June 2014

EVERYDAY GREEN: Increasing Sustainability in Tourism


Susan Guyette


Sustainability, in essence, is about interdependence. Balance in cultural, economic and ecological relationships is central for maintaining harmony. And hospitality—sharing food, appropriate information, and cultural arts—coming from a genuine respect for tradition, indicates the wise use of resources. When well planned and managed, cultural tourism can foster retention of those diverse cultural traditions so precious in New Mexico.


In the sustainable development process, local level planning is important for reducing negative impacts and increasing positive benefits, such as job creation. Planning and development involves the community, visitors or potential visitors, as well as local government, to create a direction and a general guideline for tourism. After the planning, a culturally and socially harmonious tourism approach involves continually increasing internal capacity, marketing, developing local businesses and evaluating success.


Nationally, entrepreneurs provide 80 percent of jobs in the tourism industry, pointing the potential for small-scale tourism in New Mexico. What is needed to foster entrepreneurs and an appropriate scale for tourism? Assistance with planning, visitor etiquettes developed within traditional communities to guide visitors on respectful visitation, more selling venues, training in product development as well as business skills—in addition to more marketing and promotional assistance—all would support entrepreneurs while furthering land retention in rural communities.


Cultural value-based planning and development takes into account family, community, generosity, ecosystem stewardship and the continuity of traditions—i.e., profit and large numbers of visitors are not the primary motivation. Experiential and the authentic experiences benefit communities, as well as meet the primary interests of cultural tourists.


Working within a cultural framework grounded in nature is an approach likely to be sustainable in the longer time-frame. Sustainability is more than a matter of doing no harm, but rather is restorative action.





As a concept related to tourism, sustainability is frequently used in reference to reduced environmental impacts. Although this view of sustainability is meaningful to rural and traditional communities, cultural criteria are also intertwined and integral.


Guiding principles for sustainability reflecting the “Three Es”—ecology, economy and equity—are valuable for integrating cultural and social concerns.


  1. StewardshipMaintain integrity and biodiversity.
  2. Respect for limitsLive within nature’s means.
  3. Interdependence—Respect ecological relationships as well as economic and cultural ties at the local, regional and international levels.
  4. Economic restructuringExpand employment opportunities while safeguarding ecosystems.
  5. Fair distributionIntegrate social justice and equity in areas such as employment, education and healthcare.
  6. Intergenerational perspectiveUse a long-term rather than a short-term view to guide the critical choices facing society.
  7. Nature as a model and teacherAcknowledge the 3.5 billion years of evolution of living systems and the rights of all species.


Cultural values regarding people as being a part of nature underlie actions and care of the environment, whether on the part of visitors or the host community. Sense of place, with a cultural basis, connects communities in nature.


For example, the need for access by Native Americans to wilderness areas for tending wild plants and harvesting plants or cultural art-making materials comes from a view of being in, rather than with or connected to, nature. In many instances, protection of privacy for activities such as the gathering of medicinal plants or pottery clays, is seen as a necessity to protect traditional practice.


Why the secrecy? Experience has taught these communities that most other cultures do not understand the concept of “take only what you need” for personal use. These resources become depleted when accessible to the public. Also, resources are to be used with respect and ceremony and not merely as objects. Respect to plants, animals, rivers, clay and even stones is extended in an internal, all-encompassing and related way.


Following local and cultural traditions for land stewardship is one aspect of maintaining eco-cultural sustainability through the long-term. As stewards of their ecosystems, traditional and Indigenous cultures hold ecological knowledge and caring for their environments. Additionally, their methods hold promise for educating other cultures.


Many cultures have internal methods for mediating decisions regarding sustainability. To the extent that planners and technical assistance providers appreciate and foster these internal discussions, then offer information on potential consequences of alternatives—forward movement is generated from within a community. In the worldview of our traditional communities, value judgments inherent in the concept “primitive economy” come from inaccurate opinion about complexity in these cultures and are considered offensive. Listening carefully to cultural interpretations of progress is useful for guiding planning in relation to culturally-based form, smaller scale and timing according to community readiness.


Small, traditional communities perceive the destruction of the past 50 years in terms of environmental impacts, cultural loss and the need for immediate action. Protecting community access to sacred areas is seen as essential. The very practice of culture, spirituality and seasonal rituals depends upon access to these sacred sites. If a lifeway imbedded with the wisdom of connectedness and conservation is to continue, these issues must be addressed. Fortunately, the potential match of conscious travelers seeking to learn about diverse ways of relating to ecosystems, agriculture, land stewardship, family cooperation and community support networks is growing.


The role of culture in sustainability of small-scale tourism is often not seen, yet is pivotal. Culture guides actions, whether related to following traditional land stewardship practices or the formation of tourism policy—and even the decisions of whether to participate in tourism or not to participate.


For this reason, the first question is not, “How many visitors before environmental impacts are seen?” but rather, “Does an intrusion affect both cultural practice and ecological integrity?”


When cultural appropriateness and connections underlie motivation in a community, then tourism may become a stimulus for teaching and retaining culture through recognition of cultural arts and practices. Including the entire community by providing entrepreneurial opportunities, training and access to resources sustains a community-supportive effort.


Culture is the cornerstone of sustainability.




Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development; and the co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature. susanguyette@nets.com



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