Environmentally Sustainable Tourism: A Progressive Approach

Updated on May 21, 2020
Al Stine profile image

Scientist by profession with a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources and Environmental Studies with a major in Cartography and G.I.S.


According to the World Tourism Organization, sustainable tourism means tourism development that meets the needs of present tourists and host regions while protecting and enhancing the tourism opportunities for future generations. It is envisaged as leading to management of all resources in such a way that economic, social, and aesthetic needs can be fulfilled while maintaining cultural integrity, essential ecological processes, biological diversity, and life support system. In other words, sustainable forms of tourism respect the fragile environmental balance that characterizes many tourism destinations, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas; and it is based on a long term perspective (WTO, 1998).

Characteristics of Sustainable Forms of Tourism

  • Enhancing the well-being of communities
  • Supporting the protection of the natural and cultural environment
  • Recognizing product quality and tourist satisfaction
  • Applying adaptive management and monitoring

This practice enables the protection of the environment and also allows the host nation to preserve its tourist attractions, as a result, this improves the quality of the tourism experience. In the long term, this practice addresses one of the primary global challenges related to climate and environmental degradation in an attempt to achieve a better and more sustainable future for humanity.

It is for these reasons that many host nations are developing progressive approaches to their tourism industry with the environment as the main focus. There are basically three common approaches to environmentally sustainable tourism.

3 Approaches to Environmentally Sustainable Tourism

  1. Carrying Capacity (CC)
  2. Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC)
  3. Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA)


The Concept of Carrying Capacity

For a given region, carrying capacity is the maximum number of individuals of a given species that an area's resources can sustain indefinitely without significantly depleting or degrading those resources. For humans, however, carrying capacity is expanded to include our cultural, social, economic and physical environments.

Many of the current problems of tourism stem from the pressure of the number of tourists. The idea of capacity springs from the notion of quality, since it is implied that when capacity is exceeded, quality is reduced. The carrying capacity concept determines the acceptable level of use or change for a resource beyond which that resource will be significantly degraded (Wise, 1988).

As it may be difficult to establish and implement an exact carrying capacity, an alternative approach may be to determine the level of impact or alteration that is acceptable, through compromise and negotiation, accepting that some change to the environment will occur. This principle acknowledges that humans’ use of the natural environment will ultimately lead to change. Therefore, the aim is to manage the destination or attraction through this change, acknowledging that impacts beyond a pre-established level will not be tolerated and responses will be implemented to ensure that the limits of acceptable change (LAC) are not exceeded (Holloway, 2009).


Carrying capacity can go to a certain extent in bringing about sustainable forms of tourism. There are many circumstances it can be useful. It is used to put a precise capacity limit on the number of tourists coming to a particular destination. Such numbers can be used, for example, as the basis for measures to regulate, or otherwise, maintain control on visitor flows in congested places, or to guide planning decisions about the number of accommodation units that may be acceptable in an area. This creates sustainability in that this conceptual tool prevents tourists or visitors from congesting places. Thus preventing detrimental effects on the environment (UNEP and WTO, 2005).

The multidimensional approach of carrying capacity also incorporates other dimensions such as; the physical, cultural, economic and social elements of the tourist's environment. The physical carrying capacity considers the maximum number of tourists that can occupy a single site without negatively altering the physical environment or reducing the quality of the experience. The social and cultural carrying capacity focuses on the level of tolerance of the host population for the conduct, behaviour and presence of tourists in the area. Economic carrying capacity addresses the ability of the host to carter for the economic needs of the tourists in relation to the economic needs of the host populations in an attempt to avoid negative alterations of the host economy.



  • Difficult to define because it differs across different tourism elements, such as physical space, natural resources, infrastructure, facilities, tourist satisfaction and the number of visitors.
  • The carrying capacity is also affected by the type of visitors and the nature of the tourist attraction. Different visitors affect the environment differently and different sites are affected differently.
  • Carrying capacity is dynamic, it can change over time depending on the nature of the destination site as it undergoes different phases of its life cycle. It is affected differently by different seasons, weather or climatic conditions.
  • The environmental response to carrying capacity differs, it may be gradual over a long period of time or it may be dramatic over a short period of time.


Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC)

Limits of acceptable change are defined as the variation that is considered acceptable in a particular component or process of the ecological character of the natural resource, without indicating a change in ecological character that may lead to a reduction or loss in the quality of the environment.

The concept of limits of acceptable change is an alternative to the concept of carrying capacity. Humans’ use of the natural environment will ultimately lead to change. Therefore, the concept of limits of acceptable change help to create sustainable forms of tourism in that it aims at managing the destination or attraction through this change, acknowledging that impacts beyond a pre-established level will not be tolerated and responses will be implemented to ensure that the limits of acceptable change (LAC) are not exceeded (Holloway, 2009).


