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Sustainable Development, Sustainability and Sustainable Tourism

Since concepts such as sustainable development, sustainability, and sustainable tourism are used extensively throughout this book, it may be a good idea to clarify their meaning before we proceed further. Many scholars, when writing in a tourism context, make the mistake to refer to these three concepts as if they could be used interchangeably. They should not, because these concepts are not synonymous. Next, we will proceed to define and discuss these three concepts.

Sustainable development is a relatively new concept. Although some scholars argue that the concept of sustainable development appeared much earlier, perhaps during the 1970s or even the 1960s (Weaver and Lawton 1999; Hardy et al. 2002; Saarinen 2006), it gained popularity in 1980, when the International Union of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) presented its World Conservation Strategy; however, their view of sustainability was limited to ecological sustainability (IUCN 1980). The definition elaborated later by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) is brief but more comprehensive: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987: 43). If the reader is not clear on what the authors of the document mean by this rather laconic definition, the “critical objectives” of sustainable development are detailed a few pages down the road:

  • • Reviving growth;
  • • Changing the quality of the growth;
  • • Meeting essential needs for jobs, food, energy, water, and sanitation;
  • • Ensuring sustainable level of population;
  • • Conserving and enhancing the resource base;
  • • Reorienting technology and managing risk;
  • • Merging environment and economics in decision making. (WCED 1987: 46).

This definition remained very popular over the next four decades, and most international environmental and developmental agencies, as well as the leading world financial and trade organizations, conceptualize “sustainable development” along these lines.

This very simple definition has been adopted rapidly by all stakeholders because it is an ideologically loaded concept that could be interpreted in many different ways (Hopwood et al. 2005). As a matter of fact, Lele (1991) argues that its main value resides precisely in its vagueness. It allows everyone, even actors apparently on opposite, irreconcilable positions (such as environmentalists and TNCs), to claim that they are preoccupied with sustainability (Giddings et al. 2002; Redclift 2005). Consequently, it is used to legitimize a range of policies and practices that have nothing to do with “sustainability” (Hopwood et al. 2005) but may benefit from “rebranding” (Redclift 2005). Gosling et al. (2009) have referred to this type of situations in which parties adopt the sustainability label to gain some type of ethical standing as “greenwash.”

The initial confusion partly stemmed from the interpretation of the two component terms: “sustainable” and “development.” By “sustainable,” even to this day, many people actually understand “ecologically sustainable” or “environmentally sustainable” (and by “sustainable,” they mean “able to be maintained at the same level”), whereas by “development,” they understand “growth.” As such, for some, “sustainable development” is, in fact, a contradiction of terms, since growth happens at the expense of the environment (O’Riordan 1985; Daly 1989). On the other hand, actors on the economic side use the term “sustainable development” to mean “sustained growth,” or a rate of economic growth that could be maintained for a long time in the future (Idachabe 1987 cited in Lele 1991).

Here, we could also take issue with the understanding of the concepts of “growth” and “development.” Both terms refer to change, but while “growth” refers strictly to a quantitative change (“more”), “development” also implies a qualitative modification (“better”). For example, an increase in the gross domestic product (GDP), or even the GDP per capita, shows that the economy is producing more. It does not mean, however, that people live better. Their quality of life may have actually worsened, as all this wealth may have benefited only a few families, while the masses may, in fact, have become poorer (at least in relative terms). The level of inequality in a population is more properly measured using the Gini index. The Gini index measures the statistical distribution of income of a nation’s residents. However, while this index is the most commonly used measure of inequality, it may not adequately reflect how well residents of a population live. Other indicators may be necessary to measure socioeconomic change. For example, the Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite indicator that includes life expectancy, education, and income per capita. This index reflects access of a population to decent housing, clean water, education, jobs commensurate with education and skills, health care, etc.

These social conditions in a population, as measured by HDI and other similar indicators, clearly influence ecological sustainability. People have coexisted in harmony with nature for thousands of years. They naturally understand the value of ecological sustainability. They also understand that some of their actions may damage the environment, but sometimes, they do it anyway, as they have no other options. Therefore, in case of unsustainability of the people-nature interaction, we need to find the social roots of the problem. For example, much of the deforestation happening in Amazonia is due to the extreme inequality in land distribution, with a few rich families owning more than 60 % of the cultivable land in the country, while most peasants are landless (Murray 2006). Rather than initiating land reforms, the government has encouraged the poor to conquer and take into agriculture the “virgin lands” of Amazonia and Mato Grosso, which shows that sustainability or unsustainability is also a political issue (Schneider 1995). Ecological sustainability cannot be attained without also considering the social problems of the population.

That ecological sustainability cannot be divorced from meeting peoples’ social and cultural needs was recognized by Jacobs et al. (1987) in their report on the 1986 conference on Conservation and Development, sponsored by IUCN—United Nations Environment Program—World Wildlife Fund. They emphasized the need to satisfy basic human needs, achieve equity and social justice, and provide social self-determination and cultural diversity, among the main requirements to achieve social development.

