Evaluating Sustainable Destinations

In sports, you’re only as strong as your weakest player.  Similarly, when it comes to sustainable tourism, a destination is only as sustainable as its least eco-friendly attraction.  The attractions, accommodation, services, and infrastructure are all integral components to the overall sustainability of a destination, therefore the eco-success of a destination depends on the sustainability of its parts.  For those conscious travelers seeking an holistic experience of sustainability, there are a few key elements to be considered when evaluating the overall sustainability of a destination.

Environmental Protection

A destination’s care and concern for the protection of its natural environment is integral to the destination’s sustainable success.  Often considered a cornerstone of sustainability, along with socio-cultural and economic factors, the environment is so easily impacted by human activity, especially due to high levels of tourist behaviour.  Environmental concerns will be touched upon in most of the following sub-headings, and it is important to understand that a destination’s sustainability can be defined by its commitment to environmental protection.  The environment, however, is not the only mark of a sustainable destination, as will be discussed further below.

Key to sustainability is environmental protection

Local vs. Foreign Ownership

Foreign capital investment is, often times, an integral component of development when it comes to the tourism industry, as are foreign business consultants.  However, foreign ownership of properties, attractions, transportation, and services can be one of the most detrimental forces working against local communities seeking to benefit from tourism.  Often times foreign ownership causes economic leakage, which is when profits ‘leak’ out of the destination and back to the country of ownership.  This typically happens with resort properties and chain hotels, common destinations for tourists, so it is important for travelers to understand the full impacts of their spending.

Eating local while on the road is sustainable

Not only do profits from the rooms go to benefit foreign entities, it is also very common for hotel accessories, amenities, food, and other products to be imported into the destination from the source country, meaning local farmers and producers have no opportunity to provide their produce to hotels.  This barrier between the locals and tourism industry is unfair and unsustainable, since it does not allow the local population to profit and benefit from a consumptive industry operating in their backyard.  When the local population is involved in the process, they are able to contribute to a sustainable industry that is positively facilitating opportunities for local development through tourism.

Government-Initiated Responsible Tourism Strategy

In recent years, many governments have developed responsible or sustainable tourism strategies.  For the Sustainable Tourism module in my Master’s degree, we were required to conduct a critical analysis on one of four strategies – Jordan, Scotland, New Zealand, or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  Upon selecting Jordan’s strategy, we realised not only did we have our work cut out for us, but that the strategy represented a common problem throughout the world.

While the overall intention of the strategy is well-meaning, there were a number of glaring faults, predominately the excessively ambitious list of priorities, political interference, economic misguidance, and lack of attention to socio-cultural enrichment.  Jordan isn’t alone with these problems; often times responsible tourism strategies lack focus, and fail to address the cornerstones of sustainable tourism development – environment, socio-cultural, and economic.  The fourth cornerstone, politics, when not promoting sustainability, has the nasty habit of getting in the way of it.  Can’t help itself.

Government has to be involved in sustainable tourism

Are there any examples of success?  Of course there are.  We purposely didn’t select New Zealand’s strategy, because they’re frequently touted as world leaders and visionaries, not only in general tourism, but in responsible and sustainable tourism as well.  We weren’t too interested in attempting to critique so-called perfection.  New Zealand demonstrates that it certainly is possible for a government to initiate a vision of responsible tourism for its nation, and that this kind of strategy is a fundamental asset to the achieving holistic sustainable development.

Accommodation Practices

As mentioned earlier, hotels possibly have the most negative impact on the sustainability of destinations, and they really needn’t.  Hotels can be guilty of any number of offenses, including foreign ownership and thus economic leakage through imports, exclusion of the local population, exploitation of the local population through poor working conditions, strain on the environment due to water consumption, disregard for building codes with structural and environmental ramifications, and segregation of tourists and locals.  Bad nuts, eh?  Many tourists (and this is perhaps where we see the greatest distinction between ‘travellers’ and tourists’) are completely or partially unaware of these issues, and unfortunately, quite a few don’t particularly care and choose to be blissfully ignorant.

Green view from a green hostel

However, if you’re a keen traveler with an interest in sleeping ethically, there are accommodations throughout the world that focus on low or zero emissions, and keep a close eye on their carbon footprint.  Right here in Toronto, Planet Traveler is a new, green-focused hostel, acknowledging that budget-conscious travelers aren’t just conscious of saving money.  In über-green San Francisco, the Orchard Garden Hotel is a truly green boutique hotel that matches the city’s commitment to sustainable tourism options.  Chinese hotel group URBN is developing carbon neutral hotels all over the country, the first in Shanghai and the next in Pudong.  A word to the wise, though – some hotel groups that are focused on zero emissions and low carbon footprints may not have local ownership (or opportunities for locals to profit and benefit from the industry), so be wary of the terminology used.

You can also impact how sustainable your accommodation experience is by following guidelines about water-saving efforts such as re-using your towels, saving water while brushing your teeth, and showering efficiently.  Also remembering to turn off your lights, TV, and air conditioning when not using the room can help reduce your impact.

Attraction Policies and Procedures

Okay, so you’ve found your sustainable hotel, and you want to go exploring.  How do you know that your attractions are following the right policies and procedures when it comes to sustainability?  As previously discussed, if a destination is to achieve holistic sustainability, its attractions, as well as its other tourism components, need to be green.  For instance, snorkeling or scuba diving outfitters should ensure they’re operating responsibly with regards to number of tour participants, rules and regulations for participants under water, etc.  Hiking trails should ideally have guide pamphlets available and information on where and how to dispose of trash.

