by Echo Yu, Graduate Student, School of Travel Industry Management, University of Hawaii at Manoa
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Stemming from ecotourism, sustainable tourism has been discussed for several decades in western countries. A variety of both empirical and conceptual studies related to this area can be found easily. However, for the Chinese tourism industry and its travelers, sustainability remains a new term and concept despite being a hot topic in recent years.
In comparison to a relatively long history of tourism development in western countries, China’s tourism industry only started booming in the recent one and a half decades. It is also true that environmental issues and social responsibility are typically the last issues being discussed; however, is it possible to inject sustainability at this early but rapidly-developing stage of Chinese tourism industry?
When we talk about sustainability, what else can we talk about?
Cognition. I can still recall the excitement and refreshment that I felt when I first came across the interpretations of social responsibility and sustainability from the first PATA China Responsible Tourism Forum in 2011. Before that, I seldom heard people talking about this topic, neither from school nor in the media. Without knowing what sustainability truly was, I regarded it simply as a volunteering obligation and a marketing term. It is, however, much more than that. Rather than a tool, sustainability is more like essential nutrition that helps an organization to keep the balance between present and future, between the internal and external environment, and between all of the stakeholders. From a long-term and visionary perspective, it is also something invaluable and fundamental. However, with a rapid growth of tourism demand in China, profits are flowing on the surface. Companies and corporations are focused on gaining as much profit as possible in the short term, and tourism as a profitable area is attracting a lot of speculation. Only a few companies or independent property owners foresee the importance and benefits of sustainability beyond the ad hoc lucre. Raising public attention about sustainability and spreading the cognition of sustainable practices is the first and most important thing.
Benefits. When we talk about sustainability and responsibility, there is a default notion that a sacrifice of profit or extra input is required. For some tourist destinations in China, they do have plans for sustainable development initially, but as it takes time, knowledge, experience, and investment to coordinate plans with sustainability, those projects are often terminated halfway. We can hardly deny that sustainability is a long-distance race. But is it true that responsibility is only about costs? What else could be the fuel to support the endurance? The answer is obvious – benefits. Many successful cases have shown that the earlier an organization embraces sustainability into its culture and strategies, the more successful it is, and the longer the business lasts. Instead of being just simple term, sustainability is more of a holistic system. From the sustainability perspective, every element and ingredient is not isolated but tightly connected to each other. As for a destination, its locals, culture, nature, private businesses and so forth are all bound together to provide a “sense of place” for travelers and residents. Because of its holistic features, sustainability regards every element as a resource. Every resource could be a potential generator of benefits. Therefore, sustainability functions as a magnetic core that attracts benefits naturally, and gaining a new mindset about sustainability is crucial.
Leaving sustainable tourism alone, it is time for us to talk about cognition and benefits. Instead of being a missionary selling the cliché of sustainability, promoting cognition and benefits by showing successful cases and best practices might be the most convincing and promising approach for the Chinese tourism industry to adopt the injection of sustainability.