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Literature review

This literature review is written by Ruta Dambyte as part of her NHTV Master in Tourism Destination Management.

The implementation of sustainable practices in tourism related companies is an object of discussions by many academics. There are various researches made about incentives and obstacles while switching towards sustainable business model (Le & Hollenhorst, 2005; La Lopa & Day, 2011). The scholars question if sustainability is a trend, a way to gain more profit (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2009) or moral duty (Jarvis, Simcock, Weeden, 2010). Moreover, the doubts are being expressed towards the existence of sustainability in tourism while being a very complex industry (Vukonovic, n.d.). Therefore, this literature review reefers to the main reasons limiting tourism related companies to implement sustainability, as well as the incentives to switch towards different business approach.

Before looking at sustainability from companies perspective, it is crucial to define the term sustainable tourism. The definition of sustainability in tourism is rather wide and not strictly defined. Some scholars propose that sustainable tourism is an alternative to mass tourism (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2009) other academics see eco tourism, pro-poor tourism as parts of sustainable tourism practices. Higgins-Desbiolles (2009) defines sustainable tourism as an answer to negative impacts that the industry creates. However, most of the literature reflects to three main aspects of sustainability in business: economic, social and environmental (Figge & Hahn, 2006). Economic aspect is defined as a way of saving companies costs, while social factor reefers to benefiting local community.  For instance, creating the employment. Environmental sustainability is related to preservation of natural resources.

It is interesting to question the realization of sustainable business practices among tourism enterprises, since it involves various stakeholders with different interests. Therefore, Vukonovic (n.d.) suggests that the whole idea of sustainability is meant to collapse because none of the involved actors wants to sacrifice their benefits. Tourism industry, as any other, is profit driven. It is based on commodification of culture and environment, as well as exploitation of people (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2009). It emerged together with the ideology of consumerism, therefore the whole idea of sustainability is not more than sustaining the profit (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2009). Sustainability goes against capitalism, because it means limitation of growth. However, the whole industry is based on natural recourses (nature and culture) therefore tourism businesses have to switch their interest to sustain them, otherwise the sector will suffer in longer term (Vukonovic, n.d.). The majority of british leading tour operators already realized that the dramatic changes to their external operating environment calls for a need to reshape their working attitudes (Dunbar, 2009). Therefore, it is essential to understand barriers that discourages and incentives which stimulate companies to move towards sustainability.

Firstly, the decision to adopt sustainable practices presents many challenges for tourism related enterprises. It leads to a long process of change. Although the benefits to communities and individual companies are evident and the recourses are available the motivation to change is far from universal (La Lopa & Day, 2011). Business managers knows that introduction of innovations usually takes a lot of time, effort and often causes destruction in organizational climate (La Lopa & Day, 2011). Each organization has its corporate culture, composed of values, beliefs, attitudes (Graci, 2010). Since environmental issues are usually isolated from a corporate values, the attempts to implement them doesn’t function (Graci, 2010). The successful accommodation of sustainability practices is largely related to personal believes. Graci (2010) states that unsupportive management can be a great limitation towards the development of sustainability. If people  do not see the necessity for a change, they refuse it and they don’t stand for it, any attempt to introduce the novelty is most likely to fail (La Lopa & Day, 2011). According to Le and Hollenhorst (2005), before making any decisions managers evaluate the resistance of employees. The attempts towards a changes tend to work faster, if it is easy for employees to understand the benefits (Le and Hollenhorst, 2005). The particularity with tourism products is that in most cases the quality can not be tested before the consumption. Therefore, if employees do not understand the necessity for adopting innovations, they won’t be able to perceive this sustainable tourism image to their costumers (Le & Hollenhorst, 2005).

The other barrier towards sustainability is a lack of knowledge (Graci, 2010; La Lopa & Day, 2010). Graci (2010) emphasizes, that environmental awareness of managers is rather low and it leads to a slow uptake for future initiatives. However, most of the managers, in this case in hotels, knows about the existence of solar power, waste battery collection as a means to save costs, but the knowledge how to dispose them is inadequate (Graci, 2010). Implementation of sustainability requires long term thinking. In contrary, capitalistic environment of tourism businesses leads to short term goals. The main problem noted by Graci (2010) is that without increase in general environmental awareness there is no incentive for tourism enterprises to implement sustainable ideas, except the ones who bring fast economic gain.

