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19th January, 2019

A guide to sustainable tourism

A glass globe sitting in grass

Sustainable tourism is a big topic currently. With risk factors that include pollution, environmental damage, over consumption and negative effects on social systems, thankfully governments, tour operators and communities are finally on board with trying to create change. For many, the mindset of it being ‘too little, too late’ and feeling helpless to the overall cause still prevails, but actually there’s a lot you can do as a traveller to help support sustainable tourism.

What issues are created by heavy tourism?

The travel and tourism industry is one of the biggest and fastest growing industries in world. It is worth some $7 trillion worldwide and has grown from 25 million global travellers in 1950 to 1.3 billion global travellers in 2017. That’s an astounding one billion two hundred seventy-five million more travellers globally in under 70 years!

Travelling the world has become easier and easier. There are now more flights, more hotels, more competitive package prices and a greater accessibility in visiting the world’s most beautiful places - places that might have previously been off the tourist map. This is great for the discerning traveller who wants to furnish their life with exciting travel experiences to tell the grandchildren, but it comes at the detriment of some pretty big issues.

An influx of more tourists means an increased carbon footprint, with more pollution from emissions produced by travel. It also increases the consumption of water and energy, which puts a huge strain on natural resources in countries that may limit their supplies. More tourists can also add to the problem of litter and lack of recycling of plastics as well as damage to natural environments by careless exploration. And of course, countries where tourism is a dependable economy, can greatly suffer in terms of infrastructure when tourism declines due to terrorism or natural disaster.

But there is some good too.

The positives of a growing travel industry

The most obvious answer is the revenue it generates for the country. This helps to boost the local economy and infrastructure, with money being reinvested back into schools, community and improving the local area.

A boosted economy also leads to an increase in jobs. This creates better job opportunities for local people and the development or more hotels and facilities, as well as stronger tourism culture.

There are social advantages to the growth of tourism in a region. In many ways, tourism helps to preserve cultures that may otherwise be lost. Locals are able to showcase their traditions with a sense of pride and heritage sites or areas of significance become more protected by organisations such as UNESCO.

How are we working together to achieve sustainable tourism?

Travel and tourism aren’t going to slow down any time soon, but awareness of its effects is key, along with a plan to do things more responsibly.

Governments and institutions are looking at long term strategies to help adapt usage and enforce limits to create change. This change will help to preserve and protect economies, indigenous people, tourists, governments, industries and, most importantly of all, our planet. The European Commission recently summed this up saying, 'long-term sustainability requires a balance between economic, socio-cultural, and environmental sustainability. The need to reconcile economic growth and sustainable development also has an ethical dimension’.

Ultimately this comes down to what we do collectively. Change can be enforced, but we still have to work together and that means travel companies, hotels, communities, organisations and individuals all singing from the same hymn sheet.

The following are some examples of strategies to help meet the aims of sustainable tourism:

  • Reduction of single use plastics within hotels
  • Improved fuel efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions for aviation companies
  • Enforcing a carrying capacity in remote areas - limiting visitors where too many may risk damage to the environment
  • Restricted zones and the creation of special areas – for example special dive areas to protect the coral
  • Reforestation programs following damage to habitats
  • Conservation programs
  • More local people having a say in decisions that affect their quality of life
  • Maximising economic benefits

In honesty, ecotourism has existed since the 80’s, with many of the above strategies having been practiced by hoteliers, travel companies and tour operators for decades. But they were in the minority and it was not making a big enough difference.

With climate change already against us, and the threat of environmental damage from tourism being a serious issue, we have to make a stand. And that stand starts with an individual’s change of behaviour to responsible tourism.

What you can do to help in terms of sustainable travel

More and more people are getting on board with responsible travel and together we can make a difference. Here are some ideas on what you can do to help:

Consider how you get there

You may not be able to avoid a flight, but you could look at flying directly, to avoid the additional fuel consumption from multiple take offs. If you are travelling somewhere more local, is there a more environmentally way you can get there? Our VIP Travel service collects groups of passengers from the same area, so they are effectively car sharing.

Be choosey about who you book with

Choose holiday companies, hotels and airlines that support sustainable travel. If you have a package deal with a tour operator who supports ecotourism, half the work is done for you, so you can focus on the simpler areas of responsibility.

Reduce single use plastic

This covers an array of actions, from buying reusable straws, to using hessian bags over plastic ones. You can even buy wooden travel toothbrushes. If you do use plastic, stick with the reusable variety, like refillable plastic drinking containers, although there are some great lightweight aluminium ones you can buy for your excursions.

Support local causes

If you can, get involved in local projects that seek to protect their surroundings or their cultures. This might just be a donation, or you might wish to do some volunteering. Either way, you can research your cause and offer some help.

Conserve water

In the UK, we are used to a high consumption of water. In many other countries, particularly second or third world ones, water is scarce and the tourism industry over consumes, which puts a huge strain on resources. Use sparingly if you can. Have quick showers, don’t leave taps running when you’re not using them and flush the toilet only when you really need to.

Preserve natural environments

Seeing something incredible shouldn’t come at the cost of destroying it. Unfortunately, tourism does create a problem with this, but usually due to lack of education over intentional disregard. Treading on coral for example can kill it and we are losing so many or our coral reefs due to the influx of people snorkelling and scuba diving. Read up on the areas of beauty you are visiting and respect rules. Never remove anything from its environment.

Choose sustainable activities

Some activities are good for the environment and some just aren’t. Go for excursions that promote responsible travel. If in doubt, consider if mass tourism there is causing any environmental damage or the impact of tourism is bad for communities. Saga chooses partners who practice responsible travel.

Respect cultures and traditions

Local cultures and traditions need to be respected to be preserved. In some places where customs are deeply important, you might be expected to follow suit – such as covering up any exposed skin in the Middle East. Other cultures may just ask that you acknowledge their traditions. Either way, it’s good to swat up on the cultural expectations of the places you are visiting, to avoid any cultural conflicts.

Find out more about how to travel sustainably.

Go green.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.