What is Sustainable Tourism?

There are many terms that float around that may sound similar but actually refer to something distinct.

Definition of Sustainable Tourism

Sustainable Tourism refers to sustainable practices in and by the tourism industry. It is an aspiration to acknowledge all impacts of tourism, both positive and negative. It aims to minimize the negative impacts and maximize the positive ones.

Negative impacts to a destination include economic leakage, damage to the natural environment and overcrowding to name a few.

Positive impacts to a destination include job creation, cultural heritage preservation and interpretation, wildlife preservation landscape restoration, and more.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

Additionally, they say that sustainable tourism “refers to the environmental, economic, and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability” (UNEP & UNWTO, 2005: 11-12. Making Tourism More Sustainable – A Guide for Policy Makers).

Definition of Ecotourism

Ecotourism is a niche segment of tourism in natural areas. The term emerged in the late 1980s.

Fennell described it as such: “Ecotourism is a sustainable form of natural resource-based tourism that focuses primarily on experiencing and learning about nature, and which is ethically managed to be low-impact, non-consumptive, and locally-oriented. It typically occurs in natural areas, and should contribute to the conservation or preservation of such areas” (Fennell, 1999: 43. Ecotourism: An Introduction).

The Mohonk Agreement (2000), a proposal for international certification of Sustainable Tourism and Ecotourism, saw ecotourism as “sustainable tourism with a natural area focus, which benefits the environment and communities visited, and fosters environmental and cultural understanding, appreciation, and awareness.”

The ecotourism definition by the  Global Ecotourism Network (GEN): “Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved (visitors, staff and the visited).”

Definitions of Responsible Travel

Responsible Travel refers to the behavior of individual travelers aspiring to make choices according to sustainable tourism practices. The behaviors usually align with minimizing the negative impacts and maximizing positive ones when one visits a tourism destination.

Travelers that want to learn more about how to be a responsible traveler can visit the section on the GSTC website For Travelers.

Summary of the difference between Sustainable Tourism, Ecotourism, and Responsible Travel

Ecotourism is a niche segment of tourism in natural areas.

Sustainable Tourism does not refer to a specific type of tourism, rather it is an aspiration for the impacts of all forms of tourism to be sustainable for generations to come.

Responsible Travel is a term referring to the behavior and style of individual travelers. The behaviors align with making a positive impact to the destination rather than negative ones.

Sustainable Tourism and the GSTC Criteria

The GSTC Criteria serve as the global standards for sustainability in travel and tourism. The Criteria are used for education and awareness-raising. They’re used for policy-making, measurement and evaluation reasons and as a basis for certification.

They are the result of a worldwide effort to develop a common language about sustainability in tourism. They are categorized in four pillars: (A) Sustainable management; (B) Socioeconomic impacts; (C) Cultural impacts; (D) Environmental impacts.

These standards were built on decades of prior work from industry experts around the globe. During the process of development, they were widely consulted in both developed and developing countries. They reflect our goal in attaining a global consensus on sustainable tourism.

The process of developing the Criteria was designed to adhere to the standards-setting code of the ISEAL Alliance. The ISEAL Alliance is the international body providing guidance for the management of sustainability standards in all sectors. That code is informed by relevant ISO standards.

Finally, the GSTC Criteria are the starting goals that businesses, governments, and destinations should achieve. Tourism destinations each have their own culture, environment, customs, and laws. Therefore, the Criteria are designed to be adapted to local conditions and supplemented by additional criteria for the specific location and activity.

There are two sets of Criteria

  1. GSTC Industry Criteria = relates to the sustainable management of private sector travel industry, focusing currently on Hotels and Tour Operators.
  2. GSTC Destination Criteria = relates to sustainable management of Tourism Destinations.