One more limiting factor for innovations, is that sustainable practices are considered to be expensive. La Lopa and Day (2011) suggest that businesses should be educated about the purchasing costs being lower, than benefits of being sustainable. Companies do not realize that once they invest, the economic gains in a long term will be bigger. Therefore, financial recourses is defined as a another limitation for implementing sustainable business approach. Rojo (2009) notes that natural recourses are considered to be public goods, therefore, investing in their preservation does not bring direct economic benefits to the company. The recent economic downturn made companies to revise their expenditures. Hence, increase of sales at any costs becomes a primary goal, while any socially or environmentally friendly activity is considered to be less important. Since in the times of economic crisis dropping sales is one of the major concerns, the companies could try to sustain their income while adopting yield management schemes. Such type of management focuses on profit made per customer and not on growth of clients. Yield management principles are mostly used by airline companies, large hotel chains and lately by destination management organizations (Macbeth & Northcote, 2005) but it could be also adopted by a smaller scale businesses, like tour operators.

The idea of high expenses while implementing sustainability partly arrises because of governmental policies. Usually, The National Tourist Authorities (NTA) and Tourism Destination Organizations (TDO) are responsible for encouraging tourism companies to impede sustainability (La Lopa & Day, 2011). Quite often such organization establish guidelines for nature and culture friendly approach and certifies the companies who follow the rules (La Lopa & Day, 2011).  However, acquiring such certificate leads to many hours of bureaucratic work and requires solid financial resources to fulfill the imposed obligations (Jarvis, Simcock, Weeden, 2010). Therefore small and medium sized companies quite often fail in adopting sustainable tourism practices (Jarvis, Simcock, Weeden, 2010). According to Lee and Hollenhorst (2005) firms perceive uncertainty in government policies as a risk, and does not invest in innovations. This barrier could be removed, if governments would agree on more friendly policies towards sustainability implementation. For instance, providing subsidies for necessary technology.

Figge and Hahn (2006) states that companies contribute to sustainability only if the  expenses are lower than the perceived benefits. However, most of the scholars relate sustainability with the positive image of the company (Le &Hollenhorst, 2005; Jarvis, Simcock & Weeden, 2010). Therefore, marketing is recognized to be the biggest driving force towards sustainability. For instance, quite often companies strive to get “green label”, because they believe that this creates a good image and distinguish them from the competitors. Le and Hollenhorst (2005), states that “becoming green” by implementing environmental innovations is a great strategy towards differentiation in the hyper competitive environment. However, do these companies represent the acquired positive image in the right way? Jarvis, Simcock and Weeden  (2005) states that after obtaining the certificate, enterprises use it as a tool to charge higher prices for their services. Therefore, consumers often thinks that service provided by sustainability oriented businesses are more expensive. Shouldn’t it be the opposite? By implementing environmentally friendly approach companies save costs on energy, water and waist bills (Jarvis, Simcock & Weeden, 2010), but they are not willing to share the saved costs with their clients by offering lower prices. That’s why Jarvis, Simcock and Weeden (2010) concludes, that companies overestimate the numbers of clients who are willing to pay more for sustainable holiday. Another problem is that “sustainable campaigns” in travel business are being used as a marketing tool. The leading travel related companies are implementing environmentally based approach by helping to develop sustainable source of energy and establishing carbon offset schemes. The issue is that most of those so called “sustainable” practices, implemented by travel business giants quite often does not have independent auditors, or are not supervised at all. Unfortunately, the big tourism business players see sustainability as a key for a growth, because through their “greenwashing” campaigns they introduce a new product for a new segment of costumers. Higgins-Desbiolles (2009), notes that large tour operators are only paying lip service to sustainable tourism and fails  moving towards sustainability taking into account their relationships with tourism destinations. Mass tourism consumers have money to spend, therefore big companies created a new, “green” product, to make people to pay even more.  Therefore, if the companies will claim that they are implementing responsible traveling when in reality just abusing the popularity of sustainable ideas, it will have negative affects. Customers will get disappointed.  Their unfulfilled visions about contribution to something good will become an obstacle for honest companies to make an effort towards sustainable practices and address them successfully.

