Sustainable Urban Tourism Ideas and Solutions for City Destinations

Examples of Cities Implementing Sustainable Urban Tourism Solutions Benefiting Destinations and Communities

Sustainable urban tourism solutions address issues such as accessibility, building resilience, climate actions and diversity.
Ayako Ezaki
Ayako Ezaki

Director of Training Strategy and Development at TrainingAid

World Cities Day Sustainable Urban Tourism

Cities around the world play a critical role in supporting and driving social and economic development.

Since urban areas are home to key tourism destinations and attractions, the issue of sustainable and inclusive urban development poses important challenges and opportunities to tourism stakeholders, as well as governments and local residents.

What are some of the key trends and issues in urban tourism facing destinations around the world, and what are some examples of cities implementing sustainable destination management solutions?

What Are Sustainable Cities?

Urban sustainability is a complex concept, touching on a wide range of needs, pressures, and policy considerations that affect diverse aspects of a life in a city.

The "Sustainable Cities Index”, for example, focus on "balancing the immediate needs of today without compromising the demands of tomorrow”, and looks at the sustainability performance of 100 cities around the world based on the three dimensions of sustainability:

  • People: Quality of life indicators on health (life expectancy and obesity), education (literacy and universities), income inequality, work-life balance, the dependency ratio, crime and housing and living costs.
  • Planet: Environmental indicators on energy consumption and renewable energy share, green space within cities, recycling and composting rates, greenhouse gas emissions, natural catastrophe risk, drinking water, sanitation and air pollution.
  • Profit: Economic health indicators on transport infrastructure (rail, air and traffic congestion), ease of doing business, tourism, GDP per capita, the city’s importance in global economic networks, connectivity in terms of mobile and broadband access and employment rates.

In addition to these sustainability indicators, cities around the world can follow these guidelines on sustainable urban development set by the New Urban Agenda, a global standard for how we plan, manage and live in cities. The New Urban Agenda address key issues such as accessibility, building resilience, climate actions and diversity, and promotes commitment by cities to supporting the Sustainable Development Goals.

Does Tourism Help or Hinder Sustainable Cities?

The Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism calls on destinations and tourism stakeholders around the world to "take responsibility for achieving sustainable tourism, and to create better places for people to live in and for people to visit”.

Can tourism, when developed and managed responsibly based on these ideals, effectively support the sustainability agenda for urban destinations?

Tourism, for better or for worse, is a powerful economic force impacting various aspects of urban development, and thus the lives of local residents in cities around the world.

Recently, the negative impacts of tourism on popular urban destinations have often been under the media spotlight, from local activists in Venice protesting against cruise ship tourism to Barcelona's temporary ban on new hotel construction, to restrictions against Airbnb and other short-term rental agencies seen as contributing to urban livability issues such as rising property prices and a growing housing shortage in places like Berlin.

These developments confirm the perception that tourism can often be a "double-edged sword", which on the one hand offering economic opportunities while at the same time increasing the destination’s vulnerability to over-crowding and uncontrolled growth.

The risk of "overtourism" is a very real challenge facing all destinations; and no less so in the popular and well-known cities. On the other hand, cities, which are themselves an important part of visitor experience, as well as serving as hubs for other areas, can both help the sustainable development of urban destinations and benefit from greener and more responsible forms of tourism.

Suwon City, South Korea: Bringing Eco-Innovation to Life

The South Korean city of Suwon, in partnerships with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability and UN-Habitat, hosted the EcoMobility World Festival in 2013, which inspired innovative ideas and grassroots projects to address the urban development challenge of balancing economic growth and a greener and healthier life for the local people.

Yeom Tae-young, the mayor of Suwon, describes in an interview with Citiscape that the city implemented a three-pronged approach to achieve this goal: "investment in physical infrastructure to encourage the use of greener transport schemes; community engagement for participatory development; and continuous exchange of knowledge and best practices with local and international partners, to share lessons and common challenges."

"Identify a goal that will promote sustainable growth; involve the community in developing the project; and take the concept into action by building the necessary infrastructure and networks.” - Yeom Tae-young, Mayor, Suwon City, South Korea

This included turning the city's Haenggung-dong neighborhood "car-free" for thirty days, demonstrating the social and environmental benefits of sustainable transport solutions.



Beyond the car-free month project, the impact of the Festival has resulted in various long-term positive results, such as regular car-free weekends led by local citizens who are now inspired and empowered with the knowledge that a car-free lifestyle is not only possible but also enjoyable for all; more pedestrian-friendly traffic regulations implemented based on recommendations by a citizens' round table; and measurable impacts on the city’s overall environmental goals.

Suwan City Eco Mobility
Source: Lee Jae Jun, Vice Mayor of Suwon, "Green City Suwon and the Green City Award Korea" (2014)

Suwon plans to continue its leadership in green city development, by being the first to apply the Sustainable City Tourism Destination Standard for The Republic of Korea, which has been recognized by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), designed to apply the GSTC Criteria as universal principles into the context of cities in South Korea. This means both implementing sustainable solutions for tourism development in the city itself, and seeking partnerships to encourage other cities to also become sustainable tourism destinations.

Visit Copenhagen: Showcasing the City’s Bike Culture

Bicycling is among the greenest, healthiest and often also least expensive ways for travelers to get around in a city. In Copenhagen, well-known as one of the world’s most bicycle-friendly cities, encouraging visitors to bike around town is not only about offering a fun and convenient way to see the city’s many attractions, but also about showcasing the local lifestyle, where “life is lived in the saddle of a bicycle”, as the city proudly promotes its bike culture.

Bike City Copenhagen
"Bike City Copenhagen" (Source: Visit Copenhagen)

From renting city bikes with built-in GPS and tourist information to joining many local bike tours, visitors have numerous options for getting around and discovering the city, while experiencing its authentic local life, cycling like the locals do.

In addition to exploring the city by bicycle, visitors who want to learn more about Copenhagen's green secrets have the opportunity to get local insights, on a bicycle, of course:

  • Green Energy Tour: A 4-hour bike tour to learn about Copenhagen's environmental city planning and green energy practices, and to see first-hand how the city's plans to become carbon neutral by 2025 are manifesting in the local life, including green building and green transportation, sustainable energy initiatives, and climate actions. (Learn more)
  • Cycling Embassy of Denmark: A guided bike tour provided by a local network of cycling professionals, focused on the story of how Copenhagen has developed its bicycle culture, and how the city's bicycle infrastructure works. Perfect for bike enthusiasts, city planners and destination managers seeking to gain expert insights into building a bike-friendly city. (Learn more)

Copenhagen's bicycle tourism example demonstrates that to promoting a sustainable lifestyle for local residents can lead to sustainable visitor experience, and help enhance the quality of the destination’s tourism offers by adding distinct local and authentic touch to the way travelers see and feel the city.

Authenticitys: Harnessing the Power of Responsible Urban Tourism

The term "authentic" may have become in recent years over-used and abused, but at its core it represents an important concept that's key to the principles and practices of sustainable and responsible tourism.

As more and more travelers seek local, unique, non-cliche travel experiences, a critical challenge to tour providers and destination wanting to promote "authentic" experiences is to strike the right balance between showcasing how the locals live and promoting positive encounters that benefit both visitors and locals.

And that's why for Authenticitys, a platform promoting responsible and authentic urban tourism, it's essential to work closely with local entrepreneurs to design and curate local experiences that appropriately showcase the communities that travelers experience.

An online platform that connects visitors with local experiences, Authenticitys has set out to achieve the bold goal of helping make the host cities better through responsible tourism, empowering travelers to leave a positive impact in the cities they visit.

Elena Rodríguez Blanco, Co-Founder and Experience Curator of Authenticitys, shares in an interview with Travindy that "the main impacts we categorize our tours into - Employability, Education, Freedom; Equality, Environment, Health, and Happiness - are aligned with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, as we feel these are the most promising roadmap for the future."

Tourism, when developed and managed responsibly, can become a positive force supporting sustainable urban development. Some urban tourism destinations have already began their journeys towards becoming "better places for people to live in and for people to visit". Learning from these examples, urban areas around the world have the opportunity to lead with and benefit from sustainability goals and actions, and to really live the motto of "Inclusive Cities, Shared Development" for both residents and visitors.