There’s no doubt that tourism brings about countless benefits. To the host country, it generates stellar economic growth and bolsters the country’s image and identity; to the individual travelling, it opens him up to numerous invaluable experiences. Yet, as we reap the advantages that come with travel, we cannot neglect the negative impact it inevitably creates.
What is sustainable tourism?
It sounds like a lofty concept – phrases like “sustainable development” and “eco-tourism” are buzzwords we hear ever so often. In essence, sustainable tourism means travelling in a responsible manner that respects the destination’s environment, people, and culture.
As mobile and globalised travellers, our increasingly demanding consumption patterns have a significant impact on the natural world. Just three months ago, the condition of the Great Barrier Reef’s coral network was downgraded from an already lamentable “poor”, to an even worse status of “very poor” due to environmental degradation spurred by human activity.
As such, there is a need for responsible planning, a way to meet the current demands of tourism practices, without jeopardising the livability of future generations.
Six ways to do your part as a responsible traveller
Slowly but surely, a handful of corporations in the tourism industry are making their move towards sustainable practices. While this is commendable, it isn’t enough to rely on large firms to spearhead the way to sustainability. Here are six ways that we, as individuals, can do our part as responsible travellers:
1. Support the local community
Sustainable tourism has that element of giving back to the local culture and preserving its heritage. As tourists, we can do this by supporting the local communities in the places where we visit. Simple steps include eating at restaurants that use locally-grown produce, and visiting local farmers markets. It also can take the form of buying souvenirs from small shops set up by locals, where oftentimes, these products are more unique and meaningfully made than their mass-produced counterparts. In this manner, you directly contribute to the local economy, and also encourage the growth of the local community by cementing the demand for their products and services.
2. Avoid places plagued with overtourism
Overtourism happens when destinations that are overcrowded with travellers result in conflicts with the local community. Some prominent examples include Phang Nga Park in Thailand, Venice, and Santorini, which have all invited excessive throngs of tourists that have unfortunately changed their incumbent landscape. In these cases, the problems that the uncontrolled influx of foreigners create far outweighs the benefits they may bring.
To give an example, with close to 70,000 tourists visiting on the weekends, the high traffic experienced at the Taj Mahal in India has been creating debilitating effects on its fragile marble foundations. Fortunately, measures have been put in place to protect the UNESCO World Heritage Site – tourists now have to pay more to stay longer than three hours in the monument.
When planning our holidays, we can do our part to avoid contributing to the problem of overtourism by researching and keeping in mind the constraints of these popular tourist attractions. Going off the beaten path instead of these overcrowded destinations can make an equally enriching travel experience that is also a more sustainable option.
3. Be mindful of animal life
It’s really easy to get carried away when we meet an adorable furry creature or a majestic animal in the wild. However, when taking that “quintessential” selfie with animals, we should keep in mind our interaction with them. Being a responsible traveller means minimising the disruption caused to their environment. Feeding animals human food may seem like an innocuous small matter, but introducing foreign items to their natural habitats has the potential to snowball into an unsustainable reliance over time.
And on a similar note, we can do our part by choosing ethical experiences when visiting attractions with animals. Elephant rides have been touted as a “must-do” in various parts of Thailand – yet, some of these tours and handlers may not have the best practices when considering the well-being of the gentle giants, their star money-makers. As a tourist, do your research beforehand and visit responsible conservatories and institutions that are committed to preserving and protecting the welfare of animals.
4. Do your best to reduce waste
While waste consumption is inevitable, there are plenty of ways to minimise the amount of waste we generate when travelling. Start with the small-scale effort of reducing consumption of single-use materials by opting for reusable utensils over disposable plastic products. In terms of transportation, take public transport when possible as this will reduce the carbon footprint precipitated per person. Carbon emission due to air travel is largely unavoidable, but what we can do is to be mindful of the efforts certain airlines are taking to reduce their fuel consumption. Supporting firms that promote eco-friendly initiatives can signal to others to adopt such energy-efficient practices as well.
When searching for flights on Skyscanner, look out for the options labelled as “Greener choice”. These flights emit less carbon dioxide the average.
5. Choose sustainable accommodations
Similar to the previous point, we can choose hotels and guesthouses that integrate sustainable practices to their businesses. Look out for accommodation choices that boast green initiatives such as energy-efficient lighting, and the use of natural cleaners over chemical-based cleaning products that are more destructive to the environment. More of than not, these eco-friendly accommodations guarantee comparable levels of hospitality for their guests, so it really is a misconception that being green and sustainable requires compromises on comfort. Do your research before booking your accommodations for your next trip!
6. Volunteer with conservation projects
Travelling doesn’t have to be just sightseeing and recreation. Another way to be a responsible traveller is to volunteer with conservation projects in the places that you visit. With greater awareness of sustainable development, there are many opportunities to work with organisations or on the grassroots level. Projects ranging from animal and environmental conservation, to education and research efforts all serve to create long-term benefits for the local community. It’s all about leaving behind a positive footprint when travelling!
Being a responsible traveller doesn’t mean that you have to make drastic changes to your habits – you can do your part and reduce your carbon footprint by integrating these small steps into the way you travel. While it is difficult to create a wholly positive impact on the local environment and culture, being mindful of and shifting our consumption patterns is a good start towards sustainable tourism.