As worldwide travel gets more accessible and more affordable, distance becomes the least of our obstacles when traveling from one side of the planet to the other. For most people, traveling means a chance to discover new places, explore foreign cultures, and experience the natural wonders of our world.
Unfortunately, tourism has overgrown that its negative impacts are now becoming more prevalent. The records from the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) say that 25 million tourist people traveled internationally in 1950. In 2019, this number multiplied by 60 to become 1.5 billion. As a result, local economies, the environment, and communities have suffered.
Sustainable tourism is a concept of tourism that strives to leave a positive impact instead of a negative environmental, economic, and social aspect.
Why is Sustainable Tourism Important?
It’s undeniable that tourism is a significant source of employment and economic growth for many places. Yet unsustainable tourism that doesn’t consider its impact on local communities and the surrounding environment can be more harmful than good. It can lead to detrimental effects on natural resources, local culture, and even consumption patterns.
For instance, the waste from tourists can worsen pollution and damage the environment. In addition, resorts and restaurants in an area may drive living costs upwards, pressuring local families to move out. Consequently, many traditional infrastructure and natural lands disappear to make room for more modern businesses.
Not to mention the exploitation of wildlife. People flock from all over the world to see the majestic elephants in India. Sure, riding these magnificent creatures may be an experience of a lifetime, but how do those elephants feel? In Amber Fort, they spend entire days carrying giggling tourists over their backs. The handlers paint their faces in garish pastels, drape their bodies in flashy satin, and kick their heads when they slow down to rest. Does this sound right to you?
However, this doesn’t mean tourism is all bad. On the contrary, it can help local communities thrive and the environment flourish when practiced sustainably. It stimulates local economies in a way that directly benefits the people there. As visitors, sustainable tourism is much more enriching too. You can understand the local culture better as you immerse in their way of life and work.
How to be a Sustainable Tourist
Sustainable tourism isn’t just something that you “feel like doing,” I would argue it’s the morally right thing to do. Now that we’ve understood the importance of being responsible when traveling, what does it look like in practice?
Let’s look at some practical ways to travel more sustainably, based on the three main impacts of tourism: socio-cultural, economic, and environmental.
Minimizing Negative Socio-Cultural Impacts
We have to respect the locals wherever we go, including their religion and customs. After all, they are the hosts who have opened up their homes, while we’re merely guests.
Try to learn a few phrases in the local language. It doesn’t matter if you speak with a foreign accent because people are more likely to appreciate your effort than make fun of it. Plus, they will be more eager to help you when they see that you’re respectful of them.
Another example is to dress appropriately according to the local values, whether that’s wearing headscarves in Saudi Arabia or a sarong in Balinese temples. Moreover, when you take photos of people, make sure to ask for their permission first. Then, imagine yourself in their shoes: strangers swarming into your home and snapping pictures of you going about your day. Rude, right?
Just treat everyone you meet with respect and show genuine interest in their village, city, or country. Who knows, this might lead to some insightful conversations or meaningful friendships!
Minimizing Negative Economic Impacts
The easiest way to support the local economy is buying local from independent stores owned by local residents, small businesses, and street vendors. It’s a great way to ensure that the money you spend goes directly to the people.
Whether staying in family-run hostels, exploring street food, or buying souvenirs from local artists, the options are endless. The last one is also an excellent way of giving unique, sustainable gifts. Not only is this supporting the local economy, but you can also experience the culture in a more immersive way.
Meanwhile, try to avoid large chains. Foreign businesspeople usually own popular hotels and restaurants. While they may employ some local workers, a vast percentage of the profit goes out of the country.
Minimizing Negative Environmental Impacts
Your environmental impact when traveling can be the most obvious or visible. Whether you’re traveling or at home, the general rule of thumb is to never litter, especially when you’re in nature.
You could be snorkeling somewhere in the Philippines, going on a wild safari in Africa, visiting a US national park, or hiking up Ben Nevis in Scotland. Whichever it is, be mindful of what you’re doing and the remains you leave behind.
Also, try to limit your use of plastic products. Something as simple as bringing your reusable straw when buying drinks and using reusable bags for shopping can do wonders. Another tip is always to choose more eco-friendly transport whenever possible. Often, this means opting for public transportation instead of taxis or renting a car.
Final Thoughts on Sustainable Tourism
It’s crucial to remember why you’re traveling in the first place. First, it is to appreciate culture and beauty beyond those in your hometown. That means to respect the local community who have lived there longer than you have known of its existence. It also means being considerate of how your brief visit may impact the generations that will continue to make the place their home.