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  • Writer's pictureJosé-Carlos García-Rosell

What is the difference between sustainable and responsible tourism?

Everybody is talking responsibility in the tourism industry. Indeed, sustainable and responsible tourism have become such buzzwords and for some people most of these talks are interpreted as a form of greenwashing. After all, the words sustainable and tourism appear to be contradictory. To give an example, think about travelling from Finland to Costa Rica for an ecotourism holiday and then the 3,3 tons of CO2 that the flights to get there and back will produce. 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 shapes, influences, and constitutes how responsibility is ultimately practiced.

Although sustainable and responsible tourism are often used as synonyms as I did before, there is also a clear difference between these two concepts. Sustainable tourism refers to a long-term goal and responsible tourism to a process where companies, authorities, tourists and other stakeholders take concrete actions for working towards more sustainable tourism futures (García-Rosell, 2017; Goodwin, 2011). In doing so, all these actors assume responsibility not only for their actions, but also for the consequences of such actions. But what type of responsibilities are we talking about?

Five responsibilities

Responsible tourism consists of five types of responsibilities: the social, ecological, economic, cultural and political responsibilities (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 refers to tourism that is developed according to the carrying capacity and thus, keeping the environmental impact to a minimum. While economic responsibility stresses the fact that tourism has to be economically viable, cultural responsibility means that tourism respect and support the culture and traditions of local and indigenous communities. Finally, political responsibility stresses the political role and responsibility of stakeholders who have the ability to influence tourism planning and policies. It is through these five responsibilities that we can make progress towards more sustainable tourism futures.

Responsible and sustainable tourism (García-Rosell, 2017)

Sustainability and responsibility in tourism requires 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 approach in tourism. Indeed, the focus has been in responding to the needs of socially and environmentally concerned tourists and the implementation of management tools for minimizing the negative impact of a rapidly growing tourism industry. In doing so, tourism organizations and destinations are able to develop a competitive advantage in the market place. Although this approach creates some positive outcomes for business and society, it is not enough to achieve sustainable tourism. Working towards sustainability demands actions that go beyond self-interest and self-promotion. It requires a willingness to challenge the basic premises of contemporary tourism development. Only so, we will be able to work towards more sustainable ways of leading, organizing and acting in tourism.


Barnett, M. L. (2019). The Business Case for Corporate Social Responsibility: A Critique and an Indirect Path Forward. Business & Society, 58(1), 167-190.

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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