Geoffrey Lipman discusses how we are becoming more environmentally responsible tourists

Someone famously said that “an elephant is a very hard thing to define, but if you see one coming down the street you know what it is”. It’s rather the same about sustainability, travel and tourism – we’ve stopped describing it and started to engage it.

Twenty years ago at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – when the modern approach to sustainable development was set out in Agenda 21 – the focus was on preserving the planet’s resources. For our sector, it was very much about ecotourism that often translated into: “take pictures, leave footprints”.

Back then, our industry was not seen as a major polluter so it was under limited pressure to embrace the new sustainability mindset. The big thing then was notices in hotel bathrooms telling guests to save the planet by not changing their towels every day.

Ten years later at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development the mood had shifted from planet to people and poverty. Against the background of the Millennium Development Goals, we moved on to a broader idea of responsible tourism with an emphasis on ensuring that local populations don’t suffer from  tourism’s influx and with a growing focus on creating economic benefits and jobs.

Now after Rio+20 we have seen another “sustainability” shift to green growth – a geopolitical paradigm to respond to the big social, economic, environment and climate challenges of today and the population-driven resource challenges on the horizon. This is not so much a defined set of initiatives, guidelines or even policies, but a multi-decade journey with periodic targets and checkpoints to create sustainable consumption, production and investment patterns for every activity on the planet.

Our industry has also begun to come of age as a mainstream socioeconomic sector, with recognition of its job-creating importance. At the same time, the climate and economic-driven rethink of the last decade has broadened our environmental engagement, highlighting carbon impacts – particularly from transport and old inefficient buildings. It has begun to place increasing attention on local jobs as well as lifestyle impacts. It’s also focusing on renewable energy, biodiversity conservation, resource efficiency and social inclusion.  Visitor impacts are starting to be measured along with visitor benefits.

Eventually, somewhere on this multi-decade transformation journey, sustainable “travelism” – transport, hospitality, travel services and local impacts – will meld with the evolving mainstream societal sustainability. By then, there won’t be notices in hotels saying there’s no need to change the towels in the bathrooms every day – our grandkids will have learned that in school.

Read the Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2013

Author: Geoffrey Lipman is President of the International Council of Tourism Partners and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on new Models of Tourism.

 Image: A cruise is seen as it passes an off-shore wind farm REUTERS/Phil Noble