International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

We’re all aware that our planet has limited resources – and that we’re using them up fast. But what can we do about it?

In the name of history, we wanted to take a look at an important campaign from a few years ago: the ‘International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development’ from UNWTO (the United Nations World Tourism Organization) in 2017. This was launched in Madrid on 18th January 2017. We’re also going to cover some great sustainable tourism practices too.

The International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development marked two anniversaries. It was 50 years after the International Tourist Year on Tourism (in 1967) and 15 years after the International Year of Ecotourism (2002), making it a particularly significant milestone.

What Exactly is Sustainable Tourism?

You might be wondering what sustainable tourism involves. You can probably guess from the name that it’s about a responsible form of tourism that links with sustainability best practices … but what exactly does that look like?

For the International Year of Sustainable Tourism, the UN identified five key areas to focus on:

  1. Inclusive and sustainable economic growth;
  2. Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction;
  3. Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change;
  4. Cultural values, diversity and heritage;
  5. Mutual understanding, peace, and security.

That might sound like a lot, but there’s plenty that individuals can do to enjoy traveling in a responsible and sustainable way.

Sustainable Tourism Tips for Local Travel

On any journey, even one close to home, you can take these easy steps:

  • Avoid leaving litter. Take it home with you and recycle it if possible.
  • Bring your own travel mug, so you can avoid single-use disposable cups.
  • Choose accommodation that has environmentally-friendly policies.
  • Take shorter showers and reuse your towels. Doing these simple things saves on both water and energy.
  • Turn off lights and appliances when you leave your hotel room.
  • Use the “do not disturb” sign so your room isn’t cleaned unnecessarily, wasting resources.
  • Don’t fly: travel by bus or train instead. If you need to drive, consider switching to a hybrid or electric car.

Sustainable Tourism Tips for International Travel

If traveling abroad, it’s a great idea to:

  • Avoid flying if possible, and travel by bus, train, or ship instead. If you do fly, pay to offset your carbon emissions (it doesn’t cost much) and try to book a non-stop flight rather than one with a stopover.
  • Familiarize yourself with local customs and traditions, including following dress codes. Recognize that you are a guest, and behave respectfully toward the people you meet.
  • Be aware of additional dress codes in religious buildings or areas. For instance, you may be required to cover bare shoulders and legs in these areas.
  • Always ask before taking photos. It’s disrespectful to photograph someone without their permission. Also, don’t try to take photos in areas where it’s not permitted: this is the case in many museums and historic buildings.
  • Never buy products made from endangered species, such as crocodile watch straps, belts, or handbags.
  • Never eat endangered species, even if these are traditionally eaten in the place where you’re traveling to. This includes whale meat, sharks, bears, and more.
  • Take public transit if possible, or rent a hybrid or electric car.
  • Avoid plastic, particularly single-use plastic. For instance, you could use a canvas tote bag instead of plastic shopping bags.
  • Use sunscreen that’s ocean and reef-safe. Sadly, sunscreen pollution is causing huge harm to coral reefs.
  • Steer clear of animal tourism such as riding elephants or walking with lions – unless you’re sure you’re visiting an attraction that’s 100% ethical.
  • Avoid cruises. They pollute the oceans, and they rarely benefit local communities where they dock.
  • Avoid “voluntourism” (tourism under the guise of volunteering) – it generally does more harm than good.

As Sustaining Tourism explains:

“The world is not such a lonely planet anymore but the very resources we promote through tourism are in danger of degradation. Visiting a yurt in eastern Tibet, trekking to a remote village in Timbuktu in Mali, kayaking the seas of the Caribbean and South Pacific – these are all amazing experiences but the resources upon which these experiences are based must be managed and the host communities considered.”

In general, think about how your actions and choices as a tourist can impact on the three different dimensions of sustainable tourism: environmental, economic, and social.

What Happened During the International Year of Sustainable Tourism?

Some of the highlights of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism were:

  • The UN encouraged individual governments and organizations to promote sustainable tourism.
  • UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) supported the initiative, saying With over 1.2 billion people now crossing international borders each year, tourism represents a golden opportunity to break down the barriers of ignorance and prejudices.
  • The International Year of Sustainable Tourism had 65 official sponsors, partners, and friends, including some major names like CNN, TripAdvisor, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and many more.
  • 14 official events took place across the world, including the closing ceremony in Switzerland.
  • >UNWTO ran a “Responsible Travelers Competition” to promote sustainable tourism.
  • On World Tourism Day (September 27th), the theme was “sustainable tourism” in 2017.

What Were the Results of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism?

It can be difficult to measure the immediate effects of far-reaching initiatives like the International Year of Sustainable Tourism. But some key outcomes were:

  • The International Year of Sustainable Tourism looked at ways for tourism to help contribute toward the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  • UNWTO continued to focus on sustainable tourism, passing new resolutions in 2018 and 2020 to further encourage sustainable travel and emphasize the need for it.
  • Many more people were made aware of the importance of sustainable tourism.
  • A large number of big media organizations reported on the International Year of Sustainable Tourism, further raising awareness.

On World Tourism Day (celebrated on September 27th since 1980), there has been a consistent focus on sustainable tourism and development, with 2019 looking at “tourism and jobs” (economic sustainability) and 2020 looking at “tourism and rural development”.

Sustainable tourism, and various subsets like “humane tourism” and “responsible hospitality”, have become more accepted and recognized among travelers. 

In fact, in the light of the Covid-19 epidemic, people are beginning to look beyond sustainable tourism to initiatives such as “regenerative tourism”. This is seen as a more positive idea, with the emphasis on restoring and regenerating areas, rather than simply trying to slow the rate of decline.

What Can You Do?

We highlighted some simple actions above that you can take when you travel, whether locally or internationally. It’s important to educate yourself about the areas you’ll be visiting, the way(s) in which you’ll be getting there, and the activities you’ll be undertaking or the businesses you’ll be supporting.

Be aware, too, of the issue of “over-tourism” – and consider visiting areas that are less popular. You’ll likely find it a better experience, too, as you won’t be surrounded by quite so many other tourists.

Don’t feel that every move you make as a tourist needs to be perfect. But when you have a choice, go for the more sustainable option. That might be something as simple as reusing your bath towel, or choosing to eat at a small local restaurant rather than a big chain. 

Small actions add up, and if every tourist tries to make a positive impact on the area they’re visiting, then this can make a huge difference over time.


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