In honor of the UN’s International Day for Biodiversity and Sustainable Tourism today, the goal of this blog post is to recognize the major impact that tourism has on our planet as well as the difference that we can make, as travelers, to ensure our impact is a positive one.
So what is sustainable tourism? Also known as sustainable travel or ecotourism, sustainable tourism is traveling with awareness of your impact on the places you visit and striving to make that impact positive instead of negative. It encourages a greater understanding of cultural, social, and environmental issues around the world and promotes a more mindful way of traveling – one in which travelers have the world’s best interest at heart.
Travel in itself is important for our planet because it stimulates cultural exchange and helps to decrease xenophobia. So many of the world’s problems are caused by people simply not understanding or valuing each other’s cultures. The cultural exchange promoted by travel helps to improve this.
However, though it’s a great experience for both tourists and destinations alike, and some countries rely heavily on tourism as main source of income, tourism can cause damage as well. Animal exploitation, overdevelopment, habitat destruction, increased carbon emissions, and loss of cultural values are only a few of the detrimental effects of tourism. So, as travelers, it’s important for us to try to make choices that are beneficial to the community.
There are many ways to make your travel more sustainable:
1. Buy local. Instead of purchasing mass-produced souvenirs from large chains, buy from local artisans, and instead of eating the same fast food that you can eat back home, eat at local cafes or restaurants. Not only does buying from locals provide you a more authentic cultural experience, it helps feed money back into the local community.
2. Volunteer. Teach English, clean up the environment, work with wildlife or whatever it is that you’re passionate about. Volunteering will help you gain a deeper understanding and more respect for the local people, nature, and wildlife, while providing you with a memorable and fun experience. Plus, it feels great to give back!
3. Take public transportation. Or even better, walk or bike. Not only does it save money and fuel, it allows you to travel slower and see much more than you would’ve seen in a taxi. You’ll discover so much more by wandering slowly than by hopping in a taxi and speeding off to a single destination.
4. Shop smartly. Purchasing non-sustainable souvenirs only supports continued unsustainable practices that are harmful to the planet. That tortoiseshell comb may look really cool, but souvenirs like that are actually the reason that hawkbill sea turtles are now endangered. The same goes for elephant ivory, rhino horns, coral, and many more. Just because something is for sale, doesn’t mean it’s legal. These unsustainable and unethical practices only exist because there are still consumers fueling demand, so think about what you’re buying and where it comes from first. Remember, if we don’t buy, they won’t die.
5. Do your research. There are many unethical tourist attractions around the world, and it’s up to you to figure out which ones. While riding an elephant in Thailand sounds like a fun idea, these elephants are often sadly mistreated, tied up with a short chain, and trained abused with painful bullhooks. Tiger Temple in Thailand was also caught illegally breeding and trading tigers, and from there the entire tiger tourism industry was exposed for the mistreatment of animals. All over Southeast Asia, animal lovers flock to tourist attractions, unknowingly funding animal cruelty. As consumers, it’s up to us to demand more responsible and ethical tourism. As long as we are monetarily supporting unethical practices, we can’t expect them to clean up their act.
6. Conserve. If you’re in a place that has drinkable tap water, carry around a reusable bottle and fill it up instead of buying bottles day after day. Put store purchases into a daypack instead of taking plastic bags from each shop. Turn off the lights when you leave your room, and don’t take extraordinarily long showers just because you’re not the one paying the bill.
There is so much positive potential in tourism, but as the industry grows exponentially, so does our need to be mindful of our impact. As consumers, the future of the tourism industry is up to us. It all depends on where we place our demand, and what we choose to spend our money on. I encourage you to explore often and reap the rich benefits of travel, but strive to become a conscientious traveler with a positive impact on the community. Together, we can make the world a better destination.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida! ✌