Let me start this post by saying that in no way do we claim to be perfect when it comes to travelling sustainably – the air-miles we’ve racked up on this trip alone are testament to that. It’s one of those ‘on trend’ phrases viewed by many as an excuse for people to get on their high horses and lecture others – and can be a controversial topic to blog about.
So why are we bothering? If we sometimes fall victim to irresponsible travel and don’t want to be seen as preachy, why take the time to write this post at all? The truth is that before this trip I’d barely even considered being a responsible traveller – never paid much heed to advice on eco tourism, responsible tourism or any of the other related handles. The closest I came was to making sure that on a family holiday to Thailand earlier this year we avoided elephant rides – even as we all sat watching the rest of the group having fun on our day tour on Koh Samui, reading articles like this make it clear it was the right decision. I also remember my sister advising us not to do a favela tour in Rio as it wasn’t great practice and wondering why it could possibly be a problem, such was the level of our ignorance.
Things have changed however as we’ve spent time in so many different countries over the last six months, visiting more and more tourist ‘must sees’ along the way. We’ve been left with an increasing feeling that with every place we visit we’re seeing more sights ‘while we still can’, or ‘while they’re still there’, or ‘before they’re damaged beyond recognition’. It’s this that led us to look into which tour operators we use in more detail, and has made us start to try and behave in a way that protects local ecosystems rather than travelling blindly to different places without considering the implications of irresponsible tourism. I will say again, we’re not always perfect, sometimes we don’t realise until too late that we’ve done something that we shouldn’t have done, but at least we’re trying!
What is Sustainable Tourism?
It’s pretty simple really, but sustainable tourism is basically travelling with a view to ensuring that any negative impact on the environment and local communities is limited, in order to ensure that places can be enjoyed by future generations. It also stresses the importance of making sure that where possible the economic impact of tourism benefits local people, businesses and ecosystems. If tourism can contribute to improved living standards and local economies, as well as maintaining and protecting the natural environment and wildlife, that’s pretty much a perfect outcome for sustainability. There are some good definitions with further information on the links below:
You’ll also tend to hear the phrase ‘sustainable tourism’ in conjunction with other variations like ‘responsible tourism’, ‘ecotourism’, ‘geotourism’ and many other similar ideas. They all follow more or less the same principles to improve areas through tourism where possible, and certainly to avoid harm, although ‘eco tourism’ tends to focus more on wildlife and the natural world.
One of my favourite sayings that is used more and more by areas and companies trying to emphasise sustainable travel is to ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’. We first heard this while visiting some national parks and the US and it’s a pretty good principle to abide by when enjoying these areas of natural beauty and other delicate ecosystems.
Examples of Sites Damaged by Unsustainable Tourism
There are many many examples of these from around the world, but some of the most commonly cited and some of the most visited are as follows:
- Machu Picchu – the ancient city and wonder of the world located in Peru is often atop these sorts of lists as the sheer volume of tourists continues to cause damage. Although the number of people trekking the original Inca Trail has been reduced, there are still many thousands of people visiting the site on an annual basis. From damaging the structures themselves to just the high levels of footfall, this is on UNESCO’s ‘endangered’ list of world heritage sites for a reason.
- The Great Barrier Reef – this famous obituary for the reef was published in 2016 and received global attention. Whilst it is satirical, it makes a very serious point – tourism is seriously damaging this extremely fragile eco system, as well as the ongoing impacts of rising sea temperatures.
- The Galapagos Islands – several years of extremely hard work by conservationists have led to this being removed from the ‘endangered’ list, but tourism remains a threat. Whether it’s irresponsible operators or tourists not being respectful of the animals and other wildlife that’s so unique to these islands, there’s still a lot of work to be done to ensure their continued conservation.
You’ll notice if you follow our blog that we’ve visited all of these places – which is part of the reason we chose them. It helps to illustrate the point above that so many of the countries we’ve spent time in have areas that are suffering and where responsible and sustainable tourism practices need to be implemented and maintained.
7 Ways to Travel More Sustainably
There are of course many more than this, but here are some of the simple ways that you can make small changes to your travelling habits to be more sustainable.
Consider eco friendly accommodation, whether it’s full on eco lodges or locally owned guest houses. Hotels or lodgings that use recycled water or solar power as part of their infrastructure are also often a good choice.
2. Be Water Wise:
Water is in scarce supply in many areas, so simple considerations like shorter showers, recycling towels for an additional day or making sure you switch off the taps while brushing your teeth are a good start. Also consider investing in a water bottle with a filter so you’re not constantly buying bottled water.
3. Food & Drink:
Try to eat local food at locally owned restaurants to help support local businesses – if locally produced goods are also used that’s often all the better.
Never take part in tourist activities offering up close and personal experiences with animals – I might be mistaken but I don’t think there’s any circumstances where there isn’t the chance here for exploitation or animal cruelty to take place. So many examples of this, from dancing monkeys and snake charmers, to elephant riding and dolphin shows.
5. Responsible Tour Operators:
If you’re spending money on a tour in a particular area – make the effort to research sustainable providers or ask companies how they make sure they’re following the principles of responsible tourism in their tours.
6. Nature & Local Ecosystems:
These ones are more obvious, but being aware of your surroundings is the biggest help. Whether it’s not dropping litter, being careful not to step on coral or ensuring you never climb on monuments and statues, common sense is your best friend here.
7. Cultural Responsibility:
As well as the emphasis on protecting the environment, practicing a level of cultural responsibility when you travel is important too. Avoid any antisocial behaviour, respect local customs and cultures, and ensure to always ask before taking photographs of people.
Finally, we’re aware that sustainability isn’t a simple issue – what about all those in the travel industry who are driving more tourists to off the grid and fragile locations, or the big businesses who mask their search for higher profits with superficial claims about supporting eco tourism, or even the local communities who act in an unsustainable way to profit from increased tourism? We haven’t touched on all the many or complex areas of this topic by a long shot, but whilst we’re on the road, we’ll keep trying to make these small changes to be as responsible as possible.