Sunday, August 12, 2012

Easy and Hard Sustainability: Sustainable Tourism and Sustainable Cities

While almost everything I research and write about is tourism related, the classes that I actually teach at Northern Arizona University are mostly not tourism related, but are in urban and regional planning.  I have a master degree in urban planning and am a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.  I also follow email lists for practicing planners, academic planners and tourism academics.

I try to bring my urban planning background to my tourism work, with my book Understanding and Managing Tourism Impacts: An Integrated Approach (Routledge, 2009) being the place where I have done that the most.  There is also a commentary that I wrote in 2007 on planning theory and tourism planning that you can download from the link below.  This blog post is based on that commentary, which was updated in a keynote presentation that I gave a few months ago at a conference on "Sustainable Urban Tourism" that was held in Hong Kong (2012) and which is also linked below.

My personal opinion is that urban planners have a much better understanding of the breadth of issues related to sustainable development than do tourism people.  In tourism, the main focus of sustainable development is on green certifications.  This checklist approach is what planners call a "functional" or "tame" problem. They tend to have clear goals, quantifiable results, and are not threatening in their implementation.  They are the easy challenges of sustainability, and include low carbon energy use, water conservation, waste recycling, open space protection, and low impact building practices.

There is, as you might suspect, another group of sustainable development problems that are much harder to resolve.  Planners refer to these as "substantive" or "wicked" problems, and they tend to involve vague goals, subjective attitudes, and political decisions that threaten particular interest groups.  Examples of wicked sustainability issues that relate to tourism development include changing human behavior to improve air and water quality, increasing quality of life opportunities and political empowerment for low income communities, and protecting living cultures without destroying their sense of place through commodification and museumization.

Urban planners have developed tools to use with communities to address wicked problems.  These mostly center on citizen participation techniques, and there are many substantive approaches that may be employed.  A big difference between tourism and urban planning, of course, is that tourism tends to be more private sector and business oriented, while urban planning tends to be more public welfare oriented. 

However, these orientations are not exclusive, as tourism is often seen as an economic development opportunity for both private businesses and communities in general, as well as having potential positive impacts on environmental and cultural conservation.  Just how tourism can do that in a truly sustainable manner, beyond the easy sustainability of green certifications, requires a greater awareness on the part of tourism industry leaders and managers, as well as many tourism researchers, of how this is  being done in disciplines outside of tourism itself.


Lew, Alan A. (2007Tourism Planning and Traditional Urban Planning Theory: Planners as Agents of Social Change. Leisure/Loisir: Journal of the Canadian Association of Leisure Studies 31(2):383-392. (pre-publication version)

Lew, Alan A. (2012) Planning Theory, Sustainable Cities and Sustainable Tourism. Keynote presenation at the Sustainable Tourism in Urban Environments Conference, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, 20-22 April 2012. DRAFT Pre-Conference Working Copy (.pdf)