I bet right now, you are conjuring up images of white sand beaches, misty jungles, and ornate temples. Idyllic, exotic, and beautiful.
After our recent trip to Bali (jetlag still in full effect as I write this at 4am), I can attest that it is beautiful.
And also littered with garbage.
Garbage is literally part of the landscape, ubiquitous and disheartening.
Driving between destinations, I simultaneously admired the swaying palm trees and lamented the trash. It made me consider a major issue at the forefront of the travel industry today.
What are the implications of traveling? How do we navigate the delicate balance between tourism’s positive effects on local economies versus the detrimental environmental effects? And what are our responsibilities as travelers or travel companies?
Skift, the largest travel industry intelligence platform, coined the term “overtourism” once global tourists passed the one billion mark. Thanks to social media apps like Instagram, popular destinations have experienced a boom in visitors, sometimes outpacing their ability to implement proper infrastructure (like Bali).
Tourism accounts for 10% of the global economy, and as travelers we support local businesses, farmers, and families every time we go on vacation.
What does this mean? The tourism sector is a powerful and an empowering industry; but those of us privileged enough to travel need to be cognizant of our (sometimes inadvertent) negative impacts.
I will be respectful of local customs
When I visit another country, I consider myself an ambassador for the United States. Like any good ambassador, I want to be respectful towards my hosts.
Before embarking on any trip, research local customs. Whether it’s removing my shoes before entering a home, covering my shoulders in a religious building, or learning how to say “hello” and “thank you” in the local language, these small respects go a long way when you are visiting someone else’s country.
I will not contribute to companies that support the mistreatment of animals
Animal encounters are popular within the tourism sector but need to be approached with caution. Most western companies have regulations on animal interactions, but many experiences globally are unregulated. And with tourists willing to pay big bucks to walk with lions or ride elephants, international tour operators are scrambling to meet the demand, oftentimes at the expense of healthy or safe living conditions for the animals.
One of the most notorious examples is elephant riding. Elephants within this industry are often mistreated and their spines are not intended to bear riders. Even “sanctuaries” need to be heavily vetted before earning your dollars—especially if the animals are performing in any way. I’ve gone so far as to not give my dollars to certain tour operators or even hotels that offer elephant riding as an excursion. I try to provide kind and constructive feedback in hopes that they will remove the offering and the industry will dwindle.
I will shop locally to support local economies
One of the most positive impacts we have as travelers are our contributions to the local economy. Whenever I can, I try to stay in locally managed accommodations, shop at local markets, and eat at local establishments. It’s not a crime to get your Starbucks fix, but it might also be nice to give a local coffee shop a try one time.
I especially consider this when I am traveling by cruise ship. Many countries, notably Venice, have begun limiting the number of travelers to their ports since so many travelers descend upon their cities, sometimes without even buying accommodation or food. If I am going to be a guest in another country, I will try to at least enjoy a meal or excursion as a way to contribute locally.
I will give back to the communities I visit
For every location we visit, particularly those still considered developing nations, I donate time or money to a local charity. Ok, I actually just came up with this idea while writing this article, so I officially started with Bali, donating money to TrashHero.org. In many places, a little bit of money can really help local communities who need things like clean water or school supplies. I feel it’s the least I can do as a thank you for hosting us on our vacation!
I will seek out eco-friendly/responsible accommodations whenever possible
Costa Rica just passed 300 days running on completely renewable energy. Many small or developing nations don’t have the same resources to achieve this goal (yet), but eco-friendly accommodations and experiences are spreading throughout the tourism sector. Because it costs money to sustain environmentally responsible programs, these accommodations may cost a little more money. However, I am happy to contribute my dollars to organizations working towards sustainable practices.
I will offset my carbon footprint
I am painfully aware that my penchant to travel translates into tons of carbon emissions. While the best way to protect our environment in any example is to reduce consumption, teleportation hasn’t been invented yet (could we hurry up on that, please?). Thankfully, many airlines have started participating in carbon-offsetting projects and travelers can opt to participate.
Traveling is something I love—it is my work and it is also my passion. With each new destination, I am inspired by the beauty of our planet and the similarities we share across cultures. And while I make my way through this world, I will be committed to mitigating my effects on it. As much as traveling opens my mind and heart, it also has the potential to adversely affect those places I love. A conundrum, to be sure.
As more people flock to tourist destinations, our personal responsibility will only increase. The propensity to become mindless consumers of travel, ticking off bucket lists and posting our next Instagram selfie, has to be tempered with respect and care for the places we claim enrich our lives. Travel is an eye opening and enriching practice, but it should also be a symbiotic relationship.