Another issue is that environment, economy, and society are often conceptualized as separate layers, although it should be obvious that they are interconnected (Giddings et al. 2002). This leads to the assumption that problems with sustainability can be solved using better technology (in line with the weak sustainability approach). Also, by ignoring the linkages connecting the different parts, actors could claim that they are focusing on one side of sustainable development (for instance, prioritizing the economy). However, in reality, the economy is dependent on the environment and society (Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Giddings et al. (2002) argued that a better representation of the three components of sustainable development would be to imagine three concentric circles. The economy is nested within society, and society is nested within the environment. Moreover, neither one of the three components is a unified whole, but rather “a multitude of environments, societies and economies. At different spatial scales, different environments, economies or societies are apparent” (Giddings et al. 2002: 192). Thus, the outcome of the interaction of the three components will vary from place to place (“spatial variation”). Furthermore, the three components are not static; they are dynamic, so the understanding of sustainability may also change in time (“historical variation”).

Many global financial and trade organizations have adopted this “mainstream” interpretation of sustainable development, with an emphasis on its economic growth component. They insist that reviving and maintaining economic growth would solve both social and environmental problems. They base their assumption on the trickle-down theory. However, the reality is that economic inequality is increasing rather than decreasing (Murray 2006). Also, the assumption that solving social problems automatically leads to environmental sustainability is faulty. Scale is very important because often environmental degradation in the South is not caused by the economic underdevelopment of the South (and it is also not caused solely by the economic development of the South), but rather by economic growth in the North, which is sustained with resources exploited in the South. Also, waste resulting from production in the North is often dumped in the South. Even though much of the environmental degradation is visible in developing countries, it is populations in the developed countries that are generally overconsuming (Gilijum 2004; Rees 1992).

Therefore, we need to clarify what it is that we need to sustain and for whom (Lele 1991). For example, one purpose of sustainable development is to sustain the standard of living or to meet the needs of the people. However, needs may be perceived differently from place to place. Also, needs change in time, so it is very unlikely that future generations will have the same needs as us (Redclift 2005). Moreover, as they develop, we expect the needs of societies in the South to increase, perhaps faster than the needs of societies in the North which are already developed. Are these projected changes factored in? Moreover, people in the North consume several times more resources than people in the South. Are countries in the South allowed to increase their production and consumption to catch up with the developed countries? If so, how would this affect environmental sustainability? Daly (1989: 17) believes that “present levels of per capita resource consumption underlying the economies of the US and Western Europe (which is what is generally understood by development) cannot be generalized to all currently living people, much less to future generations, without destroying the ecological sources and sinks on which economic activity depends.” If not, then the concept is promoting inequality and this goes against the ideas of equity and social justice which are embedded in the concept of sustainable development.

Considering all these arguments, as more and more companies in the North are adopting the rhetoric of sustainable development to force “good practice” in environmental governance, we are left wondering what their actual reasons may be. Are they promoting “greening” because of a change of heart, because they consider this a great marketing tool, or because they simply want to eliminate south-based companies from the market (as these may lack the finances to retechnologize and become “greener”) (Redclift 2005)?

Societies themselves are not homogeneous. Who is going to decide what is sustainable and what is not? This, in some situations, may be the most important question. This question has also been raised in the tourism context by Mowforth and Munt (2009), among others. As Adams (1990: 202) put it, “Green development is not about the way the environment is managed but about who has the power to decide how it is managed.” In this context, the issue of sustainability is not just economic, environmental, and cultural, but also political. Mowforth and Munt (2009: 49) also argue that the concept of “sustainability” is ethnocentric because it is based on the ideology of the West.

Another issue is local participation and the need for equity and social justice. We need to consider five principles related to equity when implementing sustainable development (Haughton 1999):

  • 1. Futurity = intergenerational equity = “without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  • 2. Social justice = intra-generational equity = everyone should share the benefits of development, as well as the costs.
  • 3. Geographical equity = transfrontier responsibility = development in one part of the globe should not happen at the expense of environmental degradation elsewhere.
  • 4. Procedural equity = people should be treated openly and fairly.
  • 5. Interspecies equity = importance of biodiversity.

Finally, another question that is up for debate is whether we should favor quantitative or qualitative development. Transnational corporations and other actors of the capitalist neoliberalism-guided economy take growth as a sinequanon condition for sustainable development. Capitalism cannot exist without growth. Daly (1993), on the other hand, argued that qualitative improvement is more important than growth, especially since the ecosystem is finite, so that growth cannot be sustained forever.

Although “sustainable development” and “sustainability” sound similar, they are not. There is a slight and subtle difference between the two. “Sustainability” refers to the goal to be achieved, the end state in which complete balance is achieved among the economic, environmental, and social factors. “Sustainable development” is the way (or strategy) to achieve sustainability.

There are two approaches to sustainability: weak and strong sustainability. Supporters of the weak sustainability approach argue that technology will be able to overcome resource exhaustion and environmental degradation. Supporters of the strong sustainability approach disagree and argue that many processes that make this planet habitable cannot be replaced by human-made capital. However, this debate is mainly around the environmental side of sustainability.

