The First Steps to becoming a Sustainable Tourism Businesses

The First Steps for Sustainable Tourism Businesses

By Nic Cooper, Regenerative Tourism Specialist
Published on February 1, 2023

It’s safe to say that these days, sustainability is on the tip of the tongue for many businesses and consumers when making decisions.

We see the term ‘sustainability’ in adverts, articles, packaging, political campaign promises, and on many businesses’ websites.

Tourism is one of the world's fastest growing industries and an important source of foreign exchange and employment, while being closely linked to the social, economic, and environmental well-being of many countries.

At the same time tourism contributes more than 5 percent of global greenhouse emissions.

The balance needs to be restored so that the tourism industry becomes a force for good rather than a destructive force, not least because most consumers are now demanding this.

But what does it really mean to be a sustainable tourism business, and what does it look like for a small-medium tourism business like yours?


What is Sustainable Tourism?

Sustainable tourism is an approach to tourism that aims to minimize negative impacts and maximize positive contributions to local communities, cultures, and the environment.

Sustainability isn’t about reinventing the wheel for your business; it’s about making gradual changes to be on a continuous road of improvement.


Become Purpose Driven

The tourism industry took a huge hit during the global pandemic, and many Australian operators have also been affected by natural disasters over the last few years including bushfires and floods.

And we know it has been a case of sink or swim over these times.

But we're are a critical point in time at the moment, to think of success as more than just profit, and 'growth at any cost'.

Operating a purpose driven business means that success comes when you have a positive impact on your local community, environment and cultures, all whilst achieving your economic goals.

If the tourism industry continues to operate ‘business as usual’, the disruption to our future business through climate change, and other environmental factors is only going to become more frequent and severe.

‘As a path to purpose evolves, businesses can transform themselves and ultimately the global economic system with them’ - Forces For Good Podcast by B Lab

Becoming a purpose driven operator goes hand in hand with being a sustainable tourism operator.

Identity ways you can infuse positive social and environmental impact into your business.

As Forbes magazine puts it, ‘Take a good hard look at your brand and see what communities or causes would most align with your product, then seek out ways to help in those areas.’


Embed into your ethos

The simplest approach to acting as a purpose driven tourism business is by embedding your purpose driven ethos into the business decisions you make.

When making a business decision, no matter how big or small, always ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this business decision beneficial to the environment, community and customer?
  • If it is only beneficial to one of the elements, ascertain whether making your business decision is detrimental to the others.
  • If it is detrimental to any, do not proceed.

For example, if you are a small hotel that provide guests with free shampoo, this benefits your customer, but may be detrimental to the environment if those bathroom products come in those tiny single use plastic bottles which will end up in our oceans or landfill.

Aim to enhance your customer experience with your sustainable practices

Using the above example, if you provide natural shampoo from a local business in a refillable bottle, you are enhancing the customer experience even more (as they are sampling a local product which adds to your story) whilst supporting the community through a local business and the environment through not causing any waste.


Discover the Benefits

Operating as a Sustainably is the best decision a tourism business can make - environmentally, socially and economically.

Being a sustainable tourism business is also not only the right thing to do but it is also makes really good for business sense.

You are likely to access and attract a bigger pool of consumers seeking out sustainable products, who, according to Tourism Australia's Future of Tourism Demand report released in 2022, are also willing to pay more for sustainable experiences.

Utilising sustainable initiatives such as renewable energy, electric vehicles, composting facilities, becoming waste free etc can also be good for the bottom-line saving businesses more over time than they spent to implement.

In addition to this a sustainable tourism operator can also lead to more positive reviews, more attention from media and tourism bodies, more advocates for your business, a more supportive community, and potentially gives you a competitive advantage.


Assess your business

Sometimes the most difficult part is finding where to begin.

A great place to start is doing a bit of an assessment of your business and identifying the areas that could be improved.

A few areas you may wish to look at include:

  • Waste – Calculate how much and look at ways to reduce, eliminate disposables and recycle.
  • Utilities – Choose ethical providers for your banking, energy, telco, internet, insurance etc.
  • Venue (hotel/office/vehicle) – Can you power with renewable energy, digitalise what you can, reduce your online footprint, harness rainwater, use natural products for cleaning
  • Support Local Business – Where possible source ethical products/equipment and local produce from your community.
  • Support Local causes – Are there any local causes/conservation/cultural projects you are supporting?

Once you have assessed your business, you will hopefully find a range of areas which you can act on.

Separate these actions into different sets of goals:

  • Quick wins – Always a fantastic way to get out the starting blocks and make progress
  • Medium term – These may be areas you can see as achievable to improve but will take a bit of time
  • Longer term – These might be your ambitious targets (100% powered by renewables, zero waste, fleet of electric vehicles etc), set some sort of date to try and achieve even if that’s in 10 years, it’s extending your purpose.


Measure your impact

Part of becoming a sustainable tourism operator is measuring your environmental and social impact so that you can aim to make improvements.

To even begin to work this out may seem daunting.

There are free online carbon calculator websites including Carbon Positive Australia and Carbon Neutral which can save you time and stress and guide you through the process.

One of the best ways to reduce your impact is by setting targets to decarbonise rather than just business as usual and offsetting.

For any emissions your business is generating, it can often be a much more positive impact to 'inset' these rather than 'offset'.

‘Insetting’ focuses on helping the ecosystems and communities which are directly impacted by a company’s operations - so this could be by supporting a local reforestation project in (or near to) your community.


Look at the bigger picture

See how your business relates to the bigger environmental and social issues which the tourism industry impacts and find ways you can act on some of these:

  • Addressing climate change
  • Minimizing plastic consumption
  • Protecting the environment including deforestation, saving endangered species
  • Supporting and protecting Indigenous cultures and places
  • Pollution in our natural environments
  • Over-tourism and expanding economic development in communities affected by tourism

A great way of doing this is aligning your business with a selection of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) which are the most relevant for your business to address.

E SDGs Poster 768x456


Becoming accredited or certified as a sustainable tourism business can help set your business on the path to becoming a truly sustainable tourism operator, as well as guiding you to implement structures and policies to support this.

It’s also extremely marketable and can provide your business with another ‘string to your bow’ to talk about, display and promote to your audience.

Media outlets are looking for stories in the sustainability space, travel wholesalers are increasingly looking to contract products which have significant sustainability credentials so ultimately having the right sustainability accreditation can put your business towards the front of the queue for attracting positive PR and travel buyers.

There are multiple accreditations and certifications out there for tourism businesses including becoming eco-certified with Ecotourism Australia, or a Sustainable Tourism Accredited Business through the Quality Tourism Framework. For more detail on these and other eco accreditations worth considering, check out our Guide to Sustainability Accreditations for Tourism Businesses.


Sustainable vs Regenerative Tourism

If you would like to learn more on the difference between sustainable tourism and regenerative tourism and how this can apply to your business, you can read our article on: Regenerative Tourism vs Sustainable Tourism – The future of our industry, traveller and planet.



*Image Credit:


Nic Cooper

Nic 'Coops' Cooper is our Regenerative Tourism Specialist, and is also owner/operator of micro adventure tour operator Wild Adventures Melbourne. He is a leader in Sustainability in Australia, one of the few B-Corp Tourism Operators in Australia, and a Tourism Australia Sustainability Storyteller.