What is sustainable tourism and why is it important? A guide to sustainable tourism and how to reduce your impact on the environment and culture of a destination when you travel.
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Over 20 years ago, I did a degree in geography. It was one of the things which started my love of travel and was also the first time I heard of sustainable tourism – the idea that visitors should have as low an impact on a destination as possible, so that in the long term tourism benefits local people as well as the visitors who get to these amazing places.
There were a few basic tips – stay in locally-owned hotels rather than international chains, buy local produce, offset your emissions. Sounds simple doesn’t it? But over the years the negatives of tourism have become more evident, from global warming to pollution, overtourism to animal cruelty. So how can we make tourism more sustainable?
The growth of tourism
Travel has changed so much since the 90s, with the number of international trips taken each year almost tripling from 527 million in 1995 to 1.5 billion in 2019. More people were travelling and travelling more often. I was one of them – taking 10 overseas trips some years. And there are a lot of different reasons behind this massive growth in travel.
The world population rose, people were generally better off, air travel became cheaper with more routes and more planes in the sky, destinations were marketed more heavily, bigger cruise ships were built, AirBnB grew exponentially. And that’s before we get to emerging markets like China and India where more people started travelling internationally.
The travel industry had become this huge juggernaut which seemed unstoppable – until the 2020 pandemic. Travel restrictions and stay at home orders meant visitor numbers plummeted, with less than 450 million international trips in 2020 and 2021.
But even this seems likely to be just a temporary pause in tourism’s growth, and it’s predicted that the travel industry will be back to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
The impacts of tourism
Travel is an amazing thing on an individual level – seeing wonderful places, exposing you to new cultures. And anything that helps people to be more open-minded can only be a good thing. Tourism has also become the biggest employer in the world – accounting for 10.3% of all jobs and a $9.6 trillion contribution to the world’s GDP in 2019.
There are cities, regions and even whole countries whose economies are almost totally dependent on tourism to survive. But can this level of tourism and the continual focus on growing tourist numbers to make more money be sustainable in the long term?
It came home to me when I visited the Cinque Terre – this beautiful patch of Italian coastline has become so popular it now sees up to 2.5 million visitors a year, many only visiting for one day. Unsurprisingly the villages were packed, trains were overflowing, paths were eroding and locals being forced out of the area by rising prices.
The Cinque Terre just one of a long list of places where tourist numbers were getting out of hand in the years before the pandemic. Where the things which attract visitors – the culture, the landscapes, the atmosphere – were in danger of being destroyed by those visitors. Overtourism became a buzzword, and it’s no surprise a backlash started.
Local people everywhere from Barcelona to the Isle of Skye protested that they couldn’t cope with such huge numbers of tourists and the damage they caused. Some governments even stepped in, with talk of quotas on the numbers of visitors, flights or cruise ships.
In Venice visitors could be fined for swimming in the canals or loitering on the bridges. In the Balearic Islands, tourist accommodation was restricted to 623,000 beds with plans to reduce it further. And the whole island of Borocay in the Philippines was closed off to visitors for six months in 2019 after the water got so polluted it was dangerous.
The huge restrictions on travel in 2020 and 2021 mean the issues of overtourism have disappeared for now. But it’s only a matter of time, and without tackling the issues which led to them we could be back where we were in 2019 within a few years.
A lack of tourists has been a mixed blessing for destinations. One hand it’s given ecosystems time to recover and let people have their homes back, but it’s also had a catastrophic impact on many economies with job losses and businesses closing.
It’s easy to be sniffy about dodging hoards of ‘tourists’. But each of us has an impact on the places we visit, whether you’re a digital nomad or on a week’s package holiday. Every individual wanting to tick somewhere off their wishlist adds up to a whole lot of people.
And travel writers have extra responsibility. Whether we’ve got a hundred readers or a million, what we post on websites and social media can help shape where people choose to go. I loved the Cinque Terre and know a lot of readers want to visit so I wanted to write about it. But I know I’m contributing to the problem – more publicity means more visitors.
So what’s the solution – should we all stop travelling for good? Definitely not – the restrictions during the pandemic have shown us how important travel is. It has plenty of positives, from providing income and encouraging investment to helping preserve cultures, funding conservation and protecting wildlife from poaching.
But exploring the world is a privilege which needs to be sustainable so we don’t destroy the things that made us want to visit. Over 25 years of travelling, I’ve noticed growing negative impacts from tourism, and become more conscious of the impact of my own travels.
In 2019 I did a Master’s degree in sustainable tourism, looking at how I can minimise the negative impacts on the places I visit but also how the tourism industry as a whole can be better managed. So how can we help make tourism more sustainable?
What is sustainable tourism?
But first of all, what does sustainable tourism actually mean? You see the term – and other related terms like ecotourism or responsible tourism – used all over the tourist industry. But what makes a real difference and what’s just marketing speak and greenwashing?
The World Tourism Organization’s definition of sustainable tourism is:
“Tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
How can we make tourism more sustainable?
Making tourism sustainable means increasing the benefits of tourism and reducing the negatives. We often think about sustainability as being about the environment, but that’s only one of the three strands that need to be met, sustainable tourism also has to contribute to the economy by creating jobs and income, and help preserve local culture.
The pandemic stopped tourism in its tracks, but that reset does give us the opportunity to rebuild the travel industry in a more sustainable way. Tourism businesses are responsible for things like reducing pollution and resource use, making sure staff are paid properly, following local regulations and protecting sensitive environments.
