Tourism, sustainable development and the theoretical divide: 20 years on

The November 2020 issue of the Journal of Sustainable Tourism features a twenty-year follow-up by Richard Sharpley, two decades after the publication of his classic paper addressing the theoretical divide between tourism and sustainable development. His original paper is one of the most widely viewed and read articles in the history of the journal. This resource reviews his follow-up article that is freely available to read.

Date added 17 August 2021
Last updated 17 August 2021

This article has been written by Professor Richard Sharpley in response to a previous article he published in the same academic journal in 2000: Sharpley, R. (2000). Tourism and sustainable development: Exploring the theoretical divide. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 8(1), 1-19. 

In that first article, Sharpley proposed the idea that, while sustainable tourism is not only desirable, but should be perceived as essential, the notion of sustainable development through tourism is essentially unachievable.

“The second and consequential purpose of the paper was to map tourism onto a conceptual model of the principles and objectives of sustainable development in order to identify areas of convergence and/or divergence. In other words, it sought to consider the extent to which the concept of sustainable tourism development could be translated into practice or, more simply stated, whether it represented a viable outcome of tourism development. This mapping exercise indicated that sustainable tourism development is unachievable.”

The last 20 years appear to have borne out his arguments, as many places continue to seek economic growth over efforts towards sustainability. Thus, placing a focus more on sustaining tourism over sustainable tourism development.

Sharpley’s most recent article further explores the theoretical angles of tourism and sustainability and concludes that sustainable degrowth may be a more appropriate approach to deal with increasing concerns over climate change.

One of the key problems Sharpley identifies, is the way theory and practice have developed separately. Another problem can be seen in the way we focus on different aspects of the idea when considering, for example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) introduced in 2015, compared with the UN's 2017 International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development; here the first focuses on sustainable development itself, and the second focuses on sustainable tourism, albeit as a means of development.

Sharpley has witnessed many examples over the past 20 years that also appear to support his position:

  • International tourism arrivals continue to grow exponentially
  • It is new markets that account for much of this growth. However “less than one sixth of the global population currently engages in international travel, pointing on the one hand to significant global inequity in the opportunity to travel but, on the other hand, the potential for continuing future growth driven by emerging tourism markets”.
  • The emergence of the sharing economy has contributed to the growth of the travel and tourism sector.
  • Although recently affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, many mature destinations were experiencing overtourism, while other new destinations have also been established, and GDP figures show many nations’ continued reliance upon tourism.

The article then covers a theoretical discussion on the notion of development, showing how this notion tends to focus on addressing inequalities and social injustice, which appears to be inherently at odds with the notion of economic growth in practice.

Sharpley’s conclusion is, therefore, that we should move away from a focus on sustainable development towards a focus on sustainable de-growth. In this respect:

“sustainable development represents a response to the acknowledged inseparability of the environment and human existence and development; that is, it seeks to ‘enact a positive vision of a world in which basic human needs are met without destroying or irrevocably degrading the natural systems on which we all depend’ … [yet] the concept of sustainable development has become increasingly criticised and, by some, discredited, primarily as a result of the priority that continues to be given to economic growth in sustainable development policies, including the SDGs.”

Therefore, whereas “following the path of economic growth, typically measured by an increase in GDP, is neither conducive to enhancing individual or societal well-being nor compatible with environmental sustainability”, sustainable de-growth “requires a reduction in both production and consumption on the global scale along with a fundamental shift in society’s understanding of the relationship between consumption, wealth and well-being”. Moreover, it is also recognised that “the environmental consequences of tourism, in particular its aviation-related contribution to global warming, are now such that de-growth is necessary”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus the global reliance upon tourism in general, and upon air travel in particular. We have experienced unprecedented impact on travel and tourism across the globe, and in turn this has led to the opportunity to re-think these matters and how we manage them in the post-pandemic “new normal”.