September 27th is dedicated annually to World Tourism Day, with a focus on supporting sustainable and responsible growth within the tourism sector. Sustainable tourism encompasses three central pillars, the implementation of which balances impact between protecting the environment, maintaining socio-cultural integrity, and promoting long-term economic benefits.
These three pillars form the basis for sustainability in general, so it makes sense that sustainable tourism takes into account, and practices, these same factors. Tourism is an enormous industry, and an ever-growing popularity of travel is set to only grow this sector further. International tourist arrivals have increased from 25 million in 1950 to 1.32 billion in 2017. That is a huge number of people who are boarding planes, exploring new cultures, and spending hard-earned currency, in countries across the globe. So, that could be 1.32 billion people annually, making responsible choices, and positively impacting the planet through the business of their tourism. But is that just wishful thinking?
For me, travelling sustainably has become the way in which I travel, automatically seeking the most ethical, responsible options, in order to meet my tourist needs. You don’t have to pay a fortune in order to access the more ethical choices, in fact, I have found it is often the complete opposite. By following a responsible route, I often avoid the overpriced, heavily marketed options which seem to bombard mainstream tourism avenues, and instead opt for the more fairly-priced alternatives, knowing that I am contributing to a more responsible tourism revenue.
When thinking about our beautiful green planet, it is often simple steps that we can take, in order to minimise our impact, much like those we use in our everyday life. From bringing your own water bottle, to disposing of your litter properly, we can all be a little more aware of what we leave behind. As well as leaving behind, I believe it is important to be aware of the impact of the things we may be tempted to take away. Picking up natural items, such as flowers, rocks, coral, may seem insignificant and harmless…until everyone does it. Let’s learn to appreciate natural beauty where it is, in nature. Take a photo, absorb the view visually, but when you leave, leave it behind. As the saying goes: take only memories, leave only footprints.
Following on from not picking up natural items, let’s expand that to the purchase of buying keepsakes made from animal products. Ivory, concha shells, shark teeth – no matter how much you wish it, the fact is that these are not by-products, nor are they sustainably sourced. I’d prefer to see an elephant with its tusks in-tact, than carry the guilt of an illegally sourced trinket. Again, let’s leave those ‘materials’ to the animals that own them.
Whilst exploring South America, I had many a chance to get up close and personal with their abundance of wildlife. However, I did not once pay for an enforced encounter in an unnatural environment. In Bolivia, visiting the rainforest in Rurrenabaque is a highlight of many a traveller’s itinerary. Here, you can “experience guaranteed animal encounters” – swimming with the famous pink river dolphins, native to the Amazon. In reality, these dolphins are herded, corralled, and bribed with food, so that travellers can enjoy this ‘natural’ adventure. No part of that sounds natural to me. Upon researching this, I decided to take myself to another part of the rainforest entirely, a little-visited town called Trinidad. Here I tracked down the only local tour guide, and had one of the most incredible, authentic experiences I could have asked for. An initial sighting of pink dolphins at quite some distance in the boat, left me feeling pretty chuffed. It wasn’t until later, during a spontaneous mud-bath in the river shallows, that I had my real breath-taking experience, as an entire shoal of dolphins swam past, and around me. I have not a single photo to prove my encounter, but I will cherish the memory, knowing that I was a lucky girl, who just happened to witness this natural beauty. That, is how I like my wildlife encounters.
Being socially and culturally aware is a concept which can completely change your experience. I am a firm believer that you get out of an experience what you put in, and this can be greatly affected, both negatively and positively, depending on how you react to and respect the culture around you. With social cues embedded within gesture and language, it doesn’t hurt to brush up on a few basics, before even stepping foot on a plane. In the next blog post, I will explain further how learning a language opened up a totally different side of travelling for me, so be sure to check back in.
Taking photos is a huge part of tourism, and a beautiful way to record and cherish your memories. Of course, capturing the local culture, is a great way to truly reflect on your time, and photographing people encapsulates the real essence of travel. Personally, I am terrible at remembering to take photos, as I often am too wrapped up in the present moment to remember to whip out my camera. But for those of you who do, make sure to always ask permission, and respect individuals if their answer is no. There is no gratification in sneaking a photo of somebody who doesn’t want to be snapped.
I have made a personal choice to not support tours which teeter on the border of ‘poverty porn’, whereby tourists can pay money for a tour of favelas (as in Brazil), or of poor working conditions (as in Potosi, Bolivia), in order to gawp at those less fortunate. For me, I see no benefit of witnessing individuals going about their daily life, with the highlight being ‘look, how bad is this’. I am aware that there are organisations where tour money goes directly into community projects and improvements, or supports local employment. I fully support, and encourage tourists to embrace, these types of organisations, but strongly recommend researching all options, as often the most readily available, are not the most responsible.
With the global travel and tourism industry providing approximately 11% of the world’s employment in 2016, this is a sector which is woven into livelihoods and local economies worldwide. I am not much of a planner when it comes to travelling, but for those of you who do use tour agencies, or holiday companies, try to choose those which employ local people, support small businesses, offset their carbon emissions, and perhaps support local charitable organisations. When finding accommodation, websites which collate hundreds of search results are fantastic, but charge commission fees for those that book via their website. I always book direct, which ensures that small guesthouses or hotels receive 100% of your fee, without having to pay commission. When buying souvenirs, be sure to not fall prey to mass-produced (often imported) items, instead, support local crafts by buying direct from the artisan – bearing in mind the points made above about sustainable materials.
Of course, it is important to remember that tourism doesn’t only happen when you leave the country. Tourism within the UK is an equally substantial industry, and we can implement all the steps above right here, on our doorsteps. While I believe few people set out to intentionally travel irresponsibly, I think for many, there is a lack of awareness of the impact of their actions or decisions. Sometimes, we just need a little perspective, a gentle reminder, and a nudge down the correct path.
Author: Rachel Calnan