For long holiday tourism has been in the grip of economic thinking and sociological research. On this webpage a more balanced view is maintained on the focal centre of tourists' activities: tourists themselves and their encounter with their holiday destination. Tourists are the only ones who can sense emotions; neither ‘society’ nor the tourism "industry" can. Tourists take what is given to them and then turn it into their own ends; it is these ends what is of our primary interest and more than 25 articles on this site are about just that: the tourists' tourism.

The Background of Sustainable Tourist Experiences

All rights reserved. Complete or partial reproduction is prohibited without the permission of Marinus Gisolf and without mentioning the source.


  The debate on sustainable development started because the world’s future looks gloomier than ever: diminishing biodiversity, a thinning ozone layer, noticeable greenhouse effects, increasing poverty and discrimination against populations among others (see a.o.: q192 , q188 , q190 , q193 ). Eventually these symptoms reached levels that required solutions that are now being recognised as global (q179). The principles of sustainability were originally developed as a response to these problems. Additionnally my interest is directed at the role tourism plays in a sustainable development and also the extent to which this sustainability may strengthen tourism. In the first case it is about preventing tourism destroying itself by unsustainable practices. The latter case refers, among others, to a sustainable development creating an environment that is appropiate for tourism, void of visual contaminants and pollution, while safe and secure for tourists. A stable political context, sound economy and educated workforce are other parametres that refer to a sustainable development that can boost tourism.

In order to examine how deeply rooted destructive elements are in our Western societies and why there is a need to take a look at our environment with different eyes, I shall put things in a historical perspective and give a brief overview of the development of the relationship between people and their environment.


The Issues


From a legal point of view it is interesting to see how the role of our environment has changed over time. I am talking about things, which form part of the collective memory of a whole society or of a group of people sharing the same environment. From a juridical point of view the way people have considered their environment and nature has changed. Roman law distinguishes in this context two important concepts: a thing or good can have no owner, or there are things or goods that belong to everybody. These concepts are known in Latin as res nullius and res communis (see e.g. q216 , q84). The butterfly whirling around light heartedly has no owner. However at the moment she is captured, she is owned and she stops being res nullius and simply becomes a good. In the case of res communis I think of things that belong to all of us, such as the air we breathe or the sunlight we absorb. Those goods never have just one owner.

The more people there are on the planet, the more we can see a tendency for fewer things to belong to the category of res nullius and the goods that belong to all of us are of ever greater importance. It may be clear, that nature in the form of flora and fauna originally was considered to be res nullius (q84). The human being has always organized himself in relation to his environment. Social and economic structures were set up to secure a place in nature and it is this relationship between people and their environment that has seen drastic changes over time. From the development of the first Homo sapiens, humans competed with all other animals in nature for food. Nature did not have an owner, people formed part of nature and the concept of “private property” was not yet invented. When people started to develop agriculture, they became conscious of the fact that there were things in nature exclusively for them, and that other animals had to be excluded (q114). In terms of law, the fact of exclusion forms the basis for the concept of property (see e.g. q220).

The negative influences that gardening and animal breeding had on the environment were mitigated by the fact that people (some 10 to 20 thousand years ago) felt they were part of nature. The magic of growing plants and the close links with Mother Earth were the cornerstones of their vision of the environment. From the time when people stopped being nomads and founded villages – later to become towns – the link with nature started to change slowly. In part, this was a consequence of the conceptualization of God and the belief that the human being was His creation. The vision of the human being in the centre of the universe has led, among other things, to the development of the concept of private property. People claimed the right to possess something, from which everybody else was excluded. This act turned out to be of great importance for the development of the Western world.

Much later in history, a need to protect res nullius arose, which resulted in the legal figure of state or public property: goods whose exclusive use is restricted to citizenship.

As we shall see later, there are economic considerations in play as well: plants and animals in nature are res nullius and as such lack economic market value; but once they are captured, cut down or shot, they are converted into goods with economic value.

