Why responsible tourism?
It is the lived culture of communities that attracts tourists, and better places to live in make great places to visit for those seeking new experiences
For destination governments, both national and subnational, the question to ask is whether you want to use tourism for sustainable development, or to be used by it.
Thirty years after the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development in Rio in 1992, there is still mounting concern that we are not achieving sustainability quickly enough. The Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, launched at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002 to encourage businesses, destination governments and tourists to take responsibility, was intended to make tourism more sustainable and inclusive. South Africa was the first to include responsible tourism in its post-apartheid national tourism policy in 1996. As we have seen in the annual awards, businesses from homestays to major hotel groups are increasingly taking responsibility to make tourism better and using tourism to make “better places for people to live in” – and better places to live in are great places to visit. Surveys by Expedia and Booking.com have demonstrated that travellers want to travel more sustainably and struggle to find sustainable travel options.
Domestic and international tourism can provide significant economic benefits for local communities in rural and urban areas. The pro-poor tourism work pioneered 20 years ago demonstrated how tourism can create additional livelihoods for people who are economically poor and marginalised. Economically poor but often culturally rich local communities offer opportunities for positive encounters for those seeking different experiences.
In the Responsible Tourism Awards, presented each year since 2004, we see many cases of businesses, communities and non-governmental organisations improving tourists’ experiences and co-creating memories. This contributes to viral marketing and, more importantly, provides additional livelihoods that enrich local communities. It is the lived culture of these communities that attracts the interest and appreciation of the domestic and international tourists in their music, dance, craft, art, food, religion and way of life. Their everyday life is the tourist’s adventure.
India is currently the world’s leading destination for responsible tourism. First Kerala and then Madhya Pradesh adopted the principles of responsible tourism and adapted them to address local issues in order to make tourism better and ensure that economically poor and marginalised local communities benefit from tourism, creating additional livelihoods and a sense of pride in their culture and helping stem the flow of young people leaving the communities where they were born.
In Kerala the Responsible Tourism Mission has demonstrated what can be achieved when all levels of government, from state to village panchayat, work together with businesses and empower local communities to shape their tourism to meet the experiential interests of tourists, developing meaningful connections that ensure respect between host and guest, and managing negative impacts to keep them to a very low level. Tourism provides additional livelihood incomes, at the household level. Madhya Pradesh has built on Kerala’s experience and is developing homestays, rural tourism, responsible souvenirs, solid and liquid waste management, access for people who are differently abled and skills training, and making destinations safer for women. Sarawk, too, has adopted responsible tourism as its tourism strategy to 2030.
There is also a responsible tourism trend emerging in Indonesia, responding to the growth in demand for sustainable experiential travel and tourists seeking meaningful engagement with local communities. Tourism can make a major contribution to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, with governments, businesses and communities working together to extend lengths of stay and create environments where tourists enjoy, and pay for, local cuisine, storytelling, performances of music and dance, and purchase crafts and responsibly produced souvenirs.
I have had the privilege to travel extensively in the Global South as a tour leader, consultant and academic. Responsible tourism has emerged as a way of creating better places for people to live in and for people to visit. I have learnt from engaging with communities to develop tourism that meets their needs and the aspirations of tourists, and shared that experience and gained more through the responsible tourism movement. So much more could be achieved if South–South exchange was funded and those with experience in Kerala and Madhya Pradesh could engage with those in Indonesia, and elsewhere in the Global South, to develop similar approaches to achieving sustainable development through tourism.