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What is sustainable tourism?

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Tourists love to flock to beaches like this one, but sustainable tourism will show those tourists how to take care of the places they visit. See more paradise pictures.“Tourists love to flock to beaches like this one, but sustainable tourism will show those tourists how to take care of the places they visit. See more paradise pictures.Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

Tourism is one of the largest export industries in the world; in some years, it’s even rivaled the dollar value of oil exports, food products and automobiles. From 1950 to 2005, international tourist traffic rose from 25 million travelers a year to over 800 million. In 2009, the international tourism industry generated $852 billion [source: World Tourism Organization]. Tourism is even more critical to the economies of developing countries like Cambodia, Morocco and Jamaica, where income from international tourists contributes between 10 and 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) [source: The World Bank].

With so much money riding on tourism, it only makes sense to think of tourist destinations as precious resources that need to be protected. Tourism brings tremendous economic benefits, but also carries serious dangers to the environment and culture of the host community, such as reckless development, misuse of land, displacement of the poor, squandering of natural resources, pollution of the air and water, and crime [source: GRID-Arendal]. There are even examples of tourist destinations being "loved to death," like stunning coral reefs killed off by poorly planned coastal development, as well as reckless snorkelers and boaters [source: Coral Reef Alliance].

For tourism to be successful and sustainable, it must strike a balance between short-term economic interests and the long-term health of the local environment and culture. This more holistic vision of tourism is called sustainable tourism.

The World Tourism Organization, an agency of the United Nations, defines sustainable tourism as "tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities" [source: World Tourism Organization]. Sustainable tourism is different than eco-tourism, which focuses exclusively on endangered environmental destinations like the Costa Rican rainforests or the African savanna. The principles of sustainable tourism, however, apply to all tourist destinations, from a booming urban center to a small fishing village.

According to the Word Tourism Organization, there should be three main goals of every sustainable tourism project:

  • Conserve environmental resources — Hotels, restaurants and new developments should be designed to meet high standards of energy and water efficiency. Local citizens, tourism workers and visitors should be educated about ways to protect the local biodiversity.
  • Respect and preserve the local cultural heritage — Preserve both the built and living culture of the host community and promote inter-cultural understanding.
  • Provide socioeconomic benefits to everyone — All stakeholders in the host community should benefit from tourism, particularly the poor and disadvantaged. A sustainable tourist operation will see the long-term benefits of keeping money in the local economy and training local workers.

In developing countries, sustainable tourism has the potential to raise people out of poverty and protect natural resources. Keep reading to learn more about sustainable tourism in the developing world.

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