Sustainable Tourism Isn’t Saviorism

Whether you work in travel media or you’re a consumer who loves to read travel stories, you may have noticed an uptick in messaging preaching about sustainable travel or conscious tourism. It’s a good thing that more publications are trying to one up each other on meaningful tourism content and that they’re pushing to encourage consumers to vacation sustainably—i.e. to make choices that have a positive impact while on their trips.

But at least once a month, I stumble on guidance about traveling sustainably in Global South destinations that presents it to readers as some form of charity. Take a recent note from a writer in the Global North’s sustainable travel industry circle telling readers they must “give back with their travel dollars” by “supporting African safaris,” or other generically-described places, and of course, there are the “Indigenous communities” they can help with their money as well.

I am baffled that this is acceptable in 2023. In fact, I shudder every time I see sustainable tourism—heck, any tourism— described that way.

The language used reeks of a colonial mindset. And it needs to stop.

Tourism is indeed a powerful sector that offers a relatively low entry barrier into employment and small business ownership. It can be a great equalizer and tip the scales of imbalance. I’m a firm believer of this and have been for decades as a sustainability-focused travel journalist.

Tourism is a way for an individual or a community to create an income, earn skills and feel proud of it. It’s an avenue to exchange their culture and knowledge with others, in return for an income. 

For the traveler who chooses consciously while abroad, they get a meaningful experience or product, and often times what they receive has a far greater value than they might have dreamed of receiving.

Meaningful, sustainable tourism is not charity. Tourists are not saviors. They pay for a service, receive great—often intangible—value and go home.

To the extent that a town or destination depends on tourism revenue and suffers when tourism shuts down, it’s the leadership of that destination that needs to ensure they diversify the local economy and help residents build their resilience for tough times to come. (And resilient they are no matter what life throws at them, as we’ve seen time and again).

Of course, here are exceptions to calls for help — for example, when we tell travelers how they can help after a natural or other disaster.

But outside of those scenarios, it’s high time this industry dropped their “help the communities in the Global South” approach as a way to define sustainable tourism and convince travelers to move mindfully. It does a huge disservice to the residents of the places we visit and it impacts how Global North tourists view people in low to middle income nations.

As travelers, we pay for what we cannot experience anywhere else —and often get much more than that. So why paint it as a favor or a sort of saviorism?

I’ve been in the consumer travel writing and journalism world for more than 15 years. I focused on sustainable tourism the entire time, a large portion of it in the Caribbean, finding ways to show people how to immerse and sign up for the kind of experiences that go a long way in the local economy while providing lifetime memories.

One thing I do know for sure: Most Americans (and not just Americans, frankly) who travel for leisure do so for nothing more their own satisfaction and convenience. Convincing them otherwise is quite the task, no matter what they might say in the surveys. Why do you think all-inclusive resorts keep growing, or why most still have not heard of “community-based tourism?” Or still others say on social media, in black and white, that they don’t travel to meet locals?

It is indeed our role as media and the industry at large to show that tourism is an economy and like all economies, there are good choices and poor choices. It’s up to us to tell those stories in a way that encourages consumers to follow in the good footsteps, to make better choices on their journey and be part of a positive movement. (Yes, the industry also bears a larger responsibility in providing those choices).

But presenting sustainable tourism to readers as “communities will suffer if you don’t go” is stereotypical and self-aggrandizing. That’s always been the issue with the western-led tourism industry, especially out of the US and the UK.

Residents in destinations in the Global South have a lot to teach us as well—imagine that. If some industry members would step off their western pedestal, they’d realize that not every “community” is helpless and clueless about tourism: Some have decided for themselves and designed what works for them, and they’ve even won awards for it. That’s what makes it sustainable tourism: it is more enriching for everyone, and that can be demonstrated through examples and through the worlds and voices of those who offer these incredible experiences and windows into their culture.

Newsflash: These places and people were there before we showed up and they will be there long after we’re no longer around. Tourists are not saving anyone.

Sure, tourist vacation dollars do good when supporting local entrepreneurs’ work and they help the preservation of heritage and in the preservation of the environment — but our job is to tell *that* story in a way that shows it, not by preaching in words imbued in colonialist thinking.

Tourism is what connects us across borders and helps us humanize and understand those we haven’t met who are of another culture and land. The method many in the sustainable tourism industry use, from NGOs to some travel media in the west, has been to “other.”

There are many words and ways to express and celebrate sustainable travel or meaningful, conscious tourism without resorting to tropes.

I hope this industry starts to use them.


Lebawit is an award-winning, independent travel journalist, author and speaker specializing in global tourism. Her reported stories on sustainability, equity, destination management, hospitality, responsible marketing, and climate action have appeared in consumer and trade publications, including Bloomberg, Skift, and Conde Nast Traveler. Read more about Lily here.

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