community in Mae Klong, Thailand

Summarizing can be said that all three tourism practices relate to the official characterizations of sustainable practices and correspond to the three main factors of economic, socio-cultural and environmental long-term orientation and are therefore true sustainable tourism forms. Due to this are these as well very similar and only differ in a few but nevertheless essential factors. In comparison to pro-poor tourism are the forms of eco and community based tourism real types of tourism that can be booked in actual as such declared package tours. Pro poor tourism on the contrary is only an overall approach of tourism development in a specific area. Therefore, could community based tourism as well as eco-tourism also be a tool within a pro -poor tourism approach. Furthermore, is community based tourism very specific and orientated on a specific community. One CBT product can thus not be transferred to another community. This makes it on one hand a very difficult product with a great effort but on the other hand also a very unique, thoroughly thought through and well cared product.

In real life are nevertheless all forms of sustainable tourism somehow combined with each other. As said before, pro-poor tourism can be implemented via eco or community based tourism but also community based tourism normally has some eco-tourism aspects. The Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) tourism development project of Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Vietnam is a prime example for this. The aim of the project was to reduce the poverty in these countries by using sustainable tourism in order to stimulate the economic growth and employment rate as well as to promote the conservation of natural and cultural heritage in these areas. Thereby was the GMS promoted as one destination via sub-regional cooperations regarding the development of joint tourism circuits and products, as well as marketing activities. The development encompassed four different stages: part A focused on tourism-related infrastructural, such as urban environmental improvements in the provinces of Siam Riep, Cambodia and the cities of Sam Mountain and My Tho, Vietnam. These urban improvements included investments into the construction of roads, airports and sewerage services, the development of solid waste management as well as human resources. Part B was on pro-poor tourism and CBT development. Within this step tourism related infrastructures were created such as information centers, walking trails and viewpoints. Furthermore, was capacity building for local enterprises and communities part of it. Thereby lied also a focus on the participation of ethnic minorities. This was implemented in a total of 6 provinces around the three countries. The third phase or component of the project included the sub-regional cooperation for sustainable tourism by establishing a standardized network of tour operator and hotels classifications. All cross national tourism activities were harmonized such as the facilitation of boarder check-points and visa regulations. The last part related to the implementation and institutional strengthening by provisions for consulting services. The positive results of the project were noticeable in all three countries. For example, in Cambodia the number of arriving tourists increased significantly from 264,000 to 1,305,256 international arrivals in the Siem Riep province and the separation of waste water from storm water increased the local health situation.[5]

Sustainable tourism can therefore have a lot of positive impacts for the local environment, economy and society. Nevertheless one has to be very careful when booking a sustainable tourism product in order to be not tricked. Maybe you have already had some experiences with fake sustainable tourism or with eco, pro-poor and community based tourism providers. I would love to hear your stories and experiences. Please feel free to leave a comment for any suggestions.

[1] UNWTO. (n.d.) Development of sustainable tourism. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 from
[2] The International Ecotourism Society. (n.d.) What is Ecotourism?. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 form:,
UNWTO (n.d. b).Ecotourism and protected areas. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 from:
[3] International institute for environment and development. (2001). Pro-Poor Tourism: Harnessing the World’s Largest Industry for the World’s Poor. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 from:,
Propoortourism. (n.d.) What is pro-poor tourism. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 from:
[4] Goodwin, H., & Santilli, R. (2009). Community-based tourism: A success. ICRT Occasional paper, 11(1), 37. ISO 690. Retrieved on the 13.05.2016 from:,
Saayman, M., & Giampiccoli, A. (2016). Community-based and pro-poor tourism: Initial assessment of their relation to community development. European Journal Of Tourism Research, 12145-190, retrieved on the 13.052016 from
[5] Asian Development Bank. (2013). Validation Report. Greater Mekong Subregion: Mekong Tourism Development Project (Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, and Viet Nam). Retrieved from:

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