Sustainable Development and Ecotourism

Seventeen brightly colored squares describe each of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Sustainable cities and communities, goal number eleven, is a tidy row of white office buildings on a cheery orange background. It makes one of the world’s most pressing issues appear simple. We can solve that, a reader might think, while reading the vague targets and indicators listed for that goal. For example, one of the targets is to “support least developed countries, including through financial and technical assistance, in building sustainable and resilient buildings utilizing local materials”. The indicator, or way to measure the progress towards the target, is the amount of financial support going towards the construction of sustainable buildings using local materials. Although the “progress and info” page fails to mention how much money is going towards construction projects using local materials, it does spark hope in stating 156 countries have developed national urban policies as of March 2021.

Schematic from UN SDGs.

The layout of the SDG website is easy to read and understand with its attractive colors and professional photographs, but there is a downside. The SDGs created at the United Nations conference in 2012 have a major problem of not being specific enough. The generality of the SDGs provide room for many modes of interpretation and implementation by governments and nonprofit organizations alike. The use of ecotourism as a sustainable development tool is one of the implications of a lack of specificity, and it can be tied to many of the SDGs, including those related to poverty (SDG #1), climate change (SDG #13), land and water resources (SDGs 14 & 15), social justice and sustainable development (SDGs 16 & 17), and sustainable cities and communities (SDG #11). 

Evidence supports the idea that ecotourism should not be touted as a successful development tool. However, it might be beneficial to communities if the state and environmental NGOs allow local communities to be the leading voices and activists in these kinds of projects. Governments and other entities should be regulated when carrying out development projects to ensure the protection of Indigenous and local communities and their land use rights. This will limit the ability of political bodies to mold the SDGs to fit political agendas. The examples discussed here demonstrate how a simplified view of sustainable development, like ecotourism, can pose real danger to marginalized people worldwide. Creating more concrete SDGs is therefore a crucial step for the UN, and is one that they are already working towards.

The UN held an Expert Group meeting in the year following the conference on sustainable tourism to discuss ecotourism, poverty reduction, and environmental protection. The goals of the meeting were to threefold; to take stock of the current state of ecotourism, to propose recommendations for how to go about ecotourism, identify critical issues with unsustainable tourism, and identify potential new projects and partnerships. Presentations were made by a number of tourism experts and can be found online. The main findings were summarized in a two-page document found on the online Sustainable Development Goals Knowledge Platform. Interestingly, suggestions were made to increase local public participation in sustainable tourism development and to improve the indicators to measure sustainable development. It states, “development and investment projects must take into consideration the local viewpoints, employ locals as much as possible, and be profitable to the local producers and suppliers in order to actually create jobs at the local level. It was advocated that Public (State) – Private – Population (Local community) – Partnerships can provide a useful basis for tourism development projects.”

In regards to new indicators, the document highlights the need for “a systematic collection of data… for monitoring relevant indicators and for measuring impacts and progress with regard to sustainable development, including job creation, income generation, poverty reduction and the general well-being of the population”. The authors praise the efforts of the EU and UNWTO to create better indicators. UNTWO conducted pilot studies to measure the sustainability of tourism in eleven countries (Austria, Canada, Fiji, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, and Thailand) as of August 2020. The results have been published and provide different indicators for each country. For example, one key indicator in Saudi Arabia is the inbound and domestic tourist consumption of fuel, electricity, and water, while in Austria an indicator is the share of renewable source of energy in gastronomy (cooking).

Flags at the Palace of Nations in Switzerland by Mat Reding on Unsplash.

The seventeen SDGs laid out by the UN have a larger impact on development projects than one might expect. Human beliefs and attitudes towards economic development, conservation, and other cultures have an impact on peoples’ lives. My questions for you are, how should culture and livelihood be protected in a future where ecotourism drives development? How would it feel if there were no natural areas, or no tourist resorts? Why is ecotourism suggested as a development tool despite the vague directions of the SDGs? Finally, what might happen to natural areas if human resource use is allowed to continue without regulation?

This post is fourth in a series of four about ecotourism. View the main page to read previous posts and follow the blog if you would like to learn about similar topics!

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