The main conclusion that should be derived from this long discussion is that there is no standard understanding of sustainable development. Instead, we can talk about a wide spectrum of attitudes and levels of commitment toward sustainable development (Hunter 1997). Also, because sustainable development is a socially and politically constructed concept reflecting the interests of those involved, there is no single way to achieve sustainability, and each location may adopt a different strategy, depending on its particular circumstances (Bramwell 2004).

There is also no clear definition of sustainable tourism, which leads to confusion (Swarbrooke 1999). The idea of sustainable tourism has initially been derived from the concept of sustainable development, as defined by the Brundtland Report of 1987. Starting from there, Page and Dowling (2002: 16) define sustainable tourism as the tourism form that meets “the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing environmental, social, and economic values for the future.”

According to Butler (1993: 29), sustainable tourism can be defined as “tourism which is developed and maintained in an area in such a manner and at such a scale that it remains viable over an indefinite period and does not degrade or alter the environment (human and physical) in which it exists to such a degree that it prohibits the successful development and well-being of other activities and processes.”

Swarbrooke (1999:13) defined sustainable tourism as, “tourism which is economically viable but does not destroy the resources on which the future of tourism will depend, notably the physical environment and the social fabric of the host community.”

Buckley (2012), Butler (1999), and Liu (2003), among several others, have published extensive reviews of tourism sustainability literature. The main conclusion, as inferred from these reviews, is that there is no consensus in the understanding of sustainability. Interpreting sustainability is influenced by many considerations, including ideological (Manning 1999; Gossling et al. 2009; Noveli and Benson 2005). Therefore, to assess the sustainability of tourism, we need to set the temporal, spatial, political, and intersectoral parameters against which sustainability will be measured (Weaver and Lawton 1999).

Assessing tourism sustainability is not an easy task. Most often, the concept of tourism sustainability is based on the narrow ecological dimension (Gezici 2006); hence, concentration of tourism activities along coastal areas is viewed as unsustainable, due to the environmental damages these are causing. However, sustainability should also be viewed from economic and sociocultural angles (Saarinen 2006; Elkington 1998; Hardy et al. 2002; Garrod and Fyall 1998). A number of studies have attempted to provide a unified methodology to assess tourism sustainability (see, e.g., Cernat and Gourdon 2012), but these are not enough and more studies are needed.

The main criteria used for the analysis of tourism sustainability, according to Mowforth and Munt (2009: 101), should be:

  • • Environmental sustainability;
  • • Economic sustainability;
  • • Social sustainability;
  • • Cultural sustainability;
  • • Aid to conservation;
  • • Participation of locals; and
  • • Educational role providing a greater understanding of how our natural and human environment works.

Scale is also an important factor when analyzing sustainability (Gossling et al. 2009). In a small area, tourism may appear to have a very strong damaging impact on the environment and the community; yet, if we expand the study area, tourism development may appear totally sustainable. Often, although local authorities can see the damage caused to destination areas by mass tourism, they cannot do anything about it because decisions are made at superior levels, where the damage is not visible. A study in Urgup, in the region of Cappadocia, Turkey, found that the factors that have led to unsustainable tourism development in the area were beyond local control; therefore, achieving sustainability at the local level in a developing country is only possible after the right policies have been implemented at the national level, in collaboration with global actors (Tosun 1998). Similarly, Yasarata et al. (2010) report on the difficulties in achieving sustainable tourism development due to political obstacles.

However, because sustainable development is an ideologically loaded concept, there is no single way to achieve sustainability, and each location may adopt a different strategy, depending on its particular circumstances (Bramwell 2004).

Three traditions related to the sustainability of tourism are still important at the local level (Saarinen 2006):

  • 1. The resource-based tradition advocates for the protection of the local natural and cultural capital threatened by tourism development.
  • 2. The activity-based tradition argues for the right of the tourism industry to develop.
  • 3. The community-based tradition refers to the need for the local community to participate in decision making and to share the benefits obtained from tourism development.

In conclusion, the main problems associated with mass tourism development are environmental, social, and cultural degradation, unequal distribution of financial benefits, and the promotion of paternalistic attitudes. The need to solve these problems, as well as the paradigm shift to post-Fordism, and other factors associated with globalization have contributed to the development of alternative tourism. However, mass tourism still dominates the tourism sector and will continue to be the dominant form for the foreseeable future, because governments and communities still prefer them for their more significant economic impact, so alternative tourism will only remain a partial solution (Weaver 2006).

Change will not happen easily in the future. Firstly, as explained earlier, most decisions regarding tourism development are taken at the central level, and political clientelism means that local authorities will generally accept them uncritically (Yuksel and Yuksel 2007). For governments, it is more important to generate economic growth and to create jobs; sustainable development is not exactly a primary concern (Lane 2009). Secondly, many local residents, especially those who own land, are less interested in sustainability than we would like to believe and more interested in maximizing their economic benefits (Ioannides 1995; cited in Bramwell 2004).

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