100 Years of Advancing Destinations

Concepts & Challenges

Taking a long term view to developing tourism for the benefit of their community is the daily work of Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs). While a few DMOs have specific sustainability plans, many DMOs have included elements of the Triple Bottom Line in their corporate missions and goals, even if they haven’t specifically identified the approach as “sustainable tourism”.  Indeed, in recent years the concept of the triple bottom line is one of the factors that have led to more DMOs describing the value of tourism to their communities in terms of its contribution to quality of life rather than purely economic terms.

While it is easy to identify the principles behind sustainability and sustainable tourism, it is more challenging to operationalize it. What do you need to do to be a "sustainable destination”? While there are some clear foundational starting points - the best answer really is “it depends". While each destination has unique considerations and there really isn’t a “one size fits all” way of approaching sustainability, starting with the triple bottom line – planet, people and profits - helpful.

Planet: Environmental Sustainability

Environmental programs for most businesses, whether in the tourism industry or not, typically include:

  • Energy Related programs. These programs look to conserving energy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels. 
  • Water conservation: These programs look to reducing water waste. 
  • Waste management. These programs focus on the familiar refrain reduce, reuse and recycle.

To concern for energy conservation, water management and waste recycling many tourist destinations add stewardship of natural attractions to their environmental sustainability responsibilities. Maintaining the quality of natural attractions, from the majestic mountains to white sandy beaches, makes sense for DMOs and tourism related companies that rely of the quality of these experiences for their businesses – today and in the future.

People: Social and Cultural Sustainability

The “people” component of the triple bottom lines tend to be harder to define but can be generally considered in terms of the benefits to participants in the tourism industry and support and preservation of culture and heritage.

Tourism that celebrates the unique cultures and arts of destinations embraces the concept of sustainable tourism. By maintaining cultural diversity in our destinations – from the celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans to exploring the Alamo - we are able retain the very reasons why people visit. Heritage tourism programs often support destinations desire to preserve and share their unique cultural identity.

Social issues, particularly as they relate to our industry, may also be considered sustainability issues. Diversity, workers’ rights, even affordability of housing for workers, can all be considered elements of sustainability. Negative social impacts of tourism – such as tourism related crime – can be considered in terms of their impact on the sustainability of tourism.

Profits: Economic Sustainability

Sustainability is about ensuring we can attract visitors both today and in the future. In many destinations maximizing economic benefits requires consideration of environmental and social issues. It may also include making deliberate decisions about what types of visitors the destination will target.

DMOs considering economic sustainability will also look to ways to ensure that their community maximizes it benefits from the visitors that come to their destination. It is also about ensuring we retain as many benefits from tourism spending in our own communities and reduce economic “leakage”. DMO programs promoting locally made souvenirs are a great example of programs that support economic sustainability.

Challenges in Balancing the Triple Bottom Line

Sustainability and managing the triple bottom line is not without challenges. One challenge for DMOs in implementing sustainable tourism programs is recognizing how they can impact the process most effectively. In many cases sustainability related programs – such as recycling or energy conservation – reach far beyond the tourism industry. Determining how (or whether) to support these programs can be challenging for DMOs struggling with limited resources.

Another challenge is that there really is no “right” answer to the question question, “how do we balance our concerns for a people, planet and profits?” While there are broad guidelines on what to consider, the “right” balance depends on the needs and priorities of the community and its stakeholders. Sustainable tourism in destinations requires on-going engagement with these stakeholders.

A Rose by any Other Name

One challenge of using sustainable tourism is that it is a name with many aliases. It is worthwhile noting that terms like “geotourism” and “responsible tourism” share many common principles with “sustainable tourism’. Ecotourism, typically applied to smaller, more environmentally sensitive destinations, also incorporates many of the same principles as sustainable tourism.

While the term “sustainable tourism” may not be as common in the USA as it is in other countries, the elements of sustainable tourism are endemic throughout our industry. Our corporate partners in tourism, particularly the hotel companies, are more likely to talk about their environmental programs and corporate social responsibility (CSR) than “sustainable tourism”. Nevertheless, these companies are often at the leading edge of sustainable tourism initiatives in our destinations and communities. 

Digging Deeper

Sustainability is a complex topic but critical to the long term success of destination marketing organizations. DMAI, working with the Purdue Hospitality and Research Center is developing a series of resources for DMOs addressing sustainability in their communities.


By Dr. Jonathon Day, Purdue Tourism and Hospitality Research Center

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