From the seventeenth century on, the concepts of private and public ownership developed to such extent that property became absolute and untouchable in character, breaking the link between nature and society and consequently the responsibility for the environment diminished, leading to the situation nowadays whereby property rights include the right to destroy one’s own property (q84). While a few centuries ago there existed agreement on how to handle the environment, this link has been lost and with it an enormous part of social solidarity in favour of untouchable property, even excluding any consideration on the conservation of nature, environment and society. Additionally, property as a right for future generations is only partially acknowledged. On the basis of higher legal security, life insurance and high inheritance taxes in Western societies, the trend is for those living now to have little concern for the future of the coming generations. They think that those newly won securities will cover them during their lifetimes. Diminishing religious interest (as a consequence of this attitude), living in the present, trying to be fashionable, the feeling that “you live only once” and the ever more dominating concept of “this is mine and nobody can touch it” start to dominate Western thinking. The notion of private property has reached such a state that neither children nor grandchildren are being involved. Property forms an inseparable part of the ego of a person. Not only do people’s considerations of their own future generations play hardly any role, solidarity with fellow citizens and with the environment has largely disappeared. Things without owners hardly exist anymore and even those goods under the heading of res communis are under pressure, not only because of pollution, but also because of the tendency to characterize everything in this world as property – either private or public. The conversion of drinking water into a commodity is one example.

From an economic point of view in modern market-related economies the concept of wealth is only related to what has market value. Goods or services for which value cannot be expressed in money (market exchange values) are not counted as ‘wealth’ (q97). This means, among other things, that nature is not comprehended in the concept of wealth, because it does not represent tangible market value. The destruction of nature, therefore, is not seen as a loss. To the contrary, this destruction forms an important part of increasing wealth, as seen from the point of view of market-directed economies.

This has not always been the case. Centuries ago, those economies functioning within capitalist relations were not only focused on the value of things, there was a content side to it as well. Any productive initiative demanded an investment to be able to start its economic life. With capital one can produce. However, this concept of content has been pushed into the background since the end of the Second World War, while the formal side of capitalism – values imposed by market relations – is dominating (q97). This has led to a growing trend of using capital just to earn more money without being productive. Stock exchange speculation is an example; it’s a ‘game’ in which one gets richer while another gets poorer. Real estate, insurance and world currency market dealings are other examples of people trying to earn money without being productive (i.e. creating material or spiritual wealth by its content). How much people earn seems to be the focal point, regardless of what or how much they produce – physically, mentally or culturally.

The increasing pressure on market economies to reproduce capital faster has led to shorter production cycles. This has been achieved in two ways: by shortening the useful life of a good or by combining a good with the concept of fashion. This means that after some time, products become old-fashioned, lose market value and are replaced, even if they are in excellent condition. In other words, to be able to continue producing at an ever higher pace pushed on by the need to produce gains faster, production has to be growing all the time. The consequences for nature are twofold: raw materials are being extracted from the Earth at an increasing pace while rubbish heaps are becoming mountains, because of the growing number of goods that are ‘returned’ to nature. Both effects lead to the destruction of nature, but neither is seen as causing a loss of wealth. They are rather considered necessary elements for creating wealth and development.

Market-related economies have realized that nature cannot be replaced and that its reproduction is relatively slow. This means that if capital wants to ensure its reproduction, protective measures have to be taken towards nature and natural resources. This has led to the curious situation whereby in many market-related economies, big investments are made to ‘repair’ destroyed nature, despite of the fact that this same nature is still considered to have no market value and its destruction is impossible to measure. From a technical market point of view they are investing in something that, according to the same market relations, does not exist. These types of market relations have come to the fore during the last 150 years or so and have been accomplices to the vast destruction of nature to date.

Humanity lives on unequal terms with nature. During the second half of the 20th century the number of species has diminished at the worst rate of the planet’s history (q217). However, nowhere on this planet this loss of biodiversity has been booked as an economic loss. It must be clear that the limits of sustainability have been exceeded and the speed with which nature reproduces itself is well behind the rhythm of the reproduction of capital. In other words, we take more from the Earth than she can spare for us. Our planet not only has limitations in terms of natural resources, but also as a recipient of waste and CO2 emissions, among others (see e.g. q186). The principals mercantile economies are based on do not contemplate the maintenance of the Earth. These economies are so concentrated on the production of profits that all else is subordinate to this and the planet does not receive any attention at all, much less its future.

This development has led to what we call the consumer society, whereby buying has become nearly as important as owning. More and more we are dealing with goods of which we should ask ourselves, do we really need them? It is all about a society where consumption has become a matter of survival, where solidarity within a society has largely disappeared and the human ego and property have become focal points to the extent that people are only concerned with life today and the future hardly plays any role at all.

Unfortunately, there are more factors active in making the total picture only gloomier. Agriculture suffers a lack of investments because of high risks and low returns in this productive sector, but there is another reason, too. Too much money within the mercantile societies is being used with only one aim: how to reproduce money as fast as possible, without minding improductive use or without thinking for one moment that the production of food needs investments as well. Additionally, under the pressure of diminishing natural fuel resources, oil in particular, bio-fuel production is gaining ground, but this means that fewer resources will be available for food production. Food will become scarce and expensive.

