Sustainable Travel Is More Than Just the Environment

BY Georgina Ustik

Sustainable Travel is More Than Just the Environment


“The vast and ever-expanding industry of tourism threatens to turn the whole world into a series of theaters whose companies perform palatable versions of their culture and history.

Tourists thus possess a perverse version of Midas’s touch: the authenticity and exoticism they seek is unauthenticated and homogenized by their presence.” - Rebecca Solnit, A Book of Migrations

As a traveller, you leave a mark wherever you go. When destinations are visited by travellers, there are social and cultural impacts that impress upon the host community. And there’s a lot at stake: in many places — especially those that rely on it as a major industry — tourism may become more of a priority than cultural or historical preservation. Communities may also become more globalised, posing a threat to local traditions.

Sustainable social travel offers a new way of thinking — it’s all about protecting locals while encouraging a positive cultural exchange between them and the traveller. So how can the conscious creative travel mindfully, and in a way that leaves no harm in their wake? We’ve created a travel tool that covers the need-to-know tips for respecting local communities, culture and cultural exchange.

Sustainable Travel is More Than Just the Environment
Tourists crowd at Niagara Falls

Mass tourism

Mass tourism, or over-tourism, is defined by a huge amount of people visiting a place in a short amount of time, usually peak season. Today, it looks a lot like budget-friendly package tours, cheap flights, all-inclusive resorts and cruises, which facilