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What Is Responsible Travel? 

January 18, 2024

Adapted from the Responsible Travel Handbook, published by the Port of Seattle and partners  

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of the tourism sector as global travel virtually came to a standstill overnight. Yet for several communities, the years preceding the pandemic were marked by increasing resentment towards tourism as popular places witnessed extreme overcrowding, locals being priced out, environmental degradation, and pressure on infrastructure and services. For many outdoor recreation communities, the pandemic years marked record visitation and exacerbated some of these issues. 

This disruption provided an opportunity for the tourism industry to reset and re-evaluate to generate positive benefits for the local community and environment. If tourism is to do its part in contributing to vitality and prosperity, it’s essential to support the small businesses that fuel the travel experience, the environmental resources that make it possible, and the diverse and vibrant communities that we all depend on. It’s also critical to innovate; to respond to changing trends and expectations from local, national, and global influences; and to deeply understand the impact tourism has on our communities. 

Moving towards responsible travel 

One of the Port of Seattle’s mandates is to support statewide tourism. The visitor industry is a vital and significant segment of the King County and Washington State economies. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) is the primary gateway for air travel to our state and the Port's cruise terminals are the gateway of choice for the Alaska cruise market.  

At this moment, there is tremendous support within the tourism industry to build a more responsive and responsible travel industry and the Port of Seattle is proud to be a leader in those efforts. In 2022, the Port’s tourism department sponsored the State of Washington Tourism’s first-ever Responsible Outdoor Travel Summit to advance conversations around the state on all facets of destination stewardship including ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and mitigating tourism’s impact on our environment.  

The Port has collaborated with two respected international and national destination stewardship leadership groups to facilitate action within the state’s tourism industry and to produce the Responsible Travel Handbook: 

  • Tourism Cares — mobilizes travel associations and companies to move travel in a positive direction  
  • The Travel Foundation — an independent charity that works with tourism companies and organizations to unlock the positive potential of tourism 


The future of tourism 

This partnership is another step towards alignment with the Future of Tourism Coalition’s vision for a better future. 

“The Future of Tourism Coalition shares a global mission: to place destination needs at the center of tourism’s new future. Decades of unfettered growth in travel have put the world’s treasured places at risk — environmentally, culturally, socially, and financially. Now the tourism industry faces a precarious and uncertain future.” 

With this vision, the industry is re-centering around a strong set of Guiding Principles: 

  1. See the whole picture — Recognize that most tourism by its nature involves the destination as a whole, with its ecosystems, natural resources, cultural assets and traditions, communities, aesthetics, and built infrastructure. 
  2. Use sustainability standards — Meet internationally approved criteria for sustainable tourism practices 
  3. Collaborate in destination management — Develop all tourism through a collaborative management structure with equal participation by government, the private sector, and organizations that represent diversity in communities 
  4. Choose quality over quantity — Manage tourism based on quality of visitation, not quantity of visitors, to enhance the travel experience while sustaining the character of the destination, and benefit local communities. 
  5. Demand fair income distribution — Set policies that counter unequal tourism benefits within destination communities and maximize retention of tourism revenues within those communities 
  6. Reduce tourism’s burden — Account for all tourism costs in terms of local tax burdens, environmental and social impacts, and objectively verifiable disruption. Ensure investments are linked to optimizing net-positive impacts for communities and the environment. 
  7. Redefine economic success — Favor metrics that specify destination benefits such as small business development, distribution of incomes, and enhancement of sustainable local supply chains 
  8. Mitigate climate impacts — Follow accepted scientific consensus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Invest in green infrastructure and a fast reduction in air, sea, and ground transport emissions 
  9. Close the loop on resources — Turn away from the use of disposable plastics by tourism businesses, and transition to circular resource use
  10. Contain tourism’s land use — Limit high-occupancy resort tourism to concentrated areas. Discourage resort sprawl from taking over coasts, islands, and mountain areas, so as to retain geographical character, a diverse economy, local access, and critical ecosystems 
  11. Diversify source markets — In addition to international visitation, encourage robust domestic tourism, which may be more resilient in the face of crises and raise citizens’ perceived value of their own natural and cultural heritage 
  12. Protect sense of place — Encourage tourism policies and business practices that protect natural, scenic, and cultural assets. Retain and enhance destination identity and distinctiveness. Diversity of place is one of the reasons people travel
  13. Operate business responsibly — Incentivize and reward tourism businesses and associated enterprises that support these principles through their actions and develop strong local supply chains that allow for higher quality products and experiences

An upcoming blog series will feature topics like sustainable tourism and incorporating diverse perspectives and communities into destination planning.  

For a deeper understanding of these topics and the tourism industry’s role, read the entire Responsible Travel Handbook  

Photo credits: Washington Tourism Alliance, copyright Greg Balkin

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