Should tour operators take responsibility for addressing destination level sustainability?
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"Should tour operators take responsibility for addressing destination level sustainability?" For several years, there has been much deliberation concerning who ought to be accountable for ensuring that tourism destinations are developed in a way that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987, p.7). Due to the numerous stakeholders involved where destination level sustainability is concerned, it is particularly difficult to decide who, if any, holds more responsibility than another. This essay shall address the various stakeholders and attempt to give reasoning as to whether or not it is just to judge tour operators as being more liable than any other interested party in the tourism industry to encourage sustainability. Tourism has both positive and negative impacts on destinations and their inhabitants. Whilst benefiting from an increase in revenue, job creation, improvements in infrastructure and amplified awareness of local people and their environments, destinations simultaneously suffer from exhaustion of resources, lack of respect for local cultures, disturbance of indigenous communities, and perhaps most significantly, a rapidly increasing pollution rate as a result of development of areas to meet the needs of tourists. In order to minimise such negative effects, it is crucial that tour operators, tourists, local communities, local businesses, local governments, trade associations, NGO's, and charitable bodies work together and promote sustainable tourism. There are several principles of sustainable tourism including the sustainable use of resources, management of consumption and waste, diversity maintenance, the integration of tourism into planning, support for local economies, improving local communities, communication between stakeholders and the public, training staff efficiently, marketing tourism responsibly, and undertaking research (WWF UK, 1992). Although each of the aforementioned groups has an important role to play with regards to sustainability, it is necessary to analyse which should primarily be responsible and to what extent they can be.
This has resulted in them winning awards such as The Guardian's "Best Tour Operator" award for 2007, and being granted the highest possible Responsible Travel rating from AITO. While these types of tour operators are making a concerted effort to be responsible for sincere reasons, it may be suggested that several of the other tour operators who have made statements claiming to be responsible are simply using this as a marketing ploy to influence demand in an increasingly growing market for sustainable tourism package holidays. It is important for tour operators to make a good impression on their potential consumers and this is being done by promoting the idea of responsible tourism through statements on their websites and laying down guidelines on their websites as to how tourists may behave correctly in order to assist the struggle towards sustainable tourism. Companies for whom profitability and wellbeing of their shareholders is key would be very eager to build up their customer base in order to increase profitability, perhaps charging higher prices for tourists to benefit from theoretically more unique eco-tourism holidays. The actions of such tour operators may appear to be ethical and moral, in the best interests of destinations with which they liaise, but in reality could be somewhat self-fulfilling. It has been suggested that "if market advantage is not the force which drives companies forwards towards responsibility, then [...] is it negative PR" that encourages companies to act, or appear to act, more responsibly (Miller 2001, p.595). Certain tour operators have endeavoured to remove this preconception by sticking up for themselves and claiming that efforts to be responsible are due to them holding themselves responsible because they know they have the capacity to be, rather than putting on a front in an attempt to woo consumers.
Although sustainable development requires vast financial and physical input which renders some smaller tour operators unable to help to a large degree due to lack of investment opportunities, larger tour operators have great potential to invest time, money and expertise in destination sustainability. This may sacrifice a small percentage of sustainability in the short run, but if tour operators are to remain fully operational in the future, it is vital that destinations are sustained and do not become exhausted. The long term benefits of future holidays to such destinations would somewhat compensate for a short-term loss of profits. As stated by Miller and Twining-Ward 2005, with better information about the social-ecological systems being managed and with improved monitoring, tour operators can commit to conceptualising, planning and managing so that sustainability may thrive. I do not feel, however, that destination level sustainability can be achieved without an integrated stakeholder approach and whilst I think that tour operators could assume the largest degree of responsibility on an individual level, I support the argument that "any successful quest for sustainability will be collective" (National Academies Press 1999, p.3) and that "it is important to work with a cross-section of stakeholders encompassing the diversity of views and interests present in the destination - including the local authorities, the private sector, civil society and NGOs" (TOI un-dated). This can be illustrated by the "Travel Operators for Tigers" initiative in which tour operators are working with local suppliers, government and communities to sustain tiger populations in India. This is a prime example of how tourists and tour operators can help to give something back to the destinations they are visiting and that destination level sustainability can be achieved if all interested parties share responsibility for, and work cohesively towards, this aim.
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