What does sustainable tourism mean? Here’s a new way of thinking about it.

better tourism regenerative tourism sustainable tourism


Current paradigm for tourism development

I have read and heard about the conveyor belt analogy when it comes to the current tourism model a number of times with the result that I don't know who exactly to credit with it.  Ever since, I heard of it, the image below is the one that comes to mind for me.  Basically, host destinations compete to attract visitors. The visitor comes and at each point in their stay with us, they yield up value, for example, to transport providers, accommodation providers, restaurants, attractions, local shops. Hopefully, they leave delighted with the experience they’ve had, happy to tell their friends and family all about it and hopefully ready to come back themselves and do it all over again.

It’s a simplistic, but perhaps fair representation of the process and mindset that have been driving tourism since the 1950s.  Visitor volume, visitor revenue and visitor satisfaction being the primary success measurements. As with many other things, that was all fine until it wasn’t fine.

A growing mood for change

Without repeating the tomes that have been written about the need to move to sustainable tourism, suffice to say that what’s worked in the past seems not to be appropriate for the present.  The pursuit of endless growth without a fair spread of benefit and due consideration to the environment, local cultures, and host communities is under question. There is growing acknowledgement that more ‘sustainable’ approaches are required and that ‘business-as-usual’ may no longer serve the industry and all its stakeholders well.

That’s not a failure in itself. The world has changed and our understanding of how the world works has deepened. Assumptions we’ve made before may not hold up in reality.  Realisations we’ve only recently had now need to be taken into account. The failure would be if we did not acknowledge that and did not look for a better approach that better serves our reality right now.

We cannot change our approach unless we change our mindset

To start to behave differently, however, we have to start to think differently. We have to review our mindset and challenge the paradigm through which we view things.  In tourism terms, that’s proving a difficult thing to do. What we’re experiencing instead is attempts to stay with the current mindset and continue with the conveyor belt approach but to alongside it engages in some mitigation or offset work that counterbalances it.  It’s well-intentioned but clearly limited.  It’s limited because it’s underlying belief remains that success in tourism terms is measured in terms of volume, value and visitor satisfaction.  Retaining this belief mitigates against a real change of approach.

What I’m observing is that businesses and policymakers in tourism are also keenly aware of the shortcomings of this approach. They find it hard to embrace ‘sustainable tourism’ because the approach that has come to the fore as ‘sustainable’ (manage your water and energy, get rid of single-use plastics and reduce waste, give something back to the community and maybe plant some trees) lacks substance for them.  It feels like ticking boxes. They know that this kind of thing quickly becomes window dressing and may not have any great impact in the overall scheme of things. They are afraid of the backlash and the consequences of getting this wrong.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that we cannot continue on the same road and expect to arrive at a new destination.  We can’t be on the same old motorway and just make the odd sustainability pit-stop. Everybody in the industry knows this deep down.

What now then?

If it’s not about volume, value and visitor satisfaction though, then what is it about? If we’re not measuring those things, then what should be measuring? These questions go to the very heart of what the purpose of tourism is. It’s a question that many destinations eventually start asking, particularly after they start to experience success in the value-volume-satisfaction model: “Why are we doing this anyway?”.  It usually turns out that, on a local level, tourism would ideally serve to support the local economy and jobs, enable communities to thrive and allow the natural and cultural heritage of the place to endure. It would allow us all to delight in each other’s places and in our difference.

Based on work in this area over the last decade, I have created The Super Six of Better Tourism to help me communicate the drivers of a better and more sustainable form of tourism.  I use it as a starting point for destinations seeking to create sustainable tourism frameworks for themselves. We use it to facilitate conversations around a different approach that serves their own circumstances and that allows them to feel like they’re doing more than ticking ‘what-we-should-do’ boxes.

I share it with you here as I believe it may serve as a paradigm for considering how we can collectively think and talk about success in tourism terms in the future.

A new view of what ‘high performance’ for tourism means



The Super Six wheel presents 6 principles of Better Tourism.

