The Sustainability Debate Regarding Tourism

The Sustainability Debate Regarding Tourism


D H P Verbeek, Telos - Tilburg University, NL


This paper portrays the position of tourists in the sustainability debate. Consumers have a different stand towards environmental issues related to tourism and travelling behaviour than those related to consumption behaviour in general.


The tourism industry is faced with the challenge of a more sustainable development of tourism. Based on current research on consumption behaviour, it can be expected that in aiming for a sustainable development of tourism and travelling behaviour, people?s attitudes towards environmental issues are crucial. In the social-psychological stream of research on environmental-friendly behaviour, it is often claimed that positive attitudes towards the environment are one of the important preconditions for behavioural changes.
The Social Practices Approach (SPA; Spaargaren, 1997; 2003; Spaargaren & Van Vliet, 2000) helps to acknowledge that every citizen has a certain specific mixture of environmental or non-environmental performances, differing from one social practice to the next. This means that the same person can express a high environmental behaviour on one social practice and express no environmental behaviour at all at a different social practice. With this reasoning the Social Practices Approach deals with the unrealistic idea that groups of people can be discerned who are either entirely sustainable-oriented, non-sustainable oriented or in between (Spaargaren et al., 2007).
In line with SPA, that emphasizes the importance of contextuality in sustainable development of consumption behaviour, the expectation is that people have a different stand towards environmental issues related to tourism and travelling behaviour than towards their consumption behaviour in general. What makes this paper distinctive from most papers that investigate environmental attitudes among citizen-consumers, is that in this paper we explore the environmental attitude with regard to tourism as a specific consumption domain besides asking consumers to report their environmental attitudes in general.
This paper presents the results of the large-scale survey (Contrast survey, Summer 2008, N=2906) and thereby portrays whether tourists recognize the environmental problems caused by tourism, what solutions they perceive desirable, and whether tourists see themselves as (co-)responsible actors in the sustainable development process. It is an analysis of the position of tourists in the sustainability debate.
The results of the survey analysis revealed that there are indeed clear differences between people?s general view and their tourism-based view on the recognition of the environmental problem, the necessity to take measures to mitigate these problems and the attribution of responsibilities to government, market and consumers themselves. In general, people acknowledge the existence of environmental problems and the fact that part of the negative environmental effects are caused by tourism behaviour, whereas in tourism there is a large group of people that are sceptic about the claimed environmental pollution caused by tourism. They think that the environmental effects of tourism and travelling behaviour are being overexaggerated and perceive it unnecessary and undesirable to take measures in the tourism domain. Furthermore, whereas based on their general environmental attitudes there is a substantive group of people that see a role for themselves in a sustainable development of their consumption behaviour and chooses to buy more environmental-friendly products, the number of people that views themselves as co-responsible in a process towards more sustainable tourism and travelling behaviour is much smaller. The survey confirms the idea that, among the people who acknowledge the environmental effects of tourism and travelling behaviour, there is a strong tendency to ascribe responsibilities to solve these problems to governmental bodies and tourism businesses.
Hence, these results reveal the relevance of taking the specific concerns towards environmental issues in the tourism consumption domain into consideration when investigating the receptiveness for behavioural changes towards more sustainable tourism and travelling behaviour.

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Spaargaren, G. & Van Vliet, B. (2000). Lifestyles, Consumption and the Environment; the ecological modernization of domestic consumption. Environmental politics, 9(1): 50-76.
Spaargaren, G., Mommaas, J.T., Van den Burg, S., Maas, L., Drissen, E., Dagevos, H., Bargeman, A., Putman, L., Nijhuis, J., Verbeek, D., and Sargant, E. (2007). More sustainable Lifestyles and Consumption patterns. A theoretical perspective for the analysis of transition processes within consumption domains. TMP report. Wageningen: Environmental policy Group.


Association for European Transport