Learn more about Sustainable Tourism

Reading one article is not enough. The GSTC website offers those interested in learning more about sustainable tourism the needed resources. Make sure you visit the relevant pages for you:

You can also join one of the regular GSTC courses:

GSTC Sustainable Tourism Training Schedule

✓ Gain in-depth knowledge of the GSTC Criteria, the global standard for sustainability in travel and tourism.
✓ Make informed decisions on how to implement sustainability practices for your company or destination.
✓ Get ready for developing viable and actionable sustainable tourism policies and practices for your organization.

DatesCourse IDLocation / Format Trainer(s)Live Session TimeLanguagePriceRegister
September 21 - October 21, 2022ST-2209-ESOnlineJorge Moller, Leonardo Latorre Melín12:00 CLST (UTC-3) / 17:00 CEST (UTC+2)SpanishStarting at USD 395button sign up button learn more
September 15 – October 14, 2022ST-2209-ENOnlineNia Klatte, Ayako Ezaki19:00 CEST (UTC+2)EnglishStarting at USD 395button sign up button learn more
November 11 – December 9, 2022ST-2211-ENOnlineAntje Martins, Ayako Ezaki11:00 CET (UTC+1)EnglishStarting at USD 395button sign up button learn more
December 11-12, 2022ST-2212-ENOnsiteNicola Koschel, Ayako EzakiSeville, SpainEnglishStarting at USD 345button learn more
December 11-12, 2022ST-2212-ESOnsiteJorge Moller, Ignacio de las CuevasSevilla, EspañaSpanishStarting at USD 345button learn more
I enjoyed being able to learn about up to date and practical examples of sustainable tourism from operators and destinations around the globe.
E'Lisha V. Fogle, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
The GSTC programme, led by highly qualified and experienced facilitators and world class presenters, provides a thorough analysis and an integrated approach to sustainable tourism development. The brilliantly structured course, the live online sessions, discussion fora and extensive reference material gave us all access to much valuable information. In addition, the networking opportunities and rich sharing among the global participants, ourselves mostly ST experts, made for a most enriching and inspiring experience. It is wonderful to be part of a world-wide community of sustainable tourism practitioners, imparting such wisdom and committed to making a positive impact for all. Thank You GSTC for an outstanding programme!
Yvonne Armour, Responsible Tourism Development Specialist / Educator
This course has given me an approach to the GSTC Criteria, where the basic and complete structure to move forward on sustainable paths is visualized. The reflections generated through real examples, discussions and available material are key to better internalize what sustainability means. Ideas applicable to our business and our work area appear during the course that contribute positively to one’s reality. I will recommend this course, for its contribution to the objective, honest and constructive understanding of what sustainability is.
Agustin Landeta, Owner, Zenit Travel
This course has been very relevant and provides in-depth knowledge of GSTC criteria for sustainable practices for destinations as well as the travel industry [with] plenty of real life examples and share links to plenty of reading material throughout the course. … As we move forward during these difficult COVID times, learning our lessons on the damage to nature, it becomes all the more important for industry professionals to get trained and step up efforts to embrace sustainability in all aspects of tourism. Hence, I recommend this course to all industry professionals.
Manisha Soti, The Walshe Group
The overall learning experience was great! The internet platform, videos and resources are are very well explanatory and the weekly live sessions perfectly illustrate all criteria.
Benoit Sauvage, CEO, Connect DMC
This course provided me with a thorough understanding of how to implement sustainable travel practices. I will definitely integrate information from this training into my work with travel organizations and destinations to help them achieve short-term progress through a long-term strategy.
Sophia Hyder Hock, Founder and CEO, Papilia
It was a great experience to complete my holistic knowledge of sustainable tourism and to get in contact with people and sustainable projects around the word which share the same values and goals.
Birgit Krüger, Consultant for sustainable tourism & marketing, TOURIMAR, Germany
GSTC seminar helps to open the eyes and to develop a new regard on longevity of tourism and the entire sustainable content. I would advise to every professional body working in tourism to participate to this kind of seminar as soon as possible.
Dagmar Ehlen, Senior Product Manager, Cruise Services SAM
