Can tourist developments ever be sustainable?

12 mins read

Sustainability must be at the heart of any contemporary tourism endeavour.

Based on the paper wirtten by J. Purandare from the School of Landscape Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh.

The paper titled “Sustainable Resort Developments in Sensitive Environments – How can tourist developments in popular tourist destinations, such as the Maldives, also be sustainable developments?” was authored by J. Purandare from the School of Landscape Architecture, Edinburgh College of Art, Edinburgh, United Kingdom. It was published in the International Journal of Small Economies Vol. 01, No. 01, Year 2009. The paper uses Maldives as an example of a nation that is experiencing rapid growth within the tourism sector. It compares three resorts in the country, each of different characteristics and concepts, to establish the positive and negative effects they have on their natural environments. The paper combines these three case studies with theoretical and qualitative research to suggest a best practice method for creating equilibrium between tourism development and the natural environment. The following article is a summary of the key ideas and principles outlined in the paper.


The paper starts off by highlighting how traditional tourist destinations are enjoying less popularity as places of outstanding beauty and how developing countries in particular are responding to this pressure by coming up with high quality and competitive resorts. It also notes that while tourism developments are often required to be quick, these developments often need to be conducted while keeping costs at a minimum due to the low economies of these developing nations. In this scenario, compromises are often made, with environmental protection and preservation being viewed as a time consuming and costly task.

Concepts of sustainable development

The paper then goes on to define the term ‘sustainability.’ While noting how the interpretation of the term needs to adapt to changing societies, shifting circumstances and new technologies, it summarises the term as  “the maintenance of equilibrium between how current generations wish to live and the resources they require to live comfortably, and what future generations will require to continue to live as successfully and as comfortably as the current generation.” The paper also divides sustainability into three categories; economic, social and environmental, with the success of each category being dependent on the success and characteristics of the others.

Sustainable tourism

The paper notes how tourism can bring enormous economic benefits to a country such as job creation and improvement to infrastructure and services. It also says that tourism developments could lead to long-term negative impacts if developments are not in balance with social and environmental sustainability. While many island nations such as the Maldives embrace tourism for its economic benefits, these nations find it hard to strike a balance between economic gains and environmental sustainability. Islands often have limited development space and this results in many of them approaching tourism in the form of resort developments. According to the paper, resort tourism in small island economies can limit opportunities for local economic development as communities are not at all times able to receive benefits from the introduced infrastructure or create small enterprises that tap into the industry. Islands also have limited natural resources that can easily be diminished if environmentally sustainable practices are not in place. For example, in the Maldives, desalination and bottled water imports have supplanted fresh water supplies which have been depleted.

Sustainability in resort design

According to the paper, careful planning could be a way for tourist resorts to function cost effectively without exploiting natural resources. It also highlights the importance of taking the existing natural environment into consideration when designing resorts. For example, a step such as coral and peripheral planting can become critical for the security and protection of island resorts while coastal erosion on the other hand can be accelerated by the removal or disturbances to coastal and marine vegetation during the resort development phase, making the resort vulnerable to devastation from natural disasters. The paper also highlights how replanting natural species is environmentally sustainable while the introduction of non-native species could lead to greater demands on irrigation, use of fertilizers, and introduction of new pests and diseases.

Integrating resorts into the nation

According to the paper, resorts need to be incorporated into regional

development plans as infrastructures and services such as transportation, electricity and waste management need to cope with the influx of tourists. Additionally, resorts need to be incorporated into society as well and according to the paper, ways to do this include using local tradesmen, locally sourced and sustainable construction materials and traditional architectural styles.

Case Study Maldives

The paper presents the Maldives as a tourist destination with a fragile ecosystem and notes development practices in the country to be fairly experimental since it was just thirty or so years ago that tourism began in the country. Three resorts in the Maldives are assessed against a series of questions outlined in the paper. Resort A is located 25 kilometres northwest of Male’, Resort B is located 7 kilometres north of Male’ and Resort C is 19 kilometres northeast of Male’.

Resort A

The paper notes Resort A to be a working example of sustainability in the Maldives. Resort buildings are integrated into the natural environment, the architectural styles reflect traditional Maldivian styles, the roofs are palm thatched and coral is not used in construction or decoration. The internal infrastructure of the resort has generally achieved environmental and economic sustainability with desalination plants providing water and solar energy being in use. The resort has not introduced any non-native plants to the environment and is designed around the existing natural vegetation. The majority of the resort’s coastal vegetation is being kept in place to battle erosion. Resort A is also involved in social development programs although it does not provide opportunities for local enterprises. According to the paper, the resort still has room for improvement within the areas of waste management and coastal protection.

Resort B

The paper defines Resort B as an example of successful social integration and sustainability. The resort has a well-established conference centre that is used by local and international businesses and although the resort does not contribute to the society via programs, the conference facilities contribute significantly to the local economy by providing a location for business and education on both a national and international level. The paper however notes the resort’s response to the natural ecosystem and surrounding environment to be fairly insensitive and potentially damaging to both the resort’s economy and its security. According to the paper, regenerating the resort’s coasts, reintroducing native species and designation of vegetation rehabilitation and conservation areas could assist in integrating the resort into the natural environment and also increase security against future natural disasters.

Resort C

According to the paper, Resort C is an example where economic gain has been prioritized over the resort’s own security as well as its long-term economic and environmental sustainability. The resort gains international revenue by marketing itself as a surf resort and also via sports developments. According to the paper, this does ensure some economic sustainability, as it is not just relying on tourism for income. However, the resort has a lack of developed natural coastal protection as well as areas of dense natural vegetation and this could lead to loss of returning visitors and ecological succession.

Best Practice Methods

Following the case study on the Maldives, the paper makes some suggestions that could enable future resort developments to achieve environmental, economic and social sustainability. These include development being preceded by strategic planning of the entire region, infrastructure planning being sophisticated while not overexploiting non-replaceable natural resources, waste being disposed of in a controlled and secure manner, and water supply being sourced from a sustainable source. The paper also states that the introduction of a resort must positively impact the existing ecosystems rather than adversely affect them and the architecture should respect traditional values. The introduction of a resort should positively influence the existing ecosystems, rather than adversely affect them. Suggestions also include landscape design being sensitive to the natural environment, buildings being constructed with sustainable materials, preferably local, mature vegetation being protected with development being planned around existing environment, densities of buildings being controlled, with space for conservation, and resorts providing benefits for local communities without compromising local values, economies or the local people’s sense of ownership.


The paper notes the Maldives’ approach towards tourism to have both positive and negative implications. While tourism has improved the country’s economy, the prioritisation of tourism over traditional industries such as fishing may have long-term negative impacts on both the economy and society. The paper ends by noting how the success of sustainability efforts is dependent on the implementation of practices by both the government and developers. According to the paper, Resort A and B demonstrates the Maldives’ ability to achieve sustainable resort development in practice. Resort A demonstrates how a resort can achieve environmental sustainability via sensitive design and continued monitoring of the environment while B has managed to integrate the development and function of the resort into society. The paper also notes how the problems noted for these resorts can be evaluated to formulate suitable and up-to-date regulations for future resort developments in the Maldives.