What Exactly IS Sustainable Tourism? Author Stefan Gössling Explains

An expert helps us explore what strategies hotels and restaurants can use to become more sustainable.

sustainable tourism
Paddy fields in Bali, Indonesia. Photo by Alexey Marchenko on Unsplash

The clock is ticking for action on climate change. But as the world returns to travel on a heightened level, it’s time to unearth sustainable tourism through a tactical and practical lens. Despite that we know traveling and dining sustainably can be made possible with a few simple adaptations, we wanted to dig deeper with Stefan Gössling, a Swedish professor on the very subject at Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics and Lund University’s Department of Service Management. Gössling is the author of several books, including: Tourism and Global Environmental Change Ecological, Economic, Social and Political Interrelationships as well as his most recent published work, The Sustainable Chef.

Gössling spoke with Jetset Times founder, Wendy Hung, about the global progression of sustainable tourism, various significant approach that the restaurant industry can implement to better serve our planet, as well as several advice on ways that all travelers can dine more sustainably at restaurants.

JST: What is sustainable tourism?

SG: Sustainable tourism is tourism that considers many different aspects, like economic, social, or environmental factors, to make it better. Sustainability is not something we achieve and stop; it is a goal we strive for constantly. It can be defined by 17 developmental goals with 169 indicators, but these are always changing. Without stopping climate change, we will not be able to achieve many of the other sustainable development goals. Right now, tourism is not very eco-friendly, but we can achieve sustainable tourism in the future if we start working towards it now.

JST: What are some things travelers can do to become eco-conscious?

SG: Whenever we travel, we use a lot of energy. Energy is linked to climate change, so what we want to do is avoid emissions. For instance, try not to fly short flights. If you have to, stay for a longer time at the destination, and try to find a green flight. To be more specific, use the atmosfair which is an accurate tool created in Germany for tracking emissions. Then in the destination you can find a green hotel and try to eat greener meals. For example, if you go to Hamburg which is a city that now has 30 vegetarian restaurants, finding green meals is simple and easy.

The Sustainable Chef
The Sustainable Chef, by Stefan Gössling and C. Michael Hall

JST: Outside of education, how can more people care about this urgent issue?

SG: We need to think about what we take for granted in other countries. For example, only 2% to 4% of people fly internationally each year. Most people think that everyone flies, but that’s not true. With the world population growing, we need to share resources better. We have common goals like reducing climate change and stabilizing the climate system. To make a difference, we first need to be more aware of our own contribution to the world’s problems and begin making better individual choices that can contribute to change to make our environment a better place.

JST: Which would make a bigger difference for climate change, the people or the government?

SG: China has a large carbon footprint because there are hundreds of millions of people living in the country; However, if you average it out, the carbon footprint is not that large. In the United States, there are fewer people but each person has a much larger carbon footprint. This is because a small number of people use a lot of resources. These people use up to 68 times more resources than the average Chinese person and they don’t even fly.

atmosfair is a German non-profit organization that actively contributes to CO₂ mitigation by promoting, developing and financing renewable energies in over 15 countries worldwide. This is part of their work in Senegal. FACEBOOK atmosfair

The problem in the United States is that even though there are fewer people, the total amount of resources used is still very high. The American way of life is not up for negotiation, but the global opinion might change because this issue is affecting all of us. Europeans have a large ecological footprint—for example, in Germany, the average person has an ecological footprint of 9 tons per year, and in Sweden, the average person has an ecological footprint of 7 tons per year.

This is much more than the global average. In Europe, there are efforts underway to lower emissions—for example, the European Union is the only region in the world that has goals towards alleviation. By 2030, they plan to use 6% renewable fuels. Things are moving in the right direction, but they need to move faster from a scientific perspective.

JST: What are some strategies restaurants can implement to become more sustainable?

SG: Family restaurants can make a difference. This is not about knowledge, it is about taking action. When restaurants throw away food, they are wasting money. In the United States, 42% of food from restaurants is wasted. This costs restaurants a lot of money. If food waste can be avoided, it can save money and help the environment. Food waste isn’t always for food. For example, many restaurants have buffets that create a lot of waste.

There are rules in Europe that food which has been out for a certain amount of time cannot be reused. There are strategies to stop so much waste, like redesigning the buffet so people are less likely to take large portions. Plate waste is also a problem where people overload their plates and don’t care if the food is thrown away afterward.