My course facilitator and teacher (Ayako and Antje) went above and beyond to answer our questions and provide us with additional resources. The course content (the GSTC Criteria) was delivered in an understandable and organized way. Learning the GSTC Criteria and how it applies to our own projects, businesses, and destinations is integral to anyone wanting to do any kind of work in the future centered around travel. I appreciated that the course was delivered in an interactive way over Zoom, and not just something we watched on YouTube. For me, being able to interact with fellow students from around the world, was a big plus. Was well worth it, and I highly recommend the course!
Deb Lace-Kelly, The Lost Compass
The GSTC sustainable tourism course has helped me to consolidate the basis of sustainability opening my mind by teaching me different ways to approach tourism industry and destination from a sustainable point of view. It’s very rich to share ideas with people from all over the world. An excellent organization, I highly recommend it to anyone with curiosity about how to improve in the sustainable tourism industry.
Gemma Llobet, Sustainable Tourism Programme, Barcelona Tourism Board
This course is fantastic! So well organized, well balanced, and informative! Highly recommended for those that understand sustainable tourism to those just starting their journey. Excellent reviews, speakers, and instructors, very engaging!
Kelly Bricker, University of Utah, Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism
This is exceptional to work with a group from all around the world and to share experiences from so many different tourism destinations. While learning more about each GSTC pillar & criteria I was encouraged to immediately apply the evaluation criteria to my own business and to challenge myself into a lot more sustainable actions.
Pascal Gavotto , Tourism Specialist and owner of Fatumaru Lodge - Vanuatu
I highly recommend the course to anyone interested to explore or deepen sustainability in tourism. It gives a great overview on all dimensions and how to tackle them hands-on. Course management and content are both at the highest level! Thanks!
Samuel Wille, Manager Strategic Partnership, Switzerland Tourism Organization
The course was very helpful to gain a deeper insight into sustainability in tourism and also to learn what challenges and realities other tourism professionals around the globe have to deal with.
Stefan Aerni, Quality & Sustainability manager, Dolder Hotel AG
Food for your brain! If sustainable tourism didn't mean anything to you before, just subscribe to start your own journey towards sustainability whether you're a traveler, or a stakeholder of the Tourism Industry!
Sonja Gottlebe, Consultante en Tourisme Responsable, Madagascar
The GSTC training proved to be extremely helpful for me and my small-scale travel agency that I founded only 18 months ago. We definitely still have a long way to go on the road to sustainability but the GSTC training has been a very important step towards it. The training offers very detailed and concrete insights as well as general strategies to work towards a sustainable organisation.”
Treesje Vanderlinden, Keniaanse Toeren
The GSTC course was very professional and a great experience. I appreciated the communications via emails on what was next, what to expect. There is a lot of data on this topic and GSTC made if very easy to comprehend and the training is the best I have seen this far. I would highly recommend this course and educational training. I look forward to working very closely with GSTC in the future.
Debbie Meihls, President & CEO New Smyrna Beach Area Visitors Bureau
I would recommend GSTC training to anyone working in tourism development (communities, states, provinces) as well as the broad spectrum of industries (accommodations, transportation, attractions, etc.) engaged in the tourism "business." Understanding what it means to build a sustainable tourism environment that is inclusive of all stakeholders is fundamental to the future of destinations and tourism itself.
Randal G. Baker, Ph.D., Director of Hospitality and Tourism program, St Cloud State University, U.S.A.
As an adventure travel tour operator, we are focused on doing as much good as possible to every place and community we visit and sustainability is rightly gaining momentum, both with industry professionals and with our customers. Therefore having the knowledge from this course means you can stay ahead of the curve and ensure your efforts are being focused in the right areas. This course has allowed me to gain insights from right across the tourism spectrum, which I otherwise wouldn't have had access to (not easily anyway!), as well as opening my eyes to just how much difference we can make.
Nikki, Exodus Travels