Thursday, March 15, 2012

What sustainable tourism really means, Part I

So I was thinking about this a lot last night, and got really fired up and had to write it down.  When travel writers and bloggers talk about sustainable tourism, it is not always clear what we mean.

For me, sustainable tourism ultimately means that travelers are interacting with a destination in a way that is mutually beneficial for the traveler and for the locals.  At the end of the day, the locals will welcome future travelers, because they see value in their visits.

There are two main ways in which tourism can be sustainable -- economic and environmental.  We are going to talk about environmental sustainability today, and economic sustainability in the next post.

In Kathmandu, the air pollution is so bad (from vehicles and burning trash, mainly) that tourists are advised not to stay too long for risk of bronchitis.  I had a sore throat within 24 hours -- think of the health of those Nepalis who live in Kathmandu permanently.  Meanwhile, what does that air pollution do to the delicate Himalayan climate that attracts so many trekkers?

Environmental sustainability is a more familiar concept, and for the most part a lot of budget travelers respect it.  We know the importance of environmental treasures, because they are often part of what we have traveled to see -- mountains, coral reefs, rivers, jungles.  Eco-tourism is a booming branch of the travel industry, with no signs of slowing down.

This isn't to say we all travel in perfect eco-harmony.  Have you ever thought what the impact is of building large all-inclusive resorts on flat, erosion-sensitive Caribbean beaches?  How about what happens to your garbage in fancy Indian hotels -- many Indian municipalities do not have regular trash collection, and garbage is often burned outdoors.  Have you thought about what scuba diving does to local reefs (in Koh Tao, where I learned to dive, the reef used to come right up to the beach.  Years of tourists and divers walking on and kicking the coral killed it, and the reef has receded substantially)?

Gorgeous Koh Tao, Thailand

Tourism is only sustainable if the destination is able to survive it, and when the presence of foreigners means environmental degradation, then that ain't it.  Many eco-holidays might well just be a hike through a forest where you carry out your own trash -- now that's great, because you appear to be doing no damage, but maybe not.  Is your tour operator taking you on a responsible trail, or are you actually in an area susceptible to erosion, where your innocent hiking is harmful?  As an outsider, it may be difficult if not impossible to know -- but we have a responsibility to do our research and not just take someone else's word for the environmental friendliness of our actions.

We can go further.  We can volunteer to do forest trail clean-ups instead of just walking on through; the divers in Koh Tao have started projects where they "plant" metal structures underwater that encourage new reef growth.  Carbon offsets for flying are becoming more popular, and many government tourism boards will sponsor truly eco-friendly companies.  If we all do some homework and accept that travel does not mean turning off our brains, but rather fine-tuning them, then environmentally sustainable travel will really be within our reach.

PS -- This article is a must-read for anyone interested in eco-tourism.

Stay tuned for my next post "What sustainable tourism really means, Part II," where I will talk about economic sustainability -- and please leave your thoughts and comments below!

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