According to the 2002 Cape Town Declaration on Responsible Tourism in Destinations, responsible tourism helps minimise negative impacts on the economy, the environment and on society.
Responsible tourism is expected to generate more economic benefits for host communities while providing tourists with more enjoyable experiences through meaningful connections with local people and a greater understanding of visited areas.
The director of the Institute for Tourism Development Research, a member of the Viet Nam National Administration of Tourism (VNAT), Dr Ha Van Sieu, said there was a growing trend among world tourists to head for undiscovered rural destinations, where local populations led simpler and often poorer lives.
"Responsible tourism gives local people better incomes, but it does not compromise the environment or indigenous cultures.
"Nevertheless, part of these incomes should be used to preserve local heritage and environments," he said.
To put the concept into practice, Sieu said that every industry stakeholder, including tourists and host communities, should be encouraged to act responsibly and be sensitive of local customs and traditional values.
Sieu also said that the introduction of "responsible tourism" was necessary for Viet Nam right now, as in the past the country had seen haphazard growth within the industry.
"With the sector’s large profit margin, the environment and traditional cultures are often neglected.
"This is easily seen at some beach sites in central Viet Nam, where a series of hotels, restaurants and resorts have sprouted up, threatening the local ecosystem," he said.
Statistics from the VNAT showed that Viet Nam has seen a 9.7 growth rate for international tourist arrivals, jumping from 500,000 in 2001 to 4.2 million last year.
Tourism earned the nation VND60 trillion (US$3.37 billion) last year, three times more than seven years ago.
Nguyen Phuong Anh, deputy head of VNAT’s Hotel Department, said that tourism businesses had left certain scars on the environment via the consumption of resources, energy, food and other materials, as well as the discharge of waste and noise pollution.
It had also led to a change in local job structures and lifestyles, Anh said.
Survey results from the Energy Conservation and Development Research Centre showed that most hotels and other accommodations did not pay attention to environmental protection.
The number of wayward hotels in the southern central province of Binh Thuan – one of the country’s tourism hubs – was at 80 per cent.
Anh said that when hotels saved on water or energy, it was for their own profits, not for the betterment of local communities.
The first-ever inspection on the implementation of the environmental protection law at tourism sites in five provinces, conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in June, found that 22 of 23 businesses did not own waste discharge licences.
And 20 of them did not have annual environmental protection plans.
Only three of the businesses knew about environmental impact assessments, which was a requirement for tourism enterprises.
Sieu said that low awareness among tour operators and host communities on environmental protection and preserving socio-cultural values was one of the challenges of responsible tourism in Viet Nam.
Other challenges include poor living and working conditions in rural areas, insufficient support policies and guidelines and a lack of know-how in host communities.
Though responsible tourism is still in its infancy in Viet Nam, a number of enterprises have engaged in the business.
Mai Chau Lodge in Hoa Binh Province and the Topas Eco Lodge in Sa Pa in the north are two examples that have adopted responsible attitudes toward travel.
According to Topas Eco Lodge general director Morten Sejrskilde Pedersen, they acknowledge that tourism can adversely affect local cultures, particularly distinct and unique minority cultures, and their policy is to "keep everything original right from the beginning".
The lodge has also hired and trained local minorities as staff, who currently account for 75 per cent of the employees.
Fulfilling commitments with the local community is also among the features of responsible tourism at Mai Chau Lodge, according to American visitor Aaron Joel Santos.
"At Mai Chau Lodge, locals are hired and trained to work on premises, and local ways of living are preserved and even encouraged. In this way, agriculture and farming sit alongside the tourism sector, and local heritage and culture are presented to travellers during their visits," Aaron said.
"Of course, as soon as people set foot into a place, things are changed. But we owe it to ourselves and the countries we visit, as travellers and tourists, to not accelerate the natural progressive decline of anything."
According to a survey presented by SNV Nepal – where Viet Nam learned about promoting responsible tourism – 70 per cent of American, British and Australian travellers said that they would pay up to $150 more for a two-week stay in a hotel with a "responsible environmental attitude".
Sieu also said that as a world trend, the number of responsible tourists would be on the rise.
He also pinned his hopes on the future of responsible tourism in Viet Nam, as the initiative would soon be institutionalised in the national tourism strategy from 2011 to 2020, setting up criteria for accreditation of the concept.
"Viet Nam has a great natural environment which should be preserved for our future generations. By choosing sustainable and responsible tourism, Viet Nam will be forced to refuse other business opportunities that conflict with sustainable growth," Pedersen said