Over 20 years ago, I did a degree in geography. It was one of the things which started off my love of travel and was also the first time I’d heard about 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 big 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, becoming this huge juggernaut which seems unstoppable. The number of international trips taken each year has almost tripled from 527 million in 1995 to 1.5 billion last year, and it keeps on growing. More people are travelling, and they’re travelling more often. And I’m one of them – on average I take 10 overseas trips a year.
The world population is rising, people are generally better off than they were, 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 the 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, especially with the political climate at the moment. Tourism has also become the biggest employer in the world – worth $1.7 trillion in 2018 – 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 the number of tourists to make more money be sustainable in the long term? It all came home to me when I visited the Cinque Terre – this beautiful patch of Italian coastline has become so popular that 2.5 million people visited last year. Unsurprisingly the villages are packed full, trains are overflowing, paths are being eroded and locals are being forced out of their homes by rising prices.
The Cinque Terre just one of a long list of places where tourism is getting out of hand. Where the things which attract visitors – the culture, the landscapes, the atmosphere – are in danger of being destroyed by them. Overtourism has become a buzzword, and it’s not surprisingly a backlash has started. There have been protests by locals in everywhere from Barcelona to the Isle of Skye that they can’t cope with the current levels of tourism and the damage it’s causing.
Some governments are even stepping in, with talk of quotas on the number of visitors, flights or cruise ships. In Venice you can get fined for swimming in the canals or loitering too long on the bridges. In the Balearic Islands, tourist accommodation has been 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.
It’s easy to be sniffy about having to dodge hoards of ‘tourists’ or never being able to get a photo without wading through 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 of those individuals wanting to go and tick somewhere off their wishlist adds up to a whole lot of people.
And travel writers have an extra level of responsibility. Whether we have a hundred readers or a million, the things 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 go there so of course I wanted to post about it. But I know I’m contributing to the problem – more publicity equals more visitors.
So what’s the solution – should we all just stop travelling and stay at home? Definitely not (and not just because I’d be out of a job!). Tourism has a 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 real 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 and become more conscious of the impact of my own travels. So last year I went back to university to study for a Master’s degree in sustainable tourism, looking at ways 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 if you want to travel more sustainably too, here are some things that can help.
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.”
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 the local culture.
How can we make tourism more sustainable?
Think about your choice of destination
There are some destinations which have just become 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 gets 26 million visitors a year when its population is only 265,000, so there’s no way the city can absorb that many people. When there are queues of people 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 just like everyone else’s. But you can lower your impact by visiting at off-peak times and exploring some of 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 that have had trouble in the past. Back when I first visited Thailand, Cambodia was practically a no-go area, but now it’s a mainstream destination. Places like Egypt and Tunisia were badly hit by a fall in tourism after recent troubles but are considered safe to visit again.
The old advice to spend locally still stands, so as much money as possible goes into the local economy. In places like the Caribbean, on average only 20 cents of each dollar that visitors spend actually stays in the country. If you’re visiting 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 local residents 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 owning multiple properties.
Minimise your environmental impact
A lot of the advice about making your travels more 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 help by trying not to waste water – 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 you can pay a bit extra to offset the carbon emissions produced by your flight. Travel by public transport rather than renting a car if possible. And think about the 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.
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 about 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 the whole culture of a place.
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 you’re not on the beach, ask before taking photos and support charities over giving money to beggars.
Do your research
Eco and sustainability are real 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 produced, how do they treat their staff, do they invest in the local community? Most companies with sustainable credentials are proud of them so advertise them on their website, but if they don’t then just ask. Hopefully one day sustainability will be built into every tourism destination and business, but until then it needs us to help make it important to them.