For centuries, the tiny kingdom of Bhutan was sealed off from the world. Tucked into the misty crevices of the eastern Himalayas, the kingdom guarded its culture and natural resources so fiercely that it simply barred foreign travelers. That changed in 1974 when the government relaxed its isolationist stance and turned to tourism to raise revenue. Yet even as Bhutan sought to attract visitors, its tourism policy was carefully and strategically crafted to preserve local culture and prevent environmental degradation. By pursuing what it calls “high-value, low-impact tourism,” the small, Buddhist society (which measures its success in terms of “gross national happiness” rather than gross domestic product) established a strict sustainable tourism policy. Today tourism is a significant part of Bhutan’s economy, and the kingdom’s forward-looking policies ensure that its natural and cultural resources will be protected — and attractive to tourists — for years to come.
From Bhutan to Barcelona, from the Himalayas to The Hague, global tourism is a significant and expanding contributor to economic growth. Each day travelers spend more than US$2 billion; the travel and tourism industry accounts for 10.7 percent of the world’s GDP and employs more than 260 million people. By one estimate, 1.6 billion tourists will travel the globe in 2020 — nearly twice as many as do so today.
Although tourism offers undeniable economic benefits, it comes with a steep environmental price tag. Whether it’s huge carbon footprints generated by air travel or human footprints trampling pristine environments, travel can deplete or destroy local ecosystems and contribute to global climate change.
At the same time, environmental degradation and climate change have the potential to dramatically disrupt general tourism patterns and do considerable damage to particular destinations. Rising sea levels, desertification, and changing weather patterns have the potential to damage or destroy the very elements that attract tourists.
As a result, tourism and environmental sustainability are fast becoming natural partners, their agendas increasingly intertwined. No other industry has to walk the narrow line of environmentally responsible growth as carefully as the tourism industry; arguably, no other industry has as much to gain or as much to lose.
More and more, for example, environmentally savvy tourists are seeking out green tourist destinations — those that make a proactive effort to address critical issues such as carbon emissions, biodiversity conservation, waste management, and water supply. A 2005 survey by the United Kingdom’s Devon County Council found that 54 percent of respondents consider environmental issues when booking a trip and 82 percent are willing to pay more for green services and products. As a bonus, some 72 percent of respondents think a green business is more likely to be quality conscious.
Feeling the push from tourists, leading tour operators such as TUI and Thomas Cook Group are giving marketing and booking preference to environmentally sustainable destinations and demanding higher green standards from hotels and resorts. In addition, major global travel societies such as National Geographic now use environmental sustainability as a key criterion in their destination rankings. In short, if tourist destinations are to stay competitive, they will need to adopt sustainable policies or risk alienating an important and growing customer base.
To date, however, only a handful of destinations are rising to the green challenge; many others lag behind. Destinations that turn a blind eye to sustainable practices risk depleting their resources and shortsightedly under-investing in the preservation of their natural assets. By borrowing against their future, they trade long-term health for short-term gain. Other destinations that rely on empty marketing gimmicks — constructing, in effect, green facades — are missing opportunities to build solid foundations. Glossy brochures and vague “eco-speak” will neither attract savvy travelers nor protect valuable resources. Instead, destinations should strive for meaningful change by proactively pursuing sustainable environmental policies and practices. If they fail to do so, mounting environmental costs may soon outweigh tourism’s economic benefits — a daunting prospect in our increasingly interconnected world.