Sustainable vs Responsible Tourism – that is the question?

(Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)

As we approach the end of 2019, and look forward to the seasonal festivities, there is no better time to reflect, and consider our social impact. In particular, how our actions are benefiting, or could do more to benefit, the community and the environment on which we depend. In the tourism sector, this is usually referred to as sustainable or responsible tourism. Both terms are becoming more popular and more relevant, but is this just greenwashing, or actually part of a revived ‘green revolution’?

A week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) annual conference on the island of Terceira in The Azores. The event, hosted by GSTC and The Azorean Government, attracted over 250 people from 42 countries to this remote Atlantic island, to discuss sustainable destination tourism. Fittingly, the occasion was marked by The Azores receiving a destination’s sustainability award. Of course, any destination that fulfils recognised sustainability criteria should be applauded, but is it right to assume that this includes both sustainable AND responsible outputs? Recognising that it is possible to be sustainable, without necessarily being responsible. This is a fact that is often overlooked by an industry that is trying to do the right thing.

Sustainability refers to the ability to maintain an activity at a certain rate or level (i.e. the availability of flights to The Azores), whilst responsibility refers to taking a conscious decision and accepting the consequences of one’s actions (i.e. a heightened carbon footprint). Noting that this was a particular concern of the delegates of the GSTC conference, many of whom had to take a minimum of two flights to travel to Terceira. This sort of dilemma applies to animal-based activities too: for example, whilst it may be considered sustainable to keep dolphins in captivity – recognising that wild dolphins and whales continue to be caught from the wild to sustain the captive population – it is questionable whether is it a responsible act, noting that studies indicate that the welfare of these animals may be compromised.

In my opinion, there should never be a question of one or the other (sustainability vs responsibility), but instead a consideration and a combination of both values. Whereby the assessment of status and performance, decisions taken, or terms used, include both sustainability and responsibility criteria. In order to maximise our benefits and minimise our negative impacts (on a destination), we must therefore a) ensure our activities can be sustained but, b) that these cannot be at the detriment of the resource upon which it relies, and c) that it does not directly, or indirectly cause irreversible damage. The business case is also attractive: minimised negative impacts = more customers = increased customer satisfaction and loyalty = increased customer expenditure and profit (University of Surrey). Establishing both these values into the operations and activities in the travel destination, business, or conference, is therefore the obvious way to go.

There is a great deal of advice and guidance available to facilitate this sustainable and responsible approach. Whether your destination or business is embarking on its first tentative steps of a brand-new journey or needing help to refine an already trodden path, there are a number of resources to guide you on your way. For general advice, there are the GSTC Criteria that ‘serve as the global baseline standards for sustainability in travel and tourism’, with its Destination criteria (GSTC-D) (December 2019) including baseline measures on wildlife interactions and animal welfare in tourism. ANIMONDIAL is pleased to have inputted and advised on this content.

For general guidance on wildlife interactions and animal welfare, ABTA’s Animal Welfare Guidelines is recommended. Today, ABTA has launched the 2nd edition of the Guidelines and ANIMONDIAL is pleased to have contributed, ensuring that the latest evidence has been taken into account (abta.com/animalwelfare).

For bespoke impartial advice and guidance that is aligned with your unique business model and brand identity, ANIMONDIAL provides a variety of services. These include policy development and integration, a procurement health check, training and internal comms guidance. In addition to minimising any negative impact, ANIMONDIAL can also help to maximise the benefits through introductions to our carefully selected NGOs, projects and experiences. These provide travel businesses the opportunity to offer unique experiences that also make a positive difference to animals involved in tourism.

So, this Christmas, and into 2020, consider adopting BOTH sustainability and responsibility criteria and support, financially or in-kind, one of ANIMONDIAL’s trusted NGO partners.

Wishing you an enjoyable Christmas season and a successful 2020!


In 2020, ANIMONDIAL will be relaunching its Animal Protection Network providing a portfolio of carefully selected NGOs, animal-based projects and experiences. Contact us for more information.
Daniel Turner, Director ANIMONDIAL

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