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’d 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 experience amazing places around the world. There were a few basic tips – stay in locally-owned hotels rather than international chains, buy local produce, offset your carbon emissions. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
The growth of tourism
But travel has changed so much since then, 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. And I was one of them – averaging 10 overseas trips a year.
Travel had become this huge juggernaut which seemed unstoppable – until the 2020 pandemic. 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 2023.
The world population is rising, people are generally better off, air travel has become cheaper with more flight routes and more planes in the sky, destinations are being marketed more heavily, bigger cruise ships are being built, more hotels are opening as well as new accommodation options like AirBnB. And that’s before we get to emerging markets like China and India where more and more people are starting to travel internationally.
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 – with a $8.9 trillion contribution to the world’s GDP in 2019 – and 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 that it saw 2.5 million visitors in 2019. Unsurprisingly villages were packed full, trains were overflowing, paths were being eroded and locals forced out of their homes 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 not surprising that 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 too long 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 Phillipines 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 – 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.
It’s easy to be sniffy about dodging hoards of ‘tourists’ or never being able to get a photo without a sea of selfie sticks. But every one of us has an impact on the places we visit, whether you’re a digital nomad or on a week’s package holiday. Each individual wanting to go and tick somewhere off their wishlist adds up to a whole lot of people.
And travel writers have extra responsibility. Whether we have 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 of course I wanted to post 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 – 2020 has showed 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 that in the long term we don’t destroy the things that made us want to visit.
Over 20 years of travelling I’ve noticed more and more negative impacts from tourism starting to show, and have become more conscious of the impact of my own travels. So last year 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. But how can we help make tourism more sustainable?
What is sustainable tourism?
But first of all, what is sustainable tourism? You see the term – and related ones like eco and responsible tourism – used all over the tourist industry, but what makes a real difference and what’s just greenwashing? The World Tourism Organization describes sustainable tourism as:
“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 its negative impacts. A lot of time we 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 conserve 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. So if you are looking to travel more sustainably in the future, 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, Paris, Dubrovnik and Amsterdam or famous sites like the Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu and the Isle of Skye. Venice had 26 million visitors a year with a resident population of only 265,000 – there’s no way the city can absorb that many people. When queues of people are waiting to reach the summit of Mount Everest you know things are out of control.
These places top travel bucket lists for a reason and I’d never say you shouldn’t visit them – they’re on my wishlist like everyone else’s. But you can lower your impact by visiting at off-peak times and exploring their lesser-known sites as well as the famous ones (here are some of my suggestions for alternative things to do in London and Paris).
Look beyond the obvious destinations too – think Albania instead of Greece or the Faroe Islands instead of Iceland. Try smaller cities or rural destinations outside of the major cities. People tend to be pretty lazy and stick to places 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 although I’d steer clear of war zones or places with human rights violations, don’t discount places which have had trouble in the past. 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, so 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, chances are not much of the money you spend will reach local people. Instead try to use locally-owned businesses, whether that’s accommodation, restaurants or tours.
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 – there have been protests about it in Barcelona and New York. If I use AirBnB I try to rent from individual owners rather than companies with multiple properties.
3. Minimise your environmental impact
A lot of the advice about making your travels environmentally sustainable are things we should be doing 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’s down to the hotels, but we can trying not to waste water by taking shorter showers and reusing towels.
Flights are a major contributor to climate change. I much prefer train travel so don’t need an excuse to ditch the plane, but if you can’t then there’s the option of offsetting carbon emissions produced by your flight. Travel by public transport rather than renting a car if possible. 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.
Visitors are becoming more aware about animal cruelty – elephant riding in Thailand were something everyone seemed 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 definitely avoid.
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 – introducing different behaviours, alcohol, drugs and crime – can change a place’s whole culture.
The local culture is a big part of why people love to travel – 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
Eco and sustainability are travel buzzwords 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 which have 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.