Future of Sharing: Protecting the Character of Tourist Destinations Through Sustainable Travel

Jonathan Tourtellot, the CEO of Designation Stewardship and a longtime veteran of National Geographic, effectively illustrates the concept of “overtourism” by pouring a bright red liquid into an overflowing vessel. When transatlantic commercial flight began in 1958, Tourtellot explains, there were 25M annual international tourist arrivals, but by 2010, that number had topped more than one billion. “It’s often said that tourism is the fire that can cook your food or burn your house down,” said Tourtellot. While tourists can help protect historic and scenic areas through their economic support, downsides of this massive industry—which accounts for around 10 percent of global GDP—include pollution and irreparable damage to local cultures. In Tourtellot’s perspective, sustainable tourism means more than recycling and staying in LEED certified buildings. “To be truly sustainable, you want to protect the character of the place that people are coming to see,” Tourtellot said. He believes that staying in someone’s home through platforms like Airbnb or Couchsurfing generates a lighter environmental footprint than staying in conventional hotel. For example, Greek islands like Santorini have to build additional facilities to handle increased sewage and water needs for two months of peak tourism demand, which Greek taxpayers understandably aren’t particularly interested in paying for. If tourists can stay in the homes of locals, this helps mitigate some of the stress on the local population and environment.

Tourtellot explained the six criteria that National Geographic uses to rate destinations for sustainability: environment, cultural impacts, heritage, aesthetics, tourism management, and the steadiness of trend. He differentiated issues of sustainable tourism from issues of sustainable destination—for example, LEED certified hotels taking up all the coastline don’t do locals much good. And one aspect related to sustainable destinations that platforms like Airbnb and Couchsurfing have in common is that their membership includes both tourists and residents. Both are interested in place, says Tourtellot, which means there’s a huge potential to raise interest in stewardship of these places. Guests and hosts each bring a different perspective to what the place is about. To capitalize on these shared insights, he recommends creating tourism entities that go beyond government and look at the whole picture. One idea, says Tourtellot, is to create a certification program for serious travelers, starting with teaching them how to identify and decide which businesses they should patronize. Tourtellot believes in the value of an international network for solving problems, with ways to customize it for local destinations. He spoke critically of the high-volume tourists interested only in adding notches to their belt—or, in 21st century speak—adding selfies to their Instagram profiles. The question we need to be asking, concludes Tourtellot, is how do we incentivize longer stays and deeper travel?