  • Profitable businesses
  • Flourishing communities
  • Empowered visitors
  • Thriving places
  • Responsible use of resources
  • A shared journey

My belief is that ‘success’ for tourism destinations in the future will be measured against and determined by these six areas.  That’s not to say that measurements around visitor volume, visitor revenue and visitor satisfaction will not have significance.  They will still be important, but not as outcomes in their own right. They will come to be seen as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.  They will be relevant as levers to allow destinations to achieve the true success as measured in the local economy, community, conservation and climate change.

What the Super Six of Better Tourism stands for

Here’s what this graphic represents as a potential framework for both sustainable and regenerative approaches to tourism policy and practice in future:

  1. Circular not Linear

It means there’s no clear start point. You could start anywhere. Indeed, different stakeholders will prioritize different places. For example, a business may concentrate on profit first, local people will concentrate on community first, conservation agencies may focus on place first. The important point is that they are connected and interlinked, feeding and supporting each other’s journey.  It also recognizes that there is no finish line – our world will continue to change and we will have to continue to adapt to ensure we do sustain.

  1. Journey not a destination

It recognizes that becoming ‘sustainable’ is not a process of getting from A to B. The process is actually the journey. Rather than wait until we figure out what Sustainable Tourism is before getting started, we have to be prepared to get going and embrace the journey itself.  It’s a bit like parenting – you have a good idea of what’s required, you are not an expert and don’t know everything, you will make mistakes.  Nonetheless, you get going partly because you want to and partly because you have to.  You do your best and you learn along the way because you appreciate that this job is bigger than just you! We are literally holding the crying baby right now and collectively, we must empower people to get started, get learning, get moving. The option to keep sitting outside the process until somebody tells us what the solution is isn’t the best one. 

  1. Collaborative

The principle of ‘A shared journey’ recognizes that the solution and responsibility doesn’t lie with anyone stakeholder, but that success can only come through all of us working together.  It recognizes that this is a complex puzzle and that many people hold the pieces. We need all stakeholders to come together, bring their piece of the puzzle and sit around the virtual table with others to figure out how those pieces fit together to create the whole. Every stakeholder must be respected and included. 

  1. Principles not Prescriptions

When it comes to sustainable or regenerative approaches, there is no manual that tells us what to do and how to do it. However, there are global principles that can be adapted to local situations. For example, bringing the principle of ‘Flourishing Communities’ to life in the City of San Francisco will require different actions and policies than bringing the same principle to life in the Nepalese villages en route to Everest basecamp.  No, this is not like driving a car with a clear how-to manual and a set of rules of the road that you must adhere to.  As I’ve mentioned, it’s much more akin to parenting.  It’s about learning on the job, learning as the world around us changes, being able to adapt and pivot.  Destinations must have frameworks that allow them to prescribe their own rules to match their own evolving realities. 

  1. Balanced

The Super Six of Better Tourism Framework also demonstrates that excelling in one area will not compensate for inactivity in another area. It just throws the whole wheel out of shape. ‘Delighted visitors’ will not tell us anything about the health and wealth of our places and communities, nor will it compensate for shortcomings in those areas.  It will not work to just keep getting better and better at one area. We have to challenge ourselves to get better and better at all of them simultaneously or at least in some kind of balanced order.  This requires us again to recognize the need to share the journey – different stakeholders will add to different parts of the wheel so that overall balance can be achieved.

The Super Six of Better Tourism is an alternative paradigm to the value, volume, satisfaction paradigm.  What we consider as ‘high performance’ in tourism is changing. 

Businesses and destinations that win in the future will measure success by their levels of profit and visitor satisfaction and also by the extent to which they benefit local communities and protect and champion their place and the planet. To succeed, they will have to empower all stakeholders to work together.

Tina O'Dwyer

Tina is a facilitator, mentor and coach specialising in tourism. She has extensive experience in sustainable tourism, regenerative tourism, food tourism, networks, clusters and collaborations. To avail of any of our training or coaching services you can contact us at [email protected] or sign up to our newsletter below for weekly industry insights. For those interested in connecting with other like-minded tourism and hospitality professionals, you may consider joining us in the Huddle where we have group training sessions and guest speakers every month.

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