Tourism is one of the largest and fastest growing industries of the world today. Asian cities, too, are reaping economical benefits from this valuable sector. Tourists constitute a ‘transient population’, using and interacting with cities for short periods of time, with many impacts arising from this interaction. There is a pressing need for many asian cities and their systems to support mass tourism, with a concern for developing the city’s attractiveness to visitors while still maintaining the liveability of the city for its residing communities. Increasingly, many government and tourist agencies have turned to various concepts of sustainable tourism. In 2002, the Pacific-Asia tourism Association made sustainable tourism a key concept in its policies and actions.

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Sustainable tourism can be defined 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, 2004). It implies tourism that is morally correct and attempts to make a low impact on the local culture and environment.

A major concentration of literature on sustainable tourism, however, is concerned with ecotourism and non-urban tourist attractions, emphasizing the impacts of tourism in natural environments and rural areas. While urban areas are important tourist destinations and major recipients of mass tourism, they are often excluded from discussions on sustainable tourism. At the forefront of development and city planning, urban areas tend not to be considered endangered environments and appear to be less of a concern. Urban areas are certainly not exempted from the impact of tourist presence and tourism planning. Beyond the ecological issues, tourism impacts infrastructure systems, land use and social-cultural fabric of cities.

Other than the ecological, economical and cultural dimensions, a key aspect in sustainable tourism is social sustainability. There is a concern for the ability of a local community ‘to absorb inputs, such as extra people, for short or long periods of time, and to continue functioning either without the creation of social disharmony as a result of these inputs or by adapting its functions and relationships so that disharmony can be alleviated or mitigated’ (Mowforth and Munt 1998).

In the urban context, various social concerns include the commercialising influence of tourism altering land use as well as the building of ‘tourist things’ to promote an international appeal. These may lead to a potential loss of local distinctiveness and perhaps a loss of public spaces for the local ‘heartlanders’ within the city center. The Marina Bay development was criticised for ‘marginalising the lower income groups who may feel out of place in the spectacular consumption spaces’ (Soh, Emily & Yuen, Belinda, 2010) while the thematic development along the Singapore River has been criticised to have ‘privatised [the once free-access riverbank public spaces] with the proliferation of condominiums and restaurants fronting the river, allienating those who are neither clients nor residents’.