Understanding Responsible Tourism

Amsterdam: One of the cities in Europe trying to push back against overtourism

by Dr Heather Skinner

While the term “responsible tourism” is widely used these days, are we really sure we understand what the term means, and who is actually “responsible”? This article will address both of these questions, along with some related issues concerning tourism ethics and the concept of sustainability. While it has been recognised that, for tourism businesses, responsibility is seen to encompass ethics and sustainability, there remains little written about these issues[1]. It is also important to note that many tourism businesses are Small and Medium Sized Tourism Enterprises (SMTEs) whose business focus is not always on such matters, especially in a highly competitive and crowded market, in times of continuing financial crisis or constraint.

The Institute of Place Management’s Visiting Places Special Interest Group takes the following approach to tourism and responsibility:

‘Tourists and day visitors are important stakeholders in the places they visit – but their interests, and that of the tourism industry, need to be addressed in a balanced way with those of the residents whose place it is.

The IPM’s Visiting Places Special Interest Group adopts the principles of Responsible Tourism which is about making better places for people to live in and better places for people to visit, in that order. This approach is especially important for places that are experiencing difficulties in coping with success.’

Responsible Tourism and Sustainability

Responsible tourism therefore concerns the impact of our choices and actions in a tourism context on the places in which we live or which we visit. The academic literature proposes that to be socially responsible, businesses should go voluntarily over and above their legal obligations, and that their actions in this context should not only be visible but should also be communicated to their stakeholders. However, in reality it can be difficult, especially for SMTEs to put a focus on additional efforts towards responsibility when they may be having difficulty simply maintaining profitability in their everyday working practices.

It is also interesting to note that in many discussions on responsible tourism the onus for responsibility is often placed not on the tourism business, but on the tourist. Tourists may be encouraged to consider their carbon footprint when travelling, to travel less or to travel by more sustainable transport options, and to boycott destinations that may be known for unethical practices. More recently, issues of ‘overtourism; have led to calls for tourists to consider the way the sharing economy impacts on a destination. For example, accommodation provided by platforms such as Airbnb may offer tourists a cheaper option for a place to stay, but the growth in number of Airbnb type accommodation, especially in popular European city destinations, is leading to a lack of long-term accommodation for local residents, or to accommodation that is now priced too high for local residents to let. Overtourism can also lead to a destruction not only of the culture of a place, but also to its physical and natural environment. (A fuller discussion of the problems of, and potential solutions to overtourism, when destinations have problems coping with success can be found here on the IPM Visiting Places SIG pages.)

Being responsible in a tourism context therefore also links to issues of sustainability. In this context responsibility is seen to be behaviour based, while sustainability tends to be seen s a concept that is more based on values. An attempt has been made to join these two ideas, but the term “responsustable tourism” is rather clumsy, has nor really caught on, and is not found more widely than the article that proposes it, although the proposition itself is sound.

‘merging the words responsible (behaviour-based) and sustainable (concept and values-based) … fully reflects the academic and practical debate and action that is increasingly labelled “responsible” tourism, yet de facto based on sustainability[2]’.

Tourism Ethics

To be a socially responsible business is therefore to undertake business practices in a way that takes into account the needs of all stakeholders. However, when considering the international nature of tourism this can be difficult to achieve. While in an ideal world, ethical principles would be objective and not vary across cultures, in reality it is difficult for any organisation to meet the needs of all stakeholders when their cultural values, and notions of what is ethical, may vary from place to place. Any attempt to identify one set of normative ethical values will therefore usually result in one culture enforcing their ideas on another.

SMTEs are also usually less well-informed about issues of sustainability and responsibility, and tend to operate within the ethical norms of their home culture – something that can be difficult for international tourists to understand or accept. Tourist perceptions of the social responsibility of a place also tend to be linked to their perceptions of quality, so being socially responsible can be seen to be good for business for a tourism destination.

You can find out more about these issues on the webpages of the Responsible Tourism Partnership whose Managing Director, Professor Harold Goodwin, is also Director of Responsible Tourism at IPM.

A related article on “the impact of cultural values and economic constraints on tourism businesses’ ethical practices[3]” will be published here on the IPM blog shortly.

[1] Zanfardini, M., Aguirre, P. and Tamagni, L. (2013), “How Is the Evolution of CSR’s Research in Tourism Context? A Review from 1992 to 2012”, Proceedings of the 5th Advances in Tourism Marketing Conference, 2nd – 4th October 2013, Vilamoura, Portugal.

[2] Mihalic, T. (2016), “Sustainable-responsible tourism discourse: Towards ‘responsustable’ tourism”, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 111, Part B, pp. 461-470.

[3] Skinner, H. (2019) ‘The impact of cultural values and economic constraints on tourism businesses’ ethical practices’ International Journal of Tourism Cities, 5(2), pp. 169-187.