John Swarbrooke is widely recognised as having written the textbook on Sustainable Tourism Management. Published in 1998, it was widely used in colleges and universities, informing the thinking of lecturers and students. Others followed, generally multi-authored. John provided a coherent and integrated approach, recognising that a multistakeholder approach was required, led by the public sector. Local government has the responsibility to represent the interests of the whole population, not the particular interests of those engaged in the business of tourism.
Back in 1998, John recognised that sustainable tourism might be an impossible dream and argued that polarising tourism into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, often based on little more than prejudice, was unhelpful. John brought to his academic work experience in a local authority DMO and as a local councillor. He understood that tourism management is inherently political, that the powerful in any particular place will shape the policy to their advantage and that communities are rarely homogenous, rarely do we all want the same thing or even mean the same thing by sustainable, a chameleon word.
Several years later, when I began to research and teach tourism and read John’s Chapter 4, “Towards a New Approach to Sustainable Tourism Management”, I recognised the depth of his understanding, evident in the research agenda he laid out, much of it uncompleted.
Therefore, it was no surprise that John has now written a trenchant 20,000-word critique, and the Responsible Tourism Partnership is delighted to have published it. It is freely available to anyone who wishes to understand why sustainable tourism has failed to deliver. There are exceptions, in alphabetical order, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh in India. It is no accident that three of these have adopted Responsible Tourism. In 1998 John suggested in his chapter on the future that tourism could be made more sustainable only if the idea of sustainable development was taken more seriously, it hasn’t been, and if there was “a further growth of interest in ethical issues, and socially responsible management generally. (p:359) In Amsterdam, Barcelona, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, commitment to take responsibility, to take action, has bourne fruit.
In “Why Sustainable Tourism Failed“, John identifies three main flaws in sustainable tourism:
1. Placing too much faith in national governments and supra-governmental organisations
“In reality, and not at all surprisingly, politicians whose decisions tend to be based on short-term thinking and focused on the date of the next election have been reluctant to implement unpopular actions aimed at achieving long-term goals that might cost them votes in the short-term.
The other problem with relying … on supra-governmental bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union to implement sustainability is that such organisations work on the principle of the ‘lowest common denominator’. In other words, any policy declaration normally needs to be supported by every member government which means that often documents have to be ‘watered down’ and huge compromises made to get every government on board. That often leads to documents which are vague and lacking in concrete actions or definite timescales which is the opposite of what is required given the climate crisis as well as some of the other urgent challenges we face in the tourism sector.”
2. Seeing sustainable tourism as a technocratic challenge rather than a political issue
“… the failure to recognise that it is an inherently political issue as it is about the distribution of resources and costs and benefits, in which some gain and others lose is most disappointing.”
3. Seeing Sustainable tourism as a destination rather than a journey
“This idea of sustainable tourism as a destination rather than a journey … seems naïve given that the world is constantly changing… The highly influential Brundtland report, ‘Our Common Future’  … “made little or no mention of either climate change or tourism. At that time the threat of climate change was not really recognised or understood while the tourism industry was not thought important enough to be discussed in relation to sustainable development.”