Places like Norfolk, UK have the right attitude towards greening their tourism and local attractions.  Their website has a comprehensive guide to sustainable attractions, ones that are committed to environmental awareness, those that are car-free, and even point to a Green Tourism Business Scheme, which encourages tourism businesses to focus on sustainable initiatives to carry Norfolk into the future.  Their diverse group of attractions is testament to the success of this program, and this is the type of thing that contributes to the overall sustainability of a destination.

Use local guides and outfitters for things like kayaking

Vancouver, one of Canada’s greenest cities, has a great program called Ocean Wise, which involves the aquarium and city restaurants that aims to educate and empower consumers with regards to sustainable seafood consumption.  Inevitably tourists encounter the Ocean Wise program on menus, and are aided in making ethical and sustainable choices from menus.  Vancouver’s province, British Columbia, is also home to the BC Sustainable Tourism Collective, comprised of influential tourism groups who are committed to guest education, among its other green initiatives.

In Shanghai, along with its URBN hotel, is the proposal for the Shanghai Tower, to be the tallest and greenest building in China.  While this kind of attraction could prove to be alluring to tourists, it’s crucial to remember that destination sustainability does not just come from pieces of the destination, but the destination as a whole.  China has a less-than-stellar human rights record, thus damaging the socio-cultural element of its sustainability.  This example further illustrates how multi-faceted true destination sustainability really is.


Transportation can be really difficult in-destination, especially if the necessary infrastructure doesn’t exist (it usually doesn’t).  Obviously the easiest way to compensate for your transportation to the destination would be to off-set your air travel (less expensive than you think), or to consider carbon-neutral methods of transportation, like the Eurostar.

Once you’re in the destination, the challenge begins.  In developing nations, traveling by car can appear to be ridiculously bad for the environment, since almost all of their aging car models spew out the worst-looking emissions that simply wouldn’t pass in developed nations with emission testing programs.  Same thing could be said with boats and trains, to a certain extent.  However, some developing nations, like India, that traditionally rely on bicycles and other man-powered forms of transportation are beginning to excel at eco-friendly transportation developments in other areas of their infrastructure.  With green buses on the roads as well as bicycle taxis, India is ahead of some developing nations in terms of greening their transportation.

Sustainable transportation can be found in destinations all over the world

However, using transportation in a sustainable manner does not always have to focus on the environment, although it usually does, it can also include using local companies for hired drivers, boat tours, canoe/kayak rentals, or similar.  So long as you ensure your safety is not compromised, having these options at hand can help make a destination more sustainable.

Making Ethical Travel Decisions (based on the above)

The paradigm of a wholly sustainable destination is the presence of all of these elements, however a good balance of the elements still indicates a destination and development entities that are focused on holistic and long-term sustainability.  It is unlikely that the paradigm often exists, but many destinations are focused on making changes and progressing towards sustainable development, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

If sustainable travel is truly important to you and your fellow travellers, take the time to research your destination before you start planning.  There are a number of comprehensive websites dedicated to eco-friendly and sustainable tourism, as well as advice on making ethical travel decisions.  Having just released a comprehensive overview of the World’s Best Ethical Destinations for 2011, Ethical Traveler is a fantastic place to continue the dialogue of ethical travel.

Buy local to help improve economic and socio-cultural sustainability

Another way to improve the sustainability of the tourism industry is to make every effort to ‘buy local’ while away.  From the obvious don’t-eat-at-McDonald’s (but really, why would you?) to visiting farmers markets for a fruit snack or seeking out local tour operators for your kayak trip, there are ways you can ensure the currency you spend stays in-destination.  Think about it – there’s a chance that the less demand tourists place on foreign imports, the less goods will be imported.

The most sustainable travellers tend to be the most proactive and knowledgeable travelers.  There’s no shortage of information or ways to make your traveling more sustainable or ethical, and it is absolutely all of our responsibilities, as global citizens and wanderers, to ensure that we understand how to evaluate the sustainability of our destinations, and what we can do to travel responsibly and ethically with the information and resources we have.


More topics to come in the ethical travel series, such as local resident socio-cultural impacts, dark tourism, how to stay green on the road, commodification of culture and memory, and loads more.  Thanks for reading this longer-than-usual post, and please feel free to leave comments and start a discussion below.  If you feel as though I’ve missed something, don’t forget that it may come up in another ethical travel post, so please try to be patient, as this is a huge topic to cover and I can’t do it all at once.  Thanks!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. frizzieliz says:

    Another eco-conscious hotel option in San Francisco is The Good Hotel. My aunt and uncle stayed there a couple of years ago and loved it. Though the rooms were a bit snug. They let me check out their room, and the most interesting green feature I saw was a water-conserving toilet-top sink. The water you use in the sink above the toilet gets reused when you flush the toilet.

  2. That’s such a cool feature! I’ve never heard of that before. I love that San Fran is so progressive with sustainable tourism options. Some cities can be quite challenging, since infrastructure is already in place and no one wants to change it, but I’m not surprised we can count on San Fran to be progressive and adaptable and awesome.

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