Sunday 23rd October 2016                 Change text size:

Urban sustainable tourism: being responsible in the city

Photo - Timo Balk via stock.xchng

City cycling, visiting green spaces or parks, contributing to local community initiatives and visiting heritage sites: just four ways to be more responsible when visiting new cities, says Rachel Dodds.

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Tourism 2014.

Tourism is big business internationally and in cities. In 2012, there were over one billion international tourist arrivals and this number is expected to grow to 1.8 billion by 2030. With this growth have also come negative impacts and threats. In addition to tourism being consumptive of natural resources such as water and energy, climate also has an important influence on operating costs such as heating or cooling, irrigation, food and water.

There are social impacts, too. More than two-thirds of the revenue from international tourism never reaches the local economy because of the high foreign exchange leakages. Combine these impacts with global changes such as increased urbanisation (around 50% of the world’s population currently live in cities and by 2030, 2 billion people will have moved to cities), stress on natural resources and increased population, there is no question for the need for more urban sustainable tourism.

Tourism in urban centres

Just because tourists don’t tend to be as noticeable in cities as they often are in most smaller communities or rural areas, it does not mean that they don’t have a significant impact on a city’s infrastructure, natural resources, social and cultural environment. Singapore, for instance, receives three visitors a year for every permanent resident (about 17 million tourists per year compared to 5 million residents) – a ratio that would strain the social and environmental carrying capacity of many destinations.

Cities should also be viewed as natural areas and as part of an ecosystem. As they contain parks and green spaces, culture and heritage, the impacts on urban centres should not be ignored in favour of remote island destinations or rural areas.

The benefits of urban sustainable tourism are numerous. Often cities are hubs for other areas so can be less carbon intensive. Compared to many rural areas, public transportation is easier and more plentiful. Urban tourists also contribute to the local economy whereas resort establishments may be enclave type developments that do not allow for much interaction with the local community. Urban tourists take public transport, eat local food or participate in local cuisine and farmers markets (e.g. street food in Bangkok or Vancouver). They often will sometimes buy locally made handicrafts and may take tours or participate in events where monies go to local economy/community (e.g. Sockmob in London offers walks with professional coached homeless guides where the majority of the money goes to help the homeless).

Examples of urban sustainable tourism can include green roofs, city cycling, visiting green spaces or parks, contributing to local community initiatives or even visiting heritage sites.

Progressive steps towards urban sustainability

Within urban areas, a number of hotel chains have made progressive steps. Hotels which have implemented an environmental policy generally save on average 20% energy costs and at least 15% on water costs so any measure of efficiency benefits the bottom line. Eco measures can also help building a brand and more and more the tourism industry is looking at ways not only to increase their green profile but also to show that they are benefitting the local community.

Many hotels that are claiming to be eco have also started to use LEED certified building standards. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) is a certification programme that provides independent, third-party verification that a building is designed and built using strategies aimed at “achieving high performance in key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality”.  In Europe, it is the city of Amsterdam that boasts the first LEED Platinum hotel – the Hotel Amstelkwartier.

Shangri-La Hotels aims to follow LEED Gold standards for its buildings and have comprehensive environmental footprint-saving measures through the way it deals with water, waste and energy. Sixty per cent of Shangri-La’s properties are ISO14000 certified and the aim is to that the remaining properties become certified within the next three to four years.

But how green are we really?

Although many accommodations aim to conserve resources, consumer behaviour is not always that green. Consumers in today’s economy tend to expect green or eco, rather than demand it. And hotels must be careful to not look like they are only undertaking conservation measures to save costs. Signs asking guests to hang up their towels to conserve water have been found to not alter behaviour without a specific explanation of why they are doing it and what other measures the accommodation is also doing to be more sustainable.

Sustainability awareness in urban areas can also be problematic. Urban attractions also tend to have a harder time disseminating sustainability information to their guests and therefore tend to focus on other aspects for guests rather than their green credentials.

As they are not located in natural parks or by pristine beaches, the guest is not as influenced by their natural surroundings. Many tourists are also not sustainable when in a city; they often only visit major attractions rather than local community projects, and do not always buy local but instead shop in mainstream touristy places where souvenirs are often made outside the country and imported from China where they are produced cheaply. Tourists also do not stay in locally owned accommodation as most large hotel chains are owned by foreign nationals. 

Important questions to ask

So what can you, the traveller do? Asking is the most important. The more you ask, the more the tourism industry tends to change its behaviour. Simple questions can be things such as:

– How much of your hotel is run using renewable energy sources like solar, wind or geothermal?

– Does the hotel practice energy and water conservation? How?

– Do they support local causes and community conservation efforts?

– Do they try to educate guests to be environmentally and socially conscious?

How to be a more responsible traveller

– Don’t litter. Try to carry your own shopping bag to avoid contributing to the plastic problem in many countries of the world

– Try to avoid excessive waste and the use of plastic bottles (in many countries there is no way of disposing of these, therefore creating plastic mountains due to tourism)

– Reduce energy consumption. Unplug your mobile phone charger, turn off the lights etc.

– Conserve water. Take shorter showers: the average hotel guest uses over 300 litres of water per night. In a luxury hotel, it is approximately 1,800 litres

– Do not purchase or eat endangered species (e.g. turtle egg soup, crocodile handbags)

– Support the local economy. Buy locally made souvenirs, eat at local restaurants – enjoy the local culture

– Take public transport. Or if you must, rent a car – why not a hybrid or electric one if available? Support a local charity or organisation that works towards responsible tourism

– Before you go, ask your travel provider (tour operator, travel agent) about the company’s environmental and responsible tourism policies. Support those who support responsible tourism

– Ask your accommodation provider (hotel, guesthouse, lodge) about their sustainability practices – do they compost? Recycle? Do they have fair labour laws? Do they have an environmental policy?

– Support responsible tourism organisations – those operators who publicly are aiming to make tourism more responsible

As more and more tourism accommodation and attractions are available for choosing, it is you, the customer who can make an impact by voting with your pounds.

Rachel Dodds is director of Sustaining Tourism – a boutique consulting firm. She is also an associate professor at Ryerson University in Canada, where she joined the Ted Rogers School of Tourism & Hospitality Management in 2006. For more tips and facts about sustainable tourism see

Further reading:

Life changing travel and travel changing lives

When on a responsible holiday, do as the locals do

Responsible tourism means helping communities to thrive

Sustainable tourism: people power and destination stewardship

The Guide to Sustainable Tourism 2013

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