This can be related to culture. For example, in China people will serve food until people stop eating. We can do a lot to reduce food waste, and it also depends on cost. You don’t want guests to overload or overeat because that automatically is a cost. There are different things you can do to avoid waste such as, observing how much is coming back in terms of plate waste. If customers are leaving food on their plates, it means the portions are too big. Food waste can be avoided in buffets by using smaller plates.

Photo by Saile Ilyas on Unsplash

JST: Which type of restaurant is worse for the environment: a buffet or fast-food restaurant?

SG: The buffet is worse for the environment compared to fast food because people tend to eat more meat at a buffet. One study found that the average person eating at a buffet consumes 400 grams of meat per day. Which creates a larger carbon footprint than if a customer had ordered a burger and fries at a fast food restaurant.

JST: Does a country’s size impact the difference it can make in climate change compared to large countries such as the United States? What can be done to protect culture and history while saving the planet?

SG: The outdoor café culture in France has been around for a long time, but the eating systems have not. It has only emerged within the past ten years. People could do without them earlier and we can live without them now. Climate change is beneficial in that sense. In many cities, we know that the autumn season is now extended in Europe because we have longer, warmer evenings so customers can sit outside for a more comfortable period of time. We just have to remember to bring a jacket that is warm enough to sit there even when the temperature drops again.

Everyone says we can’t do this or we can’t do that because now it’s established and something we’re all used to, but where do we start? We have to start at the top of the list with the people who are emitting the most Co2. A person in central Africa emits 100 kilos per year and that’s not where we want to start reducing emissions. Someone like Abramovich emits more than 30,000 tons a year which is enough for a whole city. We would want these people to make a difference first. Not to mention, Europeans are very wealthy and it will not hurt them to do more than those in other continents.

JST: Is there a country at the moment that is a standard?

SG: No, many countries are working hard to stop climate change. They are trying various methods to reduce emissions from different parts of their economies. This is important because it means we can learn from each other and find better ways to reduce emissions. There are many countries and businesses with good ideas for reducing emissions, and we can learn from them so that other businesses can do the same thing.

JST: During Covid when hotels shut down and the use of plastic rose, what is your perspective on the effects Covid had on the environment?

SG: Covid-19 has had different effects on global energy use and climate change. Energy use went down 7%, which is a lot, but it also gave the planet a chance to breathe. Now we are moving back to where we were before, which is not good. I have been allocating for some different trussing systems as a result of Covid.

There was an option for a turning point, but we missed it. In terms of nature, you’ve seen different effects in some parts of the world. National parks and protected parks have not seen revenue from tourism. There is more pressure on protected areas in Europe because people are using the opportunity to go mountain biking and other outdoor activities during lockdown. Some countries want to continue using masks while others, like Sweden, are treating Covid like any other disease.

Mountain biking sustainable tourism
Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

JST: Is it more sustainable to become a vegetarian?

SG: With calculations for future food systems with a growing population and sustainability, you can eat 30 grams of meat a day per person and it would still be sustainable. 20-30 grams doesn’t sound like much because if you take your average burger it’s probably 100 grams and a large steak is most likely 200 grams. In most cases, we can cut down quite significantly on meat consumption and it can significantly help the environment. With a good chef, it won’t be a sacrifice.

vegetarian sustainable tourism
Photo by Victoria Shes on Unsplash

JST: What are some simple strategies large hotels can use to lower their carbon footprint?

SG: Hotels can make better choices to make the whole tourism system more sustainable. For example, a hotel can purchase renewable power instead of using fossil fuels. This will help reduce the hotel’s carbon footprint. Another way is by cutting down on air conditioning use. Some hotels have cut their carbon footprint by 95% just by using less a/c. Staff can be taught how to clean a room properly which can mean not flushing the toilet multiple times, leaving windows half open, using less cleaning detergent, and more.

To learn more about sustainable tourism, Stefan Gösslings’ book can all be ordered on his website.

Natalia Guerra

Contributing Editor

Natalia Guerra was born in Miami and comes from a Cuban background. Aside from her passion for travel writing and culinary arts, she also loves to step out of her comfort zone to live life to the fullest. Her lifestyle is being a digital nomad, working remotely as she travels the world one city at a time. Her favorite country has been Spain for its beautiful architecture and food, which reminds her of her Cuban culture.

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