Sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, carbon neutral tourism – what do we mean?

With COP26 taking place in Glasgow our attention is firmly focused on the UN’s call to action to “unite the world to tackle climate change”. So no surprise that the focus of the Tourism Management’s Institute (TMI) annual conference on 20 October 2021 was how the tourism sector moves towards more sustainable destinations.

At Blue Sail we too have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a sustainable destination or a low-carbon, or even a carbon neutral, destination.  And what it means for the visitor economy strategies, destination management plans or tourism strategies we are regularly commissioned to produce. Too often in the past, it has been more of a nod in the direction before getting on with the serious business of economic impact, but that’s changing. Pressure is coming from many quarters to ‘do something’. It’s just not all that clear what that something should be. It’s confusing territory – sustainable tourism, responsible tourism, carbon neutral tourism – and many more!

So we were delighted to be asked by TMI to speak at the convention and explore some of the issues and challenges and offer some thoughts on how to begin the journey to a sustainable destination with some inspiring examples from elsewhere.

We think the essential requirements for destinations which are serious about making progress towards sustainable tourism are:

  • Define your terms and what you want to focus on. Reducing carbon impacts? Becoming carbon neutral? Protecting fragile landscapes? Reducing car usage?
  • Decide what you want to measure – and how you are going to do it, if in fact you can. Setting baselines and measuring progress is surely essential, especially when you consider that where visitors come from and how they travel to your destination is the biggest factor in determining impact.
  • Consider your strategic choices. Will you choose to target domestic over international visitors who fly? Will you restrict visitors to your beauty hotspots? Will you only work with businesses who are members of accredited green schemes?

One way of making sense of the choices are to consider what a DMO can do directly and what it might influence. Thinking about strategic approaches to three components – the destination, businesses and the visitor also helps to make it a bit more manageable.

As a tourism consultancy we are now looking closely at what more we can do to help our clients move forward. In particular we are focusing on a ‘measurement model’ and a ‘strategic impact model’.

With only four DMO reps remaining standing when we asked the TMI convention audience who really believed they had a robust, measurable visitor economy strategy with sustainability at its core, it definitely looks like there will be a need.

Our presentation to TMI can be found here.