Paving the Way for a Greener Tourism Industry Through Education

By James Chabin

Each year, Earth Day serves as a reminder of the urgent need to protect the environment on which our social and economic systems rely. Biodiversity loss, climate change, and pollution all threaten our way of life, and conflicts between natural resource availability and economic interests often prevent meaningful change. On the other hand, environmental initiatives paired with economic incentives may yield more long term advantages for the economy and the environment. In nature-dependent industries like tourism, this is especially true. While many industries are responding to the environmental challenges of our times, the tourism sector is particularly well positioned for success through a sustainability transformation. 

Tourism and Sustainable Development

Unlike extractive industries like forestry and fishing, which see sustainability in terms of maintaining a stock, tourism’s relationship with nature depends on healthy ecosystems. Studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration find reducing pollution in marine ecosystems increases tourism numbers, spending, and jobs, demonstrating that the quality of environmental resources matter for tourism. Competition between economies dependent on nature tourism, which accounts for half of the industry’s market share, is driven by which location has the cleanest beach or largest wildlife population, giving the industry incentives to go protect the quality of its natural resources.

Despite its reliance on high-quality natural resources, high levels of tourism often leads to environmental degradation. Across the world, growth in the tourism industry is associated with air pollution, contributing to climate change, and unsustainable resource management. Studies suggest that international travel bans brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic had a largely positive impact on the listed factors in protected areas previously frequented by tourists. Globally, it is clear that tourism fails to live up to its potential to be a positive force for sustainable development. 

Despite these problems, tourism has positive environmental impacts in some cases. In Toba, Japan, an emphasis on sustainable fishing and cultural preservation has created a tourism hub around Ama diving, a female led practice that has effectively managed local seafood resources for over 2,000 years. In East Africa, conservationists worry that decreases in tourism would result in decreases in funding for security units charged with protecting vulnerable gorilla populations. Despite its flaws, tourism can protect natural and cultural resources at risk of going extinct without it. 

Furthermore, the people that make up the tourism industry are largely supportive of environmental protection. A 2022 survey by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) shows that businesses associated with tourism support taking a “Nature Positive” approach to tourism. However, surveyed organizations faced significant barriers to creating an environmentally sustainable business model, including limited human resources, lack of guidance on how to practice sustainable tourism, and limited understanding of core tourism sustainability concepts. Notably, only 53% of those surveyed felt confident in their understanding of “Nature Positive” tourism, even if they emphasized its importance. 

Education For Sustainable Tourism

Given the tourism industry’s reliance on nature, its nascent environmental consciousness, and enormous room for growth, sustainability professionals have an opportunity to improve industry practices. Across the world, innovations in sustainable tourism can serve as models to others if properly communicated to stakeholders with the potential to benefit from them. 

Given the diverse and innovative ways tourism is already used to protect cultural and environmental heritage across the world, information sharing will be key to creating a sustainable tourism industry globally. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and other organizations promoting the global Sustainable Development Goals could be key players connecting sustainability minded organizations in the tourism industry to like-minded academics, businesses, and organizations from other economic sectors. Last year, SDSN’s presence, along with the Sustainable Tourism Global Center, at the WTTC Global Summit in Riyadh resulted in significant achievements, including comprehensive data on the sector’s carbon emissions and professional development opportunities for young people in tourism. 

In addition to networking and information sharing, technical training for the sustainable tourism workforce will be key to the transformation of the tourism industry. Of the businesses surveyed by the World Travel and Tourism Organization, more than a quarter found lack of expertise amongst their employees to be a barrier to environmentally sustainable practices. Even more concerning, 40% cited high costs as a preventative factor. Organizations like SDG Academy, which offers free, open access courses on sustainable development topics, are well-positioned to contribute to the development of an environmentally conscious and capable tourism workforce by promoting their existing resources and adding new ones that appeal to industry members. 

Making Sustainable Tourism a Reality

For sustainability professionals looking for eager partners with the potential to make a major impact, the tourism industry should be an obvious target. A clear next step is leveraging the many existing free, high-quality educational resources available for workforce development so that no business will feel that they lack the expertise or funding for sustainable practices. Sustainability networks connecting resources, NGOs, and businesses are well-positioned to assist the industry as a whole. With the right effort, a sustainable tourism transformation can allow the industry to finally live up to its potential. 

James Chabin

James Chabin is a M.A. Candidate at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Nagoya, Japan and an intern with the SDG Academy of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has written on sustainability, development, and military restraint for several publications, including the Diplomat, Inkstick, and Global Americans. You can follow him on X at @JamesChabin.