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  • Writer's pictureJosé-Carlos García-Rosell

What is the difference between sustainable and responsible tourism?

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Responsibility has become a focal point in the tourism industry, with sustainable and responsible tourism emerging as ubiquitous buzzwords. For some, the discussions surrounding these terms may be viewed skeptically, perceived as a type of greenwashing. After all, the terms "sustainable" and "tourism" may seem contradictory to some. Consider, for instance, traveling from Finland to Costa Rica for an ecotourism holiday and the consequential carbon footprint of approximately 3.3 tons of CO2 generated by the round-trip flights. However, we should not be too harsh on the responsibility talks. As Dennis Schoeneborn, Mette Morsing, and Andrew Crane (2020) argue in one of their recent studies, talking about responsibility plays a pivotal role in shaping, influencing, and constituting how responsibility is ultimately practiced.

While sustainable and responsible tourism are often used as synonyms as I did earlier, there exists a clear difference between these two concepts. Sustainable tourism refers to a long-term goal, while responsible tourism involves a process wherein companies, authorities, tourists, and other stakeholders take concrete actions to advance towards more sustainable tourism futures (García-Rosell, 2017; Goodwin, 2011). In doing so, all these actors take on responsibility not only for their actions but also for the consequences resulting from those actions. Now, the question arises: What specific types of responsibilities are we talking about here?

Five responsibilities

Responsible tourism consists of five types of responsibilities: social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political (Veijola, Ilola, and Edelheim, 2013). Social responsibility means that tourism is planned in a way that benefits most stakeholders without causing harm to local communities. Ecological responsibility involves developing tourism in line with carrying capacity, thereby minimizing environmental impact. Economic responsibility stresses the fact that tourism must be economically viable, ensuring sustainable financial outcomes. Cultural responsibility means that tourism should respect and actively support the culture and traditions of local and indigenous communities. Lastly, political responsibility emphasizes the political role and responsibility of stakeholders who wield influence over tourism planning and policies. These five responsibilities serve as the pathway for advancing toward more sustainable tourism futures.

Responsible and sustainable tourism (García-Rosell, 2017)

Sustainability and responsibility in tourism require going beyond the business case

Recently, Michael Barnett (2019) asked the following question: Is there anything like a “business case” for responsibility? He wondered whether firms must always benefit from their voluntary efforts to address the many challenges confronting our society. This is a question that can be applied to the way responsibility has been approached in tourism. Certainly, the emphasis has been on addressing the preferences of socially and environmentally conscious tourists, along with deploying management tools to mitigate the adverse effects of a rapidly growing tourism industry. By doing so, tourism organizations and destinations can cultivate a competitive edge in the marketplace. While this approach yields positive outcomes for both business and society, it alone is insufficient to attain sustainable tourism. Striving for sustainability demands actions that go beyond self-interest and self-promotion. It calls for a readiness to challenge the fundamental tenets of contemporary tourism development. Only through such introspection can we endeavor to pave the way for more sustainable ways of leading, organizing, and acting in the realm of tourism.


García-Rosell, José-Carlos (2017). Vastuullinen matkailu [Responsible tourism]. In: Johan Edelheim and Heli Ilola (Eds.), Matkailututkimuksen avainkäsiteet [Key Concepts in Tourism Research], Rovaniemi, Lapland University Press.

Goodwin, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for tourism. Oxford: Goodfellow.

Tervo-Kankare, K. (2017). Kestävä matkailu [sustainable tourism]. In: Johan Edelheim and Heli Ilola (Eds.), Matkailututkimuksen avainkäsiteet [Key Concepts in Tourism Research], Rovaniemi, Lapland University Press.

Schoeneborn, D., Morsing, M., and Crane, A. (2020). Formative perspectives on the relation between CSR communication and CSR practices: Pathways for walking, talking, and t(w)alking. Business & Society, 59(1), 5-33.

Veijola, S., Ilola, H., and Edelheim, J. (2013). Johdanto matkailun tutkimukseen [Introduction to tourism research]. In Soile Veijola (Ed.), Matkailututkimuksen lukukirja [Readings in tourism research], Rovaniemi, Lapland University Press.


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