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Promises and Progress: Sustainable Tourism Development and Rio+20

Hermione Nevill's picture

‘Despite the presence of scores of heads of state, Rio+20, as the summit is known, was expected to produce the weakest imaginable commitment to greening the global economy’ - The Economist June 2012

Not the most optimistic of starts to the third global summit on sustainable development…

Why the doom and gloom? As followers of the sustainable development agenda will know, skepticism and fatigue have plagued these international negotiation processes for many years. Whilst progress has been demonstrated on many fronts since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the meetings themselves can be reduced to endless semantic debate on terminology and tit-for-tat fidgeting - producing weak final documents.

Rio+20 was no exception.Has tourism turned sustainable? (Flickr Creative Commons, StormeTX)

The final Outcome document emerging from the last world summit (the 2002 World Summit of Sustainable Development) outlined five, rather weak commitments specifically for the tourism sector. Ten years on – has there been any progress?

Results are mixed, and interesting. At the national level, there has been remarkably little progress. A country benchmarking exercise I published in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’ samples 15 signatory nations to evaluate how far they have delivered on the commitments and reveals three key trends.

Developing Countries make the most progress
Firstly, in terms of improving capital investment, entrepreneurship, job creation, quality of life, and domestic expenditure on tourism – developing countries have the edge (notably; Mongolia, Ghana and Tanzania). Lower initial baselines are to some extent responsible for this progress but it is nonetheless commendable.

South Africa, whilst not included in the study sample should also be applauded for its pioneering path to integrate sustainable or ‘responsible’ tourism into the very core of the sector. It was the first country in the world to include Responsible Tourism as government policy in 1996 and is releasing a new, comprehensive National Strategy for Responsible Tourism with action plans to guide implementation and mechanisms to measure progress.

Many countries were better off 10 years ago
Secondly, the benchmarking study reveals most of the sample recorded degradation of natural and cultural resources, increasingly negative attitudes of their residents towards tourism, minimal improvements in approaches environmental sustainability, and declines in the quality and quantity of local suppliers.

Most alarming is the data that shows growing resentment among local populations towards tourism (WEF 2011), in direct correlation to the increasing ratio of tourists to locals (World Bank 2011). In other words, host country citizens are less engaged and seeing fewer of the benefits of the tourism industry than they were a few years ago.

Graph published in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’ 2012, data sourced WEF, UN and World Bank

Economic gain at the expense of sustainability
Thirdly, almost all countries record growth in tourism’s contribution to GDP, and growth in the number of arrivals. However, this has not translated into job creation which has declined in half the countries of this sample. Hardest hit were the more developed economies of Belgium, Estonia, Finland, Iceland and Spain, where employment cuts have been well reported in the last few years due to the economic crisis. Undoubtedly, the global financial crisis affected the industry very badly, but as there are signs of economic recovery in most destinations, it is not unreasonable to expect that jobs, and social and environmental indicators should follow suit. They don’t.

As signatories to the summit’s international commitments, governments are ultimately responsible – but what of the role of business, and consumers for that matter? 

The private sector
This year, media commentators reported a buzz around the rigorous reporting on sustainable development initiatives carried out by global firms. There was a dramatically increased presence of corporations at Rio+20 compared to the Earth Summit and most were taking a strong position for sustainable development. A coalition of institutional investors, led by Aviva, a big British insurer (with US$2 trillion in asset management), even lobbied governments to pressure companies into providing regular reports on their environmental and social performance.

At the International Centre for Responsible Tourism’s 6th Annual Conference on June 21st, delegates heard from the big guns in the European tourist industry including Tui Travel, Virgin Holidays, Thomas Cook and Kuoni, all of whom are working to put sustainability at the heart of what they do. TUI, the world’s largest leisure travel company with 30 million customers and operations in over 180 countries, has integrated sustainability into the core of its business – for the mass market – and not just for eco-fanatics.

Launched in 2007, a set of performance standards for suppliers known as ‘TravelLife’ was agreed in a multi-stakeholder process and rolled out through TUI’s vast supply chain. Notably, social issues are weighted with as much importance as environmental ones. So far over 10% of suppliers have been audited, and on June 21st Product and Purchasing Director Gary Wilson pledged that by 2014, 100% of their suppliers would attain TravelLife status.