This approach to environmentally sustainable tourism is not aimed at preventing any tourist induced alterations on the environment, but rather it is focused on deciding how much change in the environment will be tolerated. It is based on the premise that human-induced change on the environment is inevitable, therefore strategies need to be put in place to address the levels of acceptable change that the environment can accommodate without experiencing degradation.

In tourism, LAC can be used to identify the different types of environmental impacts caused by tourists and where these impacts occur. LAC is able to assess whether these impacts are still confined within the acceptable limits or have reached levels considered unacceptable. This approach aids in preserving the environment of the tourist destination site without hindering the tourist's experience.



  • Difficulties in defining how much change is acceptable or unacceptable.
  • The naturally occurring changes in the destination environment also contribute to the levels of acceptable and unacceptable tourist induced changes.
  • Identifying the types of impacts and where the impacts occur is a challenging process that requires a lot of specialized personnel and equipment.
  • LAC can also reduce the tourist's satisfaction levels in the destination site and thereby reduce the income generated from the site due to the reduced number of visitors.


Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA)

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) defines Environmental Impact Assessment as a tool used to identify the environmental, social and economic impacts of a project prior to decision-making. It aims to predict environmental impacts at an early stage in project planning and design, find ways and means to reduce adverse impacts, shape projects to suit the local environment and present the predictions and options to decision-makers.

There are many ways in which an environmental impact assessment (EIA) can help to create sustainable forms of tourism. For example, an EIA evaluates environmental information prior to its use in decision-making in the development process. This refers to tourism-related developmental projects or programs, and this information consists basically of predictions of how the environment is expected to change if certain alternative actions are implemented and advice on how best to manage environmental changes if one alternative is selected and implemented. This way any adverse environmental impacts are prevented (Abaza, H et al, 2004).


Apart from predicting the environmental effects of alternative tourism plans, an EIA is particularly useful as an adjunct to the process of granting planning permission for new development. Permission is given after an assessment is done. In relation to tourism, EIA can come in as a decision-making tool. The decision is made based on the assessment of new development. Before any developmental project is undertaken in tourism, it is assessed to determine its impact on the environment. This thus ensures sustainability in tourism (UNEP and WTO, 2005).


  • The EIA process can be defined as a policy of information to aid in decision making, it is not a regulatory law, this hinders the enforcement of policies outlined in it.
  • The EIA tool is used to predict the likely environmental outcomes of a project, predictions of events that are yet to occur usually come with elements of inaccuracies and mistrust.
  • The EIA tool may underestimate or overestimate certain environmental elements.

Which Form Is Best?

The concepts of Carrying Capacity (CC), Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC), and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) play a vital role in creating environmentally sustainable forms of tourism.

Carrying capacity helps to create sustainable forms of tourism, but it has some limitations. It is difficult to establish and to implement an exact carrying capacity. An alternative to the carrying capacity concept is the concept of Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC). The LAC approach has the advantage of being flexible and based on a real assessment of the impacts of concern. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is the most effective conceptual tool. It involves the prediction of environmental effects and the assessment of positive and negative environmental effects of any tourism-related activities, before, during and after the tourism venture is undertaken.

These approaches should be utilized together if funds and resources are available, despite their limitations, they at least provide means and methods that enable tourism and a sustainable environment to coexist.


  1. Burdge, R. J. (1999) A Community Guide to Impact Assessment, revised edition, WI: Social Ecology Press.
  2. Holloway, J. C. (2009) The Business of Tourism (8th Edition), Prentice Hall, England.
  3. Mathieson, A & Wall, G. (1982) Tourism: Economic, Physical and Social Impacts, Longman Scientific & Technical, Harlow, Essex.
  4. Stankey, G.H., Cole, D. N, Lucas, R.C, Petersen, M. E, and Frissell, S. S. (1985) The Limits of Acceptable Change (LAC) system for wilderness planning. Gen. Tech. Report INT-176, USDA Forest Service Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Ogden, UT.
  5. UNEP and WTO. (2005) Making Tourism More Sustainable: A Guide for Policy Makers. Division of Technology, Industry and Economics. Paris, France.
  6. Wise, W.E. (1988) The concept of carrying capacity as a tool for managing scenic roadways. Unpublished Master’s thesis. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 AL


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    • Al Stine profile imageAUTHOR


      6 months ago from South Equator, East Pacific

      Much appreciated Jill, the topic had so much available information, summarizing it was the issue. I hope the little bits i collected can be useful. We only have one mother Earth, so we better take care of her.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      6 months ago from United States

      Thanks for explaining the three factors that inform environmentally sustainable tourism so clearly and succinctly.


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