But we also have an influence in making tourism more sustainable in how, where and when we choose to travel – what destinations and businesses we are supporting. So if you’re looking to travel more sustainably, here are five tips to get your started.
1. Think about your choice of destination
There are some destinations which are just too popular – whether it’s big cities like Venice, Dubrovnik and Amsterdam or famous sites like the Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu and the Isle of Skye. Venice had 5.5 million visitors a year pre-pandemic, with a resident population of only 260,500 – there’s no way the city can absorb that many people.
When queues of people are lining up to reach the summit of Mount Everest you know things are out of control. So what’s the solution – should we not visit these places? They top travel bucket lists for a reason and I would never say don’t go, not least as tourism is a major contributor to local income and employment in many of these destinations.
But there are ways to lower your impact. Visit at off-peak times when it’s quieter. Explore lesser-known sights (here are some suggestions for London and Paris) and areas. Stay longer so you have time to do more than just tick off the famous spots.
Look beyond the obvious destinations too – think Albania instead of Greece or Greenland instead of Iceland. Try smaller cities or rural destinations. People tend to be pretty lazy and stick to places which are close to airports and easy to get to, so if you have to add on a ferry trip or train ride chances are the destination will be less touristy.
And don’t discount places which have had trouble in the past (excluding war zones or places with human rights violations). When I first visited Thailand, Cambodia was a no-go area, but now it’s a mainstream destination. Tourism in places like Egypt and Tunisia was badly hit after recent troubles but they’re considered safe to visit again.
2. Spend locally
The old advice to spend locally still stands, to make sure that as much money as possible goes into the local economy. In places like the Caribbean, an average only 20 cents of each dollar visitors spend actually stays in the country.
If you’re on a cruise or staying in an all-inclusive resort owned by a multinational company, chances are not much of the money you spend will actually reach local people. Instead try to use locally-owned businesses, whether that’s accommodation, restaurants or tours. That way the money you spend stays in the community and is spent there, spreading the benefit.
AirBnB is a difficult one – on one hand it’s a way to rent directly from local people. But in some cities whole areas have been bought up to rent to tourists and locals can’t afford to live there now, leading to protests and regulation in Barcelona and New York.
AirBnB can be a good way to connect with local people, particularly where they’re renting out a spare room rather than a whole property. Like in the Maldives where homestays are becoming a new way to experience the islands without staying in a resort.
When I use AirBnB I try to rent from individual owners rather than companies who own multiple properties, as they can often end up pricing locals out of both the rental and property-buying markets by pushing up demand and prices.
3. Minimise your environmental impact
A lot of the suggestions for making your travels more environmentally sustainable apply at home too – using a refillable water bottle instead of buying bottled water, packing a reusable shopping bag instead of using plastic bags, recycling wherever possible, turning off lights and unplugging chargers when they’re not being used.
Resources are much scarcer in some countries though, especially water, which makes it even more important to minimise usage. Apparently a guest in a luxury hotel uses 1800 litres of water per night versus 150 litres for the average person in the UK.
A lot of that is down to the hotels, who can reduce water usage through things like low-flow showers, water-efficient appliances and collecting rainwater to water gardens. But we can also save water by taking shorter showers and reusing towels.
Air travel is a major contributor to climate change. I much prefer train travel so don’t need an excuse to ditch the plane, and new overnight train routes around Europe are making it easier to travel overland. But if you do need to fly there’s the option of offsetting the carbon emissions produced by your flight – paying a fee based on the carbon produced which is used for funding environmental projects to reduce CO2 production elsewhere.
Carbon offsetting is controversial as it’s seen as ‘paying to pollute’. And although it’s undoubtedly better not to fly at all, it does at least make some contribution. You can also reduce your impact by travelling by public transport rather than by car.
Visitors are becoming more aware about animal cruelty – elephant riding in Thailand was something everyone wanted to do when I first went visited 20 years ago but I’d never do it now – but there are still many unethical animal activities like tiger temples or dolphin shows. World Animal Protection has a list of the ones we should avoid.
And think about things you buy when you’re in a destination too – in places like the Seychelles imported food might have been flown in from halfway around the world. Meat and dairy production is particularly resource-hungry, so swap to some plant-based alternatives if possible, with more vegan restaurants and products now available.
4. Be aware of cultural differences
Sustainability isn’t just about the environment, it’s also about being aware of the impact we have on a destination’s culture. Everyone has horror stories of seeing semi-dressed women in Muslim countries or drunken stag dos in Eastern Europe.
Contact with tourists can change a place’s whole culture, introducing different behaviours, increasing alcohol and drug use, losing traditional arts. The local culture is a big part of why people love to travel, and to help preserve it try the weird-sounding dish on the menu, learn a few words of the language, eat dinner at the same time as the locals.
Being respectful of the culture also mean you get treated with more respect. It’s a good idea to research what’s acceptable before you go. Dress appropriately, cover up when not on the beach, ask before taking photos and support charities over giving money to beggars.
5. Do your research
Sustainability is a big travel buzzword now and it’s easy to decorate a website with pretty pictures of leaves and say you’re ‘green’. But take the marketing spin with a pinch of salt and make sure you check out how sustainable tourism businesses really are. Especially for trips like cruises with a particularly big impact on the places they visit.
Ask what their environmental policies are, do they recycle and conserve water, is food and drink locally sourced, how do they treat their staff, do they invest in the local community?
Most companies with sustainable credentials are proud of them and advertise them on their website, but if they don’t just ask. Hopefully one day sustainability will be built into every tourism business, but until then we need to help make it important to them.