You’ve heard of phenomena like zero-waste, eco-tourism, and the world-wide fight against plastic waste. It seems as though climate change is finally getting a real prime-time spot on the global stage. News coverage of Trash Island, green movements, and global environmental policy grows with every month. National Geographic’s almost infamous ‘Planet or Plastic’ cover story validated a growing concern over the over-dependence upon plastic in the modern world. It’s a real problem, and you should do everything you can do reduce your impact on the planet - honestly, it’s not that hard. As for travel, sustainability is far more achievable than you might imagine.
To give you an outline of why sustainable tourism is important let’s look at the impact international tourism has on the world. The World Bank has projected, based on analysis of growing rates, that international tourism will surpass 1.8 billion visitors by 2030, and that most travel is actually directed at ‘developing’ countries, rather than ‘developed’ countries. Why does this matter? Well, tourism industries in these destination countries impact the local economy, local people, government, and resources. The BBC, in an episode of Costing the Earth, covered the impact of large waves of temporary visitors on Barcelona, Amsterdam, and the Orkney Islands. Travel which focuses on sightseeing and top attractions fails to integrate positive growth for the communities in these destinations. With such staggering numbers, visitors can hinder community development in many ways. Floods of seasonal tourists in destinations like Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, cause terminal employment and a lack of true economic development. More often than not, that keychain you bought wasn’t made locally, but imported from China at a lower cost, and money spent by cruise-goers doesn’t ever permeate the local economy. Municipalities in ‘developing’ countries are not equipped to deal with the heavy refuse that follows a high-season for tourists. Overcrowding has become a huge problem. The cost of living in popular destinations has skyrocketed, making it difficult for locals to afford living there, and overcrowding has led to a limitation on resources as well as a rise in crime, organised and petty. UK National Parks attribute traffic congestion, and subsequent air pollution, as well as landscape damage, price hikes, and poor seasonal wages to the demands of the tourism industry. We should share our world, but we should be doing it in a way that is positive for everyone.
The easiest way to do that is to be conscious of how you travel. Are you making an effort to involve yourself in the local community? Are you choosing to buy local foods, products, and services? More than that, are you going somewhere just because everyone else is? Simple choices like these are a shift in the right direction, but more than that we can all do a little better when choosing how we go about our travels. If you are keen on staying in hotels, there is a really cool option through Kind Travel: if you choose to donate at least $10 per night to local or global charities, you’ll get a discount on your stay and sometimes other deals, too! Kind Traveler is, as of right now, available for destinations in North and Central America. When you book tours or activities, research the company you book through, and try to choose one that’s locally owned and operated, or - even better! - one that gives back to its community.
Speaking of giving back, voluntourism is on the rise. While it’s certainly appealing as a cheaper means of travel, research your commitment. The more you pay, the less likely you’re actually helping the community. I myself, have done some voluntourism, and my advise is this: pay attention to your organisation. Is their operation sustainable? Does it focus on empowering the community or target project to survive on its own? Are operations formatted in a way that educates and engages locals? If so, then these are the better options. You may be benefiting greatly from volunteering your time, but volunteering isn’t about you, it’s about who you’re helping. Organisations like Giving Way are applauded for compiling organisations seeking help from volunteers for little to no cost, but remember: do your research.
Green Global Travel has assembled a list of green travel tips. My favourites are: ‘slow travel’ when you can (ie. take a bus, boat, or train to your destination wherever possible), looks for hotels with sustainable or environmentally conscious initiatives, buying locally made products (that includes eating at locally owned restaurants, which are often better anyway), and ALWAYS avoid exploiting wildlife - there will never be a time when this is sustainable, or good for said wildlife.
The biggest thing is to engage in the local community in every way that you can. Dig deeper. If you make an effort to do this, you’ll see results and be better off for it.