In conclusion, it is important to understand the limitations to sustainability in order to move forward the intensions from attitude to action (Graci, 2010). Travel industry is focused on natural resources and the negative impacts caused by tourism provokes attention to change management strategies of tourism businesses. The sustainability “movement” put the tourism enterprises into the spotlight, therefore we can claim that the industry has the moral obligations to spread good examples of sustainability. One of the main barriers to impede innovations is the unreadiness by managers and employees to go through the process of change. Managers are afraid that the costs to persuade their staff towards environmentally friendly activities will cost more than the gained benefits. Therefore it is essential to educate the staff about positive aspects of sustainability before switching to different business model (La Lopa & Day, 2010). The establishment of educational programs about advantages of sustainability would help to overcome another barrier – lack of environmental awareness. This is were the governmental bodies have to interfere. Sustainable approach is understood as costly investment. Local government should reduce the level of bureaucracy exercised on environmentally and socially responsible companies.

Nevertheless, there are various limitations, marketing opportunities seemed to be the biggest incentive towards sustainability. Through joining various “green” movements companies hope to increase the advertising possibilities. Unfortunately, usually it only stays the advertising tool and in reality little is done to sustain natural recourses. Thus, this advantage can turn into obstacle for businesses with honest intentions due to mistrust of costumers, willing to contribute to responsible travel. Finally, the achievement of sustainability depends on moral responsibility of each individual.



Dunbar, M. (2009). Brits leads way on  sustainability. Canadian Travel Press, 42(5): 8. Retrieved 16 November, 2011, from EBSCO database.

Jarvis, N., Simcock, N., Weeden, C. (2010). The benefits and challenges of sustainable tourism certification: A case study of the Green Tourism Business Scheme in the West of England. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 17, 83–93. Retrieved November 17, 2011 from EBSCO database.

Desbiolles-Higgins, F. (2009). The elusiveness of sustainability in tourism: the culture-ideology of consumerism and its implications. Tourism and Hospitality Research, 10(2): 116-129. Retrieved November 16, 2011 from EBSCO database.

Figge, F., Hahn, T. (2004). Sustainable value – added measuring corporate contributions to sustainability beyond eco-efficiency. Ecological economics, 48: 173-187. Retrieved November 15, 2011 from Science Direct database.

Graci, S. (2010). Examining the factors that impede sustainability in China’s tourism accommodation industry: a case study of Sanya, Hainan, China. Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management, 19: 38-55. Retrieved November 16, 2011 from EBSCO database.

La Lopa, M., J., Day, J. (2011). Pilot study to assess the readiness of the tourism industry in Waled to change to sustainable tourism business practices. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 18: 130-139. Retrieved November 17, 2011 from EBSCO database.

Le, Y., Hollenhorst, S. (2005). Perceptions of vietnamese tours companies toward adopting sustainable tourism practices. An International Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research, 16(1): 79-99. Retrieved November 17, 2011 from EBSCO database.

Macbeth, J., Northcote, J. (2005). Conceptualizing yield sustainable tourism management. Annals of Tourism Research, 33(1): 199-220. Retrieved November 16, 2011 from Science Direct database.

Roberts, Sh., Tribe, J. (2008). Sustainability indicators for small tourism enterprises – an exploratory perspective. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 16 (5): 575-594. Retrieved November 17, 2011 from EBSCO database.

Rojo, M. (2009). Economic development versus environmental sustainability: the case of tourist marinas in Andalusia. European Journal of Tourism Research, 2(2): 162-177. Retrieved November 15, 2011, from EBSCO database.

Vukonovic, B. (n.d.). Can sustainability be questioned? Retrieved November 16, 2011, from EBSCO database.