Tourists remain price-conscious for now. A recent TripAdvisor poll in the US found that 71 percent of respondents say they plan to make more eco-friendly choices in the next 12 months compared to 65 percent that did so in the past 12 months. In the UK, the Association of British Tour Operators (ABTA) finds that the social and environmental impact of tourism is an increasingly prominent concern in the minds of consumers. Whilst 17% of respondents agreed that they would pay more for a greener company and travel experience, 37% disagreed. They do feel, however, that responsibility lies more with the travel companies to ensure that their holidays help the local people and economy. 

Until this behavior changes, responsibility remains with businesses and the governments that regulate them. As the World Bank Group we already play a role in supporting investment in new hotels and tourism infrastructure, and work with governments to improve the investment and business climate for responsible operators to grow – but more needs to be done, especially in countries where tourism is - or is set to be - a key driver of growth.

What role should governments play in setting the agenda, and what can we, and other international players do to support them and the private sector?

The benchmarking study and further information can be found in ‘Taking Responsibility for Tourism’

Audio presentations and debate can be sourced at the Rio+20 Responsible Tourism in Destinations (RTD) Legacy site

More resources available at


Submitted by Nidal on
In light of your findings, the big question becomes, where can we expect to see the push? Governments are obviously not interested in taking responsibility, consumers (even the 17% willing to pay a little extra) will cap their green dollars at some point, companies now leading the charge will eventually take a step back once they've optimized their "triple" bottom line, and the local populations - even if they're able to protect their home environment - are becoming too disenchanted with visitors to willingly share it and make it part of their product offering. Fortunately, there are a number of rogue governments/companies/consumers/locals willing to push the agenda regardless of whether it makes sense. I'm just not sure they're strong enough to challenge the systems in place safeguarding the status quo. The solution, for tourism and beyond, I believe must be intrinsically systemic...and lie in that fine space between radical and acceptable.

Submitted by Ron Mader on
The reason many of us are critical of this event was the lack of transparency. What role should governments play in setting the agenda? They need to make sure that these events are more inclusive and transparent. To claim progress at Rio+20 or the RTD is simply an act of successwashing. More about the failure of RTD6 online More about tourism and poverty alleviation at the World Bank online

Submitted by Marco Bosio on
Waiting for a behavioural change by customers does not seem the most effective strategy in order to achieve sustainability in the tourism sector, especially given the current economic situation. From the preliminary findings of the research I'm undertaking on the role of Tour Operators in sustainable tourism, many stakeholders are ready to take their responsibilities, but only if shared. Focusing my research on the Kingdom of Morocco, there is an urgent need at the governmental level for the creation of an High Authority for Tourism. This, should serve as a gathering structure for tourism stakeholders to develop widely agreed strategies. The tourism industry would then be more prone to follow guidelines not coming from a top-down pattern. Finally, international organisations were identified by interviewees as the stakeholder in charge of two main tasks. First bringing together governments and industry; then improving and spreading the knowledge about sustainable tourism in the industry, too often disregarded because of ignorance or misconception. Unfortunately the way to trigger this whole process, is still to be defined.

Submitted by Hermione on
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree that behavioural change on the part of consumers is wishful thinking at this stage - but I feel its important to include them (tourists) as a key stakeholder in all of this. It is interesting to me that governments and international organisations rarely take this into account when strategising or planning for development - it was not included/mentioned at all for example in any of the international commitments for sustainable tourism at WSSD. Your work in Morocco sounds exciting - and I fully agree that an avenue international organistations could work on is the dissemination of information - in new and innovative ways. Perhaps this exercise could work (from other channels) in challenging and educating consumers as well...

Submitted by Millie on
Hermione, thx for writing up such a great piece! The most striking part of the review for me was your second point and reflection about the rising resentment of the local population... in my view, this is a crucial aspect whether you view it from the perspective of a private sector (any initiative doomed w/out endorsement of the local population), tourists (any meaningful experience of a destination undermined by a resentful local population), or government (any policy implementation that doesnt go in line w/what local population perceives it needs/wants). In Montenegro we try to address this problem through uncovering ways to empower local population to develop the type of tourism they feel is most suited for their destination ( We are about 1-2 weeks from completing the first prototype where the communities have spoken- there will be 6 tours that communities developed themselves and used Foursquare to tell those stories. It's an experiment in itself, but it is underpinned by the understanding of the situation you discuss in this piece- rising resentment of local population about either unrealized potential for tourism growth or development of a type of tourism they dont see fits the place they live in. thanks again best @ElaMi

Submitted by Hermione on
Thanks Millie - I checked out your link and am keen to hear how it goes -please keep us updated!

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