Sustainable tourism requires regulation

The sustainability of tourism is one of the central themes under tourism geography at the Geography Research Unit at the University of Oulu. This multifaceted topic encompasses both ecological and societal perspectives.

The sustainability of tourism became a topic of discussion after the Rio Conference in the early 1990s, and research into the subject is almost as old. Promoting sustainability by regulation is, in this case, very difficult.

One reason is the character of tourism as a business. "Tourism is not an independent economic sector, but a cluster consisting of, among others, accommodation, transport and catering services”, says Professor of Geography Jarkko Saarinen. “It grows faster than other major sectors in world economy, but the majority of it remains outside the statistics.” For example, the official air travel statistics show only international flights, disregarding, for instance, USA's vast internal traffic.

As a result, it is impossible to get a grasp of tourism as a whole, and even research into its sustainability is to a great extent done on a case-by-case basis. Saarinen points out that approximately 97% of the ecological footprint of a holiday in the Seychelles, for instance, is caused by the journey there and back. "When we decide to reuse our towels at the hotel, it affects the remaining three per cent."

The largest part of our ecological footprint is caused by greenhouse gas emissions which fuel climate change. "Tourism causes 5 to 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest and continuously growing part comes from aviation", explains Senior Lecturer Kaarina Tervo-Kankare. Maritime traffic is also a major source of emissions, and the sustainability-oriented traveller should choose a train.

An ecological footprint is also left on the destination in the form of wear and tear of national parks and the deterioration of water bodies. The latter is connected to climate change.

"The Baltic Sea is predicted to become the next Mediterranean," Saarinen says. "Southern Europe is becoming too hot, and last summer, warnings were already given in certain places: not for the elderly or children. Forest fires cause further risks, and so do mosquitoes spreading malaria. It is even possible to catch dengue fever in the EU area today."

"This will result in a structural change of tourism: Germans have already landed on the southern beaches of the Baltic Sea. As a consequence of global warming, algal blooms, however, reduce the area’s pulling power. On average, Finland's lakes are very shallow, and an increase in temperature of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius may cause an explosive growth of algal blooms."


The sustainability of tourism is not only ecological

Water is connected to travelling in another way, too: tourists consume a lot of water. The amount of water required by hotels, swimming pools, golf courses and spas can cause water shortages affecting the local residents and agriculture.

This draws attention to other forms of sustainability. Sustainable tourism is not only ecological, but it also includes societal dimensions: social sustainability refers to, for instance, the welfare of local residents and their equality with tourists, cultural sustainability means respect for and preservation of the local culture, and economic sustainability refers to directing revenue from tourism to local workers. Some researchers further distinguish the dimension of political sustainability, but Saarinen does not see the need for it: "None of the elements of sustainability are free from politics."

The different forms of sustainability are interrelated, and if one is compromised, it is easily reflected on the others.

"The scarcity of ecological sustainability can lead to a decline in the attractiveness of a tourist destination, which makes the economic sustainability crumble, which in turn affects social sustainability. A well established example is the development of Torremolinos since the 1950s: when water treatment was neglected, the beaches became unpleasant and the number of tourists decreased. This lead to economic problems linked with social problems, such as unemployment and prostitution."

The growth of tourism brings its own social problems. In recent years, a new phenomenon referred to as overtourism has emerged alongside congestion, which has been known and researched for a long time. In the former, tourism penetrates local life more than before, as congestion is combined with the modern sharing economy, such as the Airbnb service offering accommodation rentals.

"House prices and rents increase for the local residents, students cannot find apartments, disturbances in the neighbourhood increase. Tourism literally enters through the same door, and is no longer confined to its own space built specifically for tourists", Saarinen explains. This phenomenon is already known in Rovaniemi, not to mention Venice and Barcelona, where attempts of controlling Airbnb have been made by limiting the amount of Airbnb hosts as well as the number of rooms for rent.


Neoliberal politics leave sustainability to the market

There are a great number of different sustainability certificates in the business of tourism, but the diversity of the sector prevents common criteria. The certificates’ content is often unclear, including so-called greenwashing created by companies themselves. Out of the well known certificates in the Nordic countries, Tervo-Kankare mentions the international Green Key eco-label for accommodation and the Norwegian tussock (Green Travel) which covers many certificates.

"In Finland, we are considering a similar approach, and both the organic sign and the Nordic Swan Ecolabel are already used in certain areas of tourism."

Sustainability can also be promoted by limiting accessibility, such as by removing bridges to national parks or by higher pricing (such as in Madeira and the safaris in Africa). The only universally applicable way would, however, be legislation. One of the latest significant steps in this sector is the aviation tax introduced by Sweden in the spring. At EU level, however, air traffic is only covered by emissions trading. Neoliberal politics leave sustainability to the market, says Saarinen.

"The assumption is that tourists search for more ecological and sustainable products of tourism, and companies offer them. This works as an idea, but during the actual selection process when the price is involved, studies have indicated that price is emphasised over sustainability. "

However, the situation is not hopeless. The UN, EU and even the World Bank stress sustainability in tourism, and the principle is slowly becoming part of practice. For example, large European tour operators (Thomas Cook, TUI) transport tourists only to destinations with a strategy for the development of sustainable tourism.

"Research has produced various indicators of sustainability for sectors such as water and waste management, but the problem is putting these ideas into practice: on average, tourism is based on small and medium-sized enterprises with a small capacity to implement these indicators", Saarinen says.


Text: Jarno Mällinen

Last updated: 16.11.2018