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  • Writer's picturesarahhabsburg

What is Responsible Tourism and how can I apply its principles to my business?

As a masters graduate in Responsible Tourism Management, I am asked this all the time. There is confusion about the difference between sustainable and responsible tourism. Understandably so, they are nebulous terms.

Many small tourism business owners I speak to have the vague notion that they could and should be doing more to be “responsible” or “sustainable”, but they don’t know where to start. It is easy to put off taking action when something is not clear.

So, Responsible Tourism versus Sustainable Tourism. What is the difference?

Responsible Tourism is about taking responsibility for achieving sustainable development through tourism.

What do we mean by Sustainable Development?

It is the idea that we live and meet our needs in a way that conserves the finite resources of our planet, so that future generations can also live and meet their needs. It is about organising our society so that it can exist in the long term.

Does Sustainable Tourism actually exist?

As a concept yes but defining sustainability in an operational way that translates into anything other than an immensely long list is really, really hard.

Individual businesses in a specific place need to address the issues that they face.

This is where the idea of Responsible Tourism takes over as it allows for the creation of relevant issues and targets to be identified. For example, water conservation is critical for survival in some places, whereas in others that receive high rainfall every year, their immediate concerns are different.

Ultimately, Responsible Tourism is about creating better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit.

IN THAT ORDER. A better place to live in first, before considering how to cater for tourism.

A clear focus on the destination itself is key to understanding the concept. For example, involving local people in decision making, creating destination-based jobs and business opportunities, encouraging the protection of natural resources, are all crucial to actively demonstrating responsible tourism principles.

It is about playing a part in identifying the most pressing economic, social and environmental issues where you are.

It is about not stopping after writing the to-do list.

It is about defining who can do what to tackle each item.

It is about never losing focus of the desire to create a better place to live in.

In short, it is about displaying basic human kindness, applying common sense and logic to what is important, and making change where change is needed.

By default, a happy place becomes a tangible asset. Genuine smiles are hard to fake. When locals are happy with the way they are treated at work, when they can provide for and see a great future for their children, when they feel heard, understood and involved in the things that matter where they live, everything else falls quietly in line. Respect and responsible behaviour on the part of visitors will automatically ensue.

So, onto the second question I am often asked.

What can I do? I am just a small business; my actions cannot alone generate change.

There is always something you can do when the intent is there.

Making and taking responsible choices is at the core of generating and promoting change that will have an impact on our visitors, our businesses, and our communities.

Start right now. Grab a coffee and find a quiet place to think.

Take a moment to detect the unintended consequences of your actions, the “leakages” in our daily lives.

I believe we all know when we have taken an action that actually goes against what we would prefer to do, or what we know we should do. We get an uneasy feeling in the pit of our stomachs.

We have all grabbed those grapes packed in plastic even though we know we shouldn’t or been unsure in which bin to recycle something, so we just throw it into the mixed waste. And it simply doesn’t feel good.

Awareness of examples such as these from our daily lives spills over into the decisions we make for our businesses.

Be just that little more conscious, be unafraid to speak up about the actions you are taking, about what others are doing, about what you believe to be right or wrong. Acknowledge that feeling in your stomach when you know you could do better. By making small changes to the way we consume, act and run our businesses, we can become agents for change.

Don’t give up even though we know we cannot generate major change alone. Every little helps and it will mount pressure on governments to create legislation that hold people and companies responsible for their unsustainable actions.

The Responsible Tourism conversations in November 2020 at WTM London were an eye-opening affair this year.

Panels discussed major issues about tourism and biodiversity, inclusion, aviation decarbonisation, certification, and customer choices.

There was an unequivocable agreement that, right now, there is a re-set button to press. No one asked for it to happen overnight, but it did. Despite the fear, frustration, and vulnerability we feel as we move into the ninth month of this global pandemic, we all know that we will not go back to living exactly as we did before.

More people than ever are talking about how Covid-19 has brought home the reality of other existing threats to humanity such as climate change and biodiversity loss.

The Extinction Rebellion movement and Greta Thunberg, among others, are creating a generation of young people who will ask more questions than we ever did. Their expectations will be higher. Their lifestyle choices will be more responsible as they are painfully aware that they are going to have to deal with whatever comes next.

The one word that came up again and again in the Responsible Tourism WTM conversations was collaboration. Working together for a better good. Consciously creating a comeback that makes sense.

Still asking yourself how you can do your bit?

Start talking to people in your community. Ask what needs to be done. What is missing. What is causing concern. Talk just to your neighbour to begin with. Know your own strengths and work out how you can get involved. Work on solutions with other people who face the same issue.

Build community by sharing the good stuff. Look what other people are offering and recommend those who do great things to your clients. You won’t have to ask for recommendations for your business. They will just come.

From now on, every day, focus on one simple goal in everything that you do.

A new goal of better, and not more.

Want to know more?

Click here to download the free Responsible Tourism Practice Inspiration Resource.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this blog! Scroll right down to the bottom and leave a comment.

Still have questions?

Send me a mail here at and I will get back to you. Meanwhile, please do come join the Building Tourism Resilience community over on Facebook here. See you over there!

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