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Sustainable Tourism
Reimagining Tourism: Pursuing Climate Justice & Equity for a Sustainable Future

September 2023

As we observe World Tourism Day on 27 September, under the theme "Tourism and Green Investments," it is essential to also reflect on the complex issues surrounding sustainability in the tourism industry and the complex intricacies and interdependence of the fragile ecosystem. While the concept of "green investments" and environmentally responsible tourism may be seen as a progressive step, it is necessary to remain vigilant and critical to the fact that these efforts, most often, fail to genuinely promote sustainability, equity, and justice.

Sustainable tourism calls for shrewd stewardship of natural, constructed, and socio-cultural resources in destination areas. Resources created mainly for tourism are used in time by the local population as well. Many others are shared with local people in everyday life; the unfortunate fate of common pool resources is often overexploitation and degradation. When this happens, sustainable development is severely threatened: economic wellbeing declines, environmental conditions worsen, social injustice grows, conflicts arise, and tourist satisfaction drops.


Common resources include are air, atmosphere, water resources, oceans, ecosystems, fisheries, forests, wildlife, grazing fields, and irrigation systems; these resources are not easy to delineate from each other. With tourism, this is even more challenging because a single tourist can consume a large portion of available resources in a destination, through varied activities and depending on the season and area. To put this into perspective, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) calculated (in 2017) that a single tourist in Spain consumes between 450 and 800 liters of water a day (based on hotel and restaurant expenditure, including kitchen, laundry, toilet, swimming pools, air-conditioning, and irrigation, as well as activities such as golf, saunas, theme parks and hygiene/cleaning services availed); the average citizen consumes 127 liters per day. In tropical, coastal regions tourism consumption can reach up to 2,000 liters per day.

Although their geographical, cultural, ecological, and economic features attract visitors, islands and coastal areas have extremely fragile environments, geographical limitations and cultures that are less resilient to external influences. The development of tourism on islands and coastal areas increasingly juxtaposes questions of tourist demands versus protection of the environment and sustaining the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous communities.

Although this year’s focus on “green investments” follows a long line of heralded “green” initiatives, particularly green tourism, and green growth, these have proven to be hypocritical or green-washing, as essential actions for equity, sustainability and justice are not included in this agenda.

Tourism is often income-elastic, and this means that tourists demand a lot more when their income increases. Capitalizing on this, the tourism industry increasingly presents an image of doing business responsibly, while in fact ensuring ever greater profit is extracted, more commons are exploited (including a livable climate) and the local community is served crumbs from the corporate table. The continued development of gated resorts, huge golf courses, privatized commons and mega cruise ships gives away the game.

True sustainability in tourism extends beyond image-building and profit maximization. It requires a commitment to reducing carbon footprints, minimizing waste, conserving natural resources, and actively benefiting local communities. Equity is a key principle of sustainable tourism that addresses fairness in access, use, and distribution of goods and benefits from tourism development, to meet the needs of both current and future generations of local people. We must prioritize equity, as well as inclusivity, ensuring that tourism does not displace or marginalize residents but rather empowers and benefits them.

Beachside Resorts

As we globally experience the devastating impacts of climate change and the crossing of multiple planetary boundaries – signified by conflicts, famines, drought, floods, fires, and displacements – we need to be critically conscious of the tools and methods used to distract us from much needed action. Tourism development presents clear tensions between community prosperity and well-being, environmental protection and industry profits. Far too often industry profits are derived at the costly expense of communities and ecologies.

The Saudi-led Sustainable Tourism Global Centre launched the Tourism Panel on Climate Change in 2022 which promises a “neutral” scientific assessment of tourism’s pathway to “net zero by 2050”. However, its investments in luxury “sustainable” tourism development such as Neom, highlight the elitist agenda that Saudi Arabian leadership is intent on pursuing. This represents a bold effort to capture the agenda of the tourism transition. It is likely the interests of local communities in securing a safe future for themselves and their children will not be on this “green investment” table.


These green investments and net-zero promises are deadly distractions from what really matters to the Majority World. Today, it is said that climate justice, not green investment, is the platform serving the interests of the Global South. If tourism is to have any future at all, it must be one that is built on climate justice foundations as determined by frontline communities living and thriving in the Global South. It is pertinent to re-evaluate the tourism industry's priorities and practices, and re-imagine an alternate tourism paradigm, which emphasises the need for sustainability, equity, and climate justice as guiding principles for its future.


(This article was adapted and built on the statement issued by Tourism Alert and Action Forum (TAAF), 27 September 2023)

by Anabel Da Gama

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