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Sustainable tourism: An idea whose time has come

UniSA Media Release

The past few years have seen a major schism emerge in attitudes to tourism.

On one hand, the new wealth of a burgeoning global middle class and shrinking cost of high-quality tourist experiences have allowed an unprecedented number of people to travel, often resulting in enlightening and inspiring experiences.

On the other hand, many parts of the world have groaned under the weight of wanderlust, with popular destinations swamped by masses lured through cheap flights, package deals and clever marketing.

The fall out, from the beaches of Thailand to the slopes of Everest, has been cries of “over-tourism”, and in areas like Barcelona and Venice, the deluge of visitors has led to outright anti-tourist activism.

Dr Freya Higgins-Desbiolles from the University of South Australia has studied this tension for more than 10 years, and her most recent research, published in Journal of Sustainable Tourism, suggests, if we want to preserve the positives of travel, we must urgently rethink our approach to it – as a planet.

“I grew up in the Bible Belt of North Carolina, and I knew at a young age I had to get out of there,” Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says. “My mother took me to Russia when I was about 14, and while I still don’t understand why she did, if it wasn’t for that experience, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

“So, we need to ensure these sorts of experiences are available to future generations because they are so important – and that means we have to heed the current warning signs about tourism.”

For Dr Higgins-Desbiolles, the growing animosity towards tourism in many parts of the world is not a sign we shouldn’t be travelling, but rather a sign we should be actively changing the way we travel.

“We need to ensure those impacted by tourism are also those benefited, not just in a short-term financial sense, but in an ongoing social and cultural dimension as well,” she says. “Then they, in turn, will have good, enduring reasons to welcome visitors into their communities.”

Likening the required shift in thinking to the emergence of the environmental movement last century – “the greenies have been talking like this for years, and the rest of us are just catching up” – Dr Higgins-Desbiolles suggests the tourism industry needs to buck its addiction to endless growth, recognising the finite limits of the planet and learning to work within them.

“We’re not suggesting everything has to grind to a halt,” she says, “but, just as other areas of industry have had to recognise the importance of sustainability, both socially and environmentally, tourism must stop sacrificing a long-term future for short term gains.”

Dr Higgins-Desbiolles’s study highlights mechanisms to drive this change, the key being a shift from corporate, often international operators, to local, socially-embedded custodians of tourist destinations, with strong evidence that such a transformation dramatically improves outcomes for people and planet.

“Obviously, we need to preserve the livelihoods tourism provides, but if that is focused on the local community, then they intrinsically limit things to what is sustainable, both for the population and the environment,” she says.

Pointing to the success of initiatives such as that in Guna Yala, an Indigenous province of Panama with a Statute on Tourism protecting the local customs and ecosystem, and the Tourism Optimisation Management Model developed by the community of Kangaroo Island to ensure mass tourism developments did not diminish their quality of life, Dr Higgins-Desbiolles says there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about more sustainable models of tourism.

“This will be a big challenge for the tourism industry in coming years, but it is a challenge the industry needs to face, and I believe it is one it can rise up to,” she says.

“I think there is a change going on around the world, when you look at things like New Zealand’s ‘Wellbeing Budget’ and the Buen Vivir (‘living well’) movement in South America, through which measures of prosperity are based on more than gross domestic product.

“If tourism can embrace that change, it will not only ensure the future of the industry, it will improve the experience for everyone involved.”

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  1. New England Cocky

    Perhaps somebody could flick this article to Tourism NSW where most of the display advertising on their website is for tourist attractions in the Sydney metropolitan area.

    We people living in regional urban centres of NSW realise that Sydney-siders falsely believe that if you cross the Hawkesbury, Nepean or Tom Ugly’s Bridges then you will fall off the edge of the flat world and be eaten by the dragons lurking there.

    Then there is the worry of “rushed travelling” where the 45 minutes it took to travel 15 km in metropolitan Sydney is replaced with 75km of country highway driving at 100kph.

    Or the “Interstate Flyer” who attempts to drive Sydney to Brisbane (about 1,000 km) in less than 12 hours non-stop except for one re-fuelling point … and wonders why they wake up in the A&E department of a regional Forward Aid Post masquerading as a hospital.

    Or, the NSW government that considers keeping the Great Northern Railway (GNR) in a derelict condition and unused for either passengers or freight or drought water supply is a good strategy to cross-subsidise the metropolitan suburban network by inhibiting the free movement of travellers to country towns now also without a road coach service.

    Tourism definitely has a place in urban regional economies, as the Tamworth Country Music Festival demonstrates. But successive NSW governments have done everything to prevent travellers and foreign visitors participating in these types of regional tourist events.

  2. Miriam English

    It’s not that politicians aren’t good at forward-thinking… it’s that they’re not good at thinking.

  3. Matters Not

    Actually, politicians are rather good at forward thinking (and it consumes their waking hours). Then the results speak for themselves. Fact is, the vast majority of politicians get re-elected. QED.

    Or is there something else of importance? And if there is – how is that rewarded?

  4. wam

    Sounds great!!! Can’t find the app for it but. Maybe bullies from america own it?/??

  5. guest

    Pastoral properties in Oz are having to turn to tourism in order to survive. The amount of diesel fuel burnt by both the travelers and the homesteads and roadhouses is considerable.

    Country towns also depend on the travellers. What happens if that traveling declines?

    And what is the plan to avoid the burning of fossil fuels?

  6. Miriam English

    guest, electric cars are proliferating overseas. In Australia they are growing in number, though only slowly, I think. Victoria is Australia’s most important electric vehicle market with the most electric vehicle purchases in Australia between 2011 and 2017 with a total of 1,324 car sales.

    “Sales of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles doubled in the first six months of 2019, compared to the first six months of 2018, even as total new car sales fell 8.4 per cent.”

    When this retrogressive government takes its foot off the brake, so to speak, then sales here may reach the rates experienced overseas.

    Personally, I would love to be chauffeur driven by the AI in a quiet electric car. I hate driving.

  7. Michael Taylor

    Miriam, you can tell that electric cars are proliferating overseas by the number of charging stations (is that what they are called?) that are highly visible.

    Carol and I pulled into a car-park in a little village in Scotland (population 1700) and there they were in the car-park. We were impressed.

  8. Miriam English

    Excellent point, Michael.

    Australian charging stations for Tesla car owners:

    Tesla electric car owners release round Australia charging station map

    UK is well blanketed:

    USA is doing well (2017):

    Even poor old Romania has more charging stations per square km than Australia!!

    Romania Electric car sales grew 165% from 2017 to 2018 – state of EV adoption in Romania

    Google Maps shows electric car charging stations all around the world (though not very well). Move the view to wherever your interest lies, and zoom in to reveal progressively more charging stations. There’s more around my area than I thought. (When you zoom in or out by scrolling the mouse wheel, or move the map by dragging the map with the mouse, refresh the search by clicking the little magnifying glass icon that pops up.)


    Open Charge Map is a collaborative initiative. Unfortunately it doesn’t work on my old web browser and I couldn’t be bothered firing up my other computer just to look at it. But here it is for anybody interested.

  9. John

    “Sustainable” tourism is of course an oxymoron. World wide tourism is of course a major growth industry, especially in the case of cruise ships, each one of which is in itself a floating environmental disaster zone.
    The almost exponential and seemingly unlimited growth of the industry is an in-your-face example of the impossibility of the unlimited growth of the now world dominant consumerist mentality on a finite planet.

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