What is Sustainable Tourism?

Faculty insight with Megan Epler Wood

Megan Epler Wood, a sustainable tourism expert and Harvard Extension School instructor, talks with Jenny Attiyeh of ThoughtCast about the importance of considering tourism’s environmental impact.

Video summary

Megan Epler Wood is a leading authority on sustainable tourism. She founded the International Ecotourism Society and the firm EplerWood International. Her firm advises public and private sector organizations on sustainable tourism practices in developing nations.

What is sustainable tourism? It has a global scope. Tourism is a huge industry: one billion people traveled internationally in 2012. That number is expected to rise to 1.8 billion by 2020. Every trip that a tourist takes has an environmental impact. And Epler Wood is trying to make it a more sustainable industry.

One obvious way to minimize the impact of tourism is to reduce pollution at popular destinations. And Epler Wood and her associates look for tourism projects that are both environmentally sound and beneficial to locals.

They invested in a small business that sells biodegradable soaps for washing pots and pans along the Inca Trail in Peru. A permit on the Inca Trail can run as high as $10,000. EplerWood International was able to finance the business venture.

In Belize, the Ambergris Cay is a small island where, just a few years ago, there was almost no tourism. Since people have discovered the beautiful coral reef, tourism has grown and almost the entire coastline has been developed.

The Belize government enlisted Epler Wood to look at the site. And she found that the region was producing 20 percent of foreign exchange for the entire nation. But, with so many other areas in need of aid, the government did not reinvest in the destination site.

To manage and maintain tourism in an environmentally sound manner, you have to reinvest. They were missing that point. Epler Wood says that nearly every other country in the world is missing that point as well.

Epler Wood argues that global institutions need to recognize and adhere to an environmental commitment to global development so that some of the world’s most beautiful destinations can stay that way. 

She says her work with Harvard Extension School students gives her hope. Young decision makers are exploring what it will take to manage the planet. They gain different perspectives. And their education could really make a difference.

Megan Epler Wood’s courses and book

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