Can ‘Sustainable tourism’ help rebalance the tourism industry?

The Yomiuri Shimbun

The tourism industry is slowly starting to find its feet again, even as it continues to contend with the effects of the novel coronavirus.

Prior to the pandemic, “overtourism” — defined as an undesirable impact on an area due to an excess of visitors — had become an issue in various parts of the world. It is therefore likely that “sustainable tourism” will attract more and more attention in the future.

According to U.N. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) data, there were almost three times as many international tourist arrivals around the world in the Jan.-March period of 2022 as in the same period last year.

By region, there were four times as many international tourist arrivals in Europe, two times as many in the United States, and a 64% increase in Asia and Oceania. According to the UNWTO, “Tourism continues to recover at a strong pace.”

Against this background, some popular tourist locations are taking such measures as restricting tourist numbers and related activities.

Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island in southern Thailand became known as a popular location for film shooting, which resulted in a strong rise in visitor numbers; in 2017, nearly 5,000 tourists were visiting the bay each day. However, this resulted in damage to coral reefs and the disappearance of marine life. To help protect the natural environment, the Thai authorities closed the bay in 2018.

The bay reopened in January, but now, only 375 people are allowed to visit at a time and are limited to spending just an hour in the area. Visitors are requested to alight from boats a little distance from the bay and walk about five minutes to get there. Bathing and the use of sunscreen containing coral-damaging chemicals are prohibited.

The Thai government also is considering imposing a tourist tax on foreign visitors. The tax revenue would be used to preserve popular locations, among other purposes.

A hotel industry source in the Krabi resort area says the Thai government is prioritizing longer stays rather than aiming to increase visitor numbers.

Venice, Italy, is planning to introduce from this summer a pre-booking system for travelers wishing to enter the city, and, from January, will collect an entry fee of €3 to €10 from day-trippers to help curb tourist numbers.


The UNWTO defines sustainable tourism as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.” This kind of tourism helps control the impact of tourists on an area, protects local cultures and environments, and deepens tourists’ understanding through initiatives such as experience programs.

Previously, a number of sustainability-related certification systems were well-received for their consideration of the natural environment, among other points. However, there were calls for reliable evaluation criteria, resulting in the founding in 2008 of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), an international nonprofit organization. To date, the GSTC has compiled two sets of criteria: GSTC Destination Criteria (GSTC-D), which relates to the sustainable management of tourism destinations, and GSTC Industry Criteria (GSTC-I), relating to the sustainable management of the private-sector travel industry, such as hotels and tour operators.

These criteria cover a wide range of issues. For example, GSTC-D includes performance indicators such as whether the destination has an effective organization, department, group or committee responsible for a coordinated approach to sustainable tourism with involvement from the public and private sectors and civil society, and whether the destination has a system to record the number of visitors and monitor the economic contribution of tourism to the local economy.

In 2015, the United Nations adopted Sustainable Development Goals, which boosted interest in measures being taken within the tourism sector.

Meanwhile, tourist numbers continued to increase. According to the UNWTO, there were 1.47 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019, a more than 50% increase from 2009 when the number declined from the previous year due to the impact of the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. The economic growth of emerging economies such as China, and more low-cost carriers (LCCs) also provided a tailwind for the sector.

Tourism has a huge impact on the global economy. Revenues from international tourism in 2019 totaled $1.48 trillion (about ¥200 trillion), having increased by 3% from the previous year.

However, in recent years, overtourism — which includes the disruption of local residents’ lives and environmental degradation — has come to the fore in various parts of the world, including Japan. The term is thought to have originated in the U.S. media.

The spread of the coronavirus in 2020 had a dramatic effect on tourism. Travel demand dropped drastically due to travel restrictions and the industry was driven into a corner. But in light of overtourism’s negative effects, momentum was already building to review “traditional” tourism.

“It’s important for the entire community to work together to protect tourism resources and expand the economy, rather than allowing only travel companies to earn money,” said Yoshihiro Sataki of Josai International University’s Faculty of Tourism. “The concept of sustainable tourism has been drawing increasing attention amid the pandemic.”

Top 100 destinations

In 2018, the Japan Tourism Agency established a sustainable tourism promotion headquarters, and in 2020 it compiled guidelines for the domestic tourism industry based on the GSTC’s international criteria, aiming to help destinations draw up tourism policies and increase brand value. The agency has implemented model projects using the guideline.

In Japan, many popular areas have tried to preserve landscapes and protect tourism-related resources. The Netherlands-based international certification organization Green Destinations has since 2014 selected the world’s top 100 sustainable destinations. In 2021 it included 12 locations in Japan — twice as many as the previous year — including Niseko in Hokkaido.

In the Travel and Tourism Development Index 2021 released by the World Economic Forum in May, Japan for the first time topped the index ranking of 117 economies. The forum highly valued the country’s transportation infrastructure, rich culture and natural environments.

Last month, Japan began accepting foreign tourists in group tours. However, putting too much weight on increasing visitor numbers could again lead to overtourism. This is a crucial time for Japan’s tourism industry.