The concept of Sustainable Development

Measures to protect nature and the environment from destruction have become of interest to people at a rather late stage in history. The notion of nature and environmental protection, however, is an old one, but as a social movement we have to go back to the nineteenth century. During the 1860′s a number of national parks were established in the United States (Yellowstone among others) and countries such as Canada and Australia soon followed suit. On an international level the first act to be signed was for the foundation of the International Counsel for Nature Protection in 1913, which later became the World Conservation Union. In those times, the focal point was primarily the protection of nature, as well as the environment.

A new movement was observed by the late 1960s. The high post-second-world-war birth rate (‘baby-boom’) and changing population structures in the Third World (‘demographic transition’) that began in the 1950s spurred many environmental changes. The report produced by the Club of Rome in 1972 (q189) called Limits to Growth made clear that nature protection in itself was not enough. Apart from the introduction of many ecological issues, other crucial factors came into play: poverty and hunger. One of the basic concepts from these times was the idea that the achievement of a healthy society would depend on a radical reorganisation of social structures on a global level.

In 1987 a vision on development came to the fore laid down in what is now known as the Bruntland report: ‘Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (q195). The urge behind this vision can be traced back, among others, to precisely the report of the Club of Rome (q189). This report assumed that population and industrial production will keep on growing in a world with fixed available resources leading to a series of compromising effects, such as an ever increasing pollution, lack of non-renewable resources and soil erosion, while the resulting food shortages could mean a population collapse during the 21st century. At the time the case for there being limits to economic growth as a result of environmental constraints did not receive much support by a majority of mainstream economists.

In turn, the Bruntland report pointed to a development structure based on three fundamental pillars, that is to say economic sustainability, social sustainability and environmental sustainability (q194). Sustainability is all about a vision of development clearly directed at the future. This vision includes close cooperation with local populations, which in turn means a clear recognition that a community, local population or ethnically homogenous group need protection for the conservation of their environment and their culture. Moreover, this vision wants to ensure the type of development that will allow all participants to become better off in both material and socio-cultural ways. This may be related to monetary income and/or to improvements in infrastructure or access to (state) services. The vision of sustainable development is therefore based on three fundamental pillars, that is to say (q194):

• Economic sustainability, which means generating prosperity at different levels of society and addressing the cost effectiveness of all economic activity. In this respect a long-term vision is crucial.

• Social sustainability, which means respecting human rights and equal opportunities for all in society. Among others, an emphasis is put on local communities, maintaining and strengthening their life support systems, recognizing and respecting different cultures and avoiding any form of exploitation.

• Environmental sustainability, which means conserving and managing resources, especially those that are not renewable or are precious in terms of life support. It requires action to minimize pollution of air, land and water, and to conserve biological diversity and natural heritage.

It is important to appreciate that these three pillars are in many ways interdependent and can be both mutually reinforcing or in competition. Delivering sustainable development means striking a balance between them (q194).

However, some criticism has been heard. Within the light of economic sciences it is suggested that sustainable development concepts have emerged in an attempt to reconcile conflicting value positions with regard to the environment (q179). Unlike the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the environment is now a global issue that requires both an international response and a global analysis.

During the 1990s a series of proposals were to follow regarding the core issues that surround sustainable development. Tourism as means of poverty alleviation was one of such initiatives (see e.g. q183), while much attention was drawn to John Elkington’s 1998 publication introducing the notion of a triple bottom line: ecology-economy-social with emphasis on sustainable human development (q218). There is now a growing recognition that environmental conservation is ultimately socially constructed and culturally driven and recognition must be given to cultural values, particularly those of indigenous peoples, and broader principles of environmental justice (q179). In practice it means, that to ensure that nature areas are preserved, somewhat paradoxically people will have to be allowed to visit environmental sensitive surroundings so that policy makers can be persuaded to maintain their reserve status.

The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development shed some new light on the issues and in 2003, the Marrakech Process was begun as a ten year plan whereby several Task Forces would analyze the issues of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) in support of regional and national initiatives.

It was not until September 2015 that the United Nations launched a new initiative called simply the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) (q193) , while the even more recent COP21 agreement on climate change has made clear the urge for all parties to be involved. The Paris’ COP21 agreements on climate change (q193) clearly indicate, that the many reports on climate change, global warming or loss of biodiversity (see e.g. q192; q188; q190; q193), reflect what is actually occuring and that a sound sustainable development is paramount, though not the only action to be taken. Furthermore, supporters of the Paris COP21 agreement note that it has already catalyzed private sector investments, and they point to cities and other sub-national actors who have taken the lead up to Paris as a cue to build towards a low-carbon, high-resilience future.

Tourism and Sustainability

Tourism has hardly played any part during any of the three stages of ecological and sustainable developments. When tourism began to develop on a global level, it had little impact on nature protection. During the 1960s and 70s, tourism was not affected by the environmental debate and was still considered a positive phenomenon – the “green industry” and “industry without chimneys” were the metaphors heard the most [QUOTE]. Although initially tourism was hardly mentioned in either of the Club of Rome or Bruntland reports, during the 1990s it had become clear that tourism was a major economic force combining beneficial and harmful outcomes of its activity.

It was not until the end of the 1990s that tourism was lured into the debate on biodiversity. In 2001, rules were established for Biological Diversity and Sustainable Tourism (Convention on Biological Diversity in 2001). The United Nations declared 2002 as the Year of Ecotourism. It is important to note in this context that the concepts of sustainable development in tourism were already playing an important role at grassrootslevels. Many action groups, Non-Governmental Organizations (e.g. The International Eco-tourism Society – TIES – was founded in 1990) or environmental associations had an important stake in the development of sustainable tourism, while international discussion of sustainability had halted somewhat. Meanwhile one has to realize that the lack of the State’s effective capacity to guarantee the complete protection of eco-systems while addressing the need for productive alternatives has created an opportunity for community based sustainable tourism developed by local people in order to find a solution to the eternal conflict between conservation and development.

Tourism was, and still is, seen as a mechanism to both conserve the environment and provide for economic development and employment generation (q193). These recently adopted UN Sustainable Development Goals state in goals 8.9 and 12.8b “…..sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products.” (q193). However, tourism was only mentioned in 3 of its 17 main goals: in goal 8 on economic growth, goal 12 on ensuring sustainable consumption and goal 14 on the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans. Additionally, the notion that international tourism can be promoted as a means of alleviating poverty while simultaneously reducing tourism’s contribution to climate change has also been increasingly criticised (q185; q186; q190).

So far the role of tourists themselves has only scarcely been mentioned in the literature on sustainable tourism development and this role has been limited to portraying tourists as clients in an economy driven setting. Negative impacts concern the environment directly (diminishing biodiversity, deforestation, waste, etc.), water (quality and supply), the air or culture, affecting not only urban areas, but also rural communities (q184). It should be clear by now that the principles of sustainability can be handled much more effectively on a small scale local level, while global issues such as climate change need international attention at the highest levels. Working to conserve the Earth at the local level requires, among others, a strong educational element focused on making people aware of the harsh facts and giving them tools to create greater solidarity among communities, countries and continents. The role of sustainable development should be extended, since changes at local levels are an inherent part of achieving the solidarity needed.

Involving tourists directly in this development seems to be the only viable option. Tourism and therefore tourists themselves have changed from local to global actors. Canalizing their efforts and with it the convergence of the local with the global is paramount for achieving not only the Sustainable Development Goals, but also the COP21 targets to curb climate change.

On the basis of the previous considerations it must be clear that more is needed than just good intentions and development visions directed at future generations. The reasons why our planet has been affected to such enormous extent are deeply rooted, as explained in this article. The principles of sustainable development form an important initiative, but they are not the cure for the disease. Economic issues that have led to the systematic destruction of nature need much more serious solutions than a mere development vision. People’s attitudes – and most of them have been tourists – and their attitudes towards the concept of property must change drastically, particularly in the Northern hemisphere. However, as long as humans consider property as an absolute concept and as the basis of their individualism and continue to base their vision of life on it, it will be hard to realize any change at all. People’s vision of themselves must change dramatically and with it their relation to their neighbours and to their environment.

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All rights reserved. Complete or partial reproduction is prohibited without the permission of Marinus Gisolf and without mentioning the source

One Response to “The Background of Sustainable Tourist Experiences”

  1. Buen día,

    Soy estudiante de Especialidad de Gestión Ambiental, en Facultad de Ciencias Marinas de Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, México. El tema de mi trabajo terminal tiene que ver con el turismo sustentable. Quiero pedir su autorización para citar sus artículos.


    Lorena PR

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