Sustainable tourism is defined by the UNWTO as “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities” (UNWTO, 2005).

Sustainable development is based on three pillars: economic, social and environmental. All three pillars are interdependent in many ways and they need to exist in a balanced relationship. According to the UNWTO, economic sustainability in tourism means generating prosperity at all levels of society and ensuring the viability of enterprises in the long term.

Social sustainability means that all tourism practices should respect human rights and offer equal opportunities for all in society, distributing benefits in an equitable way. Tourism should focus on poverty alleviation and create long-term benefits in local communities while respecting all cultures and avoiding any form of exploitation.

To secure environmental sustainability, tourism should focus on conserving biological diversity and natural heritage and managing resources, especially those that are not renewable.

Sustainable tourism should also minimize air, land and water pollution.

As the word sustainability is often overused and can be ambiguous (being synonymous with environmental issues but less so economic and social ones), the tourism industry has adopted the term responsible tourism. Responsible tourism can be any form of tourism from mass tourism to niche tourism products, that can be delivered and consumed in a responsible way. It requires all stakeholders in the tourism industry from operators and hoteliers to governments, local people and tourists to take responsibility to make tourism more sustainable.


As international tourism in the GMS returns after the disatrous impact of Covid, and the region looks set once more, it is crucial to remember the negatives that come with it. There is a vital need for responsible tourism within the region to help mitigate the challenges, so these benefits can be enjoyed without excessive social, environmental and economic damage. Steps are being taken to ensure this.

The Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program was established in 1992. By strengthening the economic bonds between member countries, the program aims to reduce poverty and enhance economic growth. The GMS Economic Cooperation Program covers nine sectors: tourism, transport, energy, telecommunications, human resource development, environment and natural resource management, trade facilitation, private investment, and agriculture. The program helps with the implementation of sub-regional projects with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other partners. As tourism itself is a specifically identified priority of the Economic Cooperation Program it is clear to see the issue has been of importance since the early 90s. (ADB, 2015)

One year later in 1993, the GMS Tourism Working Group (GMS TWG) was formed by representatives of the national tourism organizations of each member country. The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office was established in 2006 with funding from the six GMS countries’ ministries. The Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office aims to promote the Greater Mekong River area as one tourism destination, concentrating on capacity building in the tourism sector, poverty alleviation and sustainable tourism as well as placing a focus on sub regional cross-border marketing and product development in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

GMS TWG, with the support of the Asian Development Bank, created the first GMS Tourism Sector strategy (GMS TSS) in 2011 based on the GMS Economic Cooperation Program and directives issued by the Tourism Ministries of the GMS. The strategy envisioned the GMS as a single tourism destination, with a strong focus on culture, nature and adventure. The current GMS TSS (2016-2025) was formulated to meet the current challenges of infrastructure, human resource development, and child safety concerns. It also acknowledges the growing tourism demands and new practices in the tourismn industry. Another aspect of the strategy is to promote the preservation of the region’s unique cultures. A strategic framework was created by keeping in mind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

The different GMS countries are in varying stages of tourism development and every nation has individual opportunities and risks in developing responsible tourism. Despite that, the region shares many of the same core strengths and as such many similarities can be found in the countries’ tourism strategies. The GMS Tourism Sector strategy states that at national level human resource development, improving tourism infrastructure and enhancing visitor experiences and services are the most important aspects in developing tourism. Focusing on creative marketing and promotion and facilitating regional travel as important parts of tourism development for the region as a whole.


You might also enjoy


“Once you arrive at Keemala, it is the personal touch and bespoke experiences that really make a lasting impression for our guests,” she says. “From personalised villa host service to customised celebrations ranging from romantic date nights to engagements and weddings, private excursions, and cultural immersion experiences. For us, and our guests, it is these little touches that make all the difference.”


IHHVTC is part of the Inle Heritage Foundation, a not-for-profit organization working to preserve and enhance the culture of Inle Lake and the people who call it home. The Foundation began as just “Heritage House”, a stilt building in the middle of the lake used as a sanctuary for Burmese cats being reintroduced to the country.


Aung Kyaw Swar is the owner of A Little Eco Lodge, a small guesthouse on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. We are looking out on a field of a couple of acres where in a few months – and then only for several weeks – a hundred heads of sunflower will bloom. The sound of monks from the nearby monastery is receding into the distance.