Responsible Tourism is a very broad movement, resulting from developments in the late 1990s when the UK’s Association of Independent Tour Operators adopted a commitment to it and in South Africa the post-Apartheid tourism national tourism development strategy. Twenty years on from the first UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972 it was already only too apparent that talk of sustainability was still essentially just that, talk. Sustainable is an adjective; sustainability is a noun. Both are abstract aspirations incapable of definition.
At the 1st International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Destinations held in Cape Town as an official side event to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, 280 delegates from 20 countries met to discuss the emerging movement with antecedents in the nineteen-eighties and the work of Jost Krippendorf in his seminal text The Holiday Makers. The idea of Responsible Tourism took root, celebrated in the Responsible Tourism Awards started by Responsible Travel in 2004 and WTM mainstreamed Responsible Tourism from 2007 when it became part of their London trade show it has spread to their shows in Cape Town, Dubai and Sao Paulo.
It has become increasingly common to see the formulation “sustainable and responsible tourism.” On Google, as I write this, the conflation finds 73,400 hits. Responsible Tourism is not the same as sustainable tourism. Sustainability is the ambition; Responsible Tourism is about what we do as producers and consumers to realise the aspiration.
Responsible Tourism places the emphasis on what individuals and groups do to address those sustainability issues which arise in particular places, addressing local priorities, transparently reporting what is being done to address the local priorities. When individuals, businesses or governments assert that they are engaging in Responsible Tourism, ask them for the specifics.
- What are they taking responsibility for?
- How are they taking responsibility, what are they doing and how
much are they doing?
- What have they achieved?
The outcomes and impacts are the evidence we need to look for to judge whether responsibility is being effectively taken. Responsible Tourism recognises that tourism is what we, visitors and visited, make it. We are individually and collectively responsible for how tourism functions in a place, for its positive and negative impacts. If we take responsibility, we can change it.
The marketeers in travel and tourism generate new types and labels constantly as they seek desperately to differentiate their product, business or destination from the others—ecotourism, green, low impact (environmental), impactful (economic), authentic. Recently “regenerative tourism” has become popular, variously defined but broadly identifying forms of tourism where the traveller has a positive impact, leaving the place in a better condition than how they found it. In the words of the Cape Town Declaration making “better places for people to live in and for people to visit.” In that order.
At the TTG Luxury Travel Summit identified a new trend for “philantourism … not as big a commitment as voluntourism but it’s a concept of choosing a destination because it has had a rough ride.” It appears that Covid sparked interest in doing good through travel. “If you are a philanthropist at heart and you also love travel, you may be a fan of “philantourism.” It’s an approach to tourism centred around humanitarianism and getting involved with a cause, and is related to “voluntourism” and “regenerative tourism.” more Responsible Tourism urges businesses to go beyond philanthropy to change the way they do business, to generate “ greater economic benefits for local people and enhances the well-being of host communities” and to make “positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, to the maintenance of the world’s diversity.”
It does not much matter what it is called, it matters that businesses, destination managers and tourists take responsibility and use tourism to make better places. There is a demonstrable need and many opportunities for that. It is time to take responsibility. We can make tourism better.
For a more detailed discussion of why Responsible Tourism is not the same as sustainable tourism download a 15 page section from Goodwin H (2016) Responsible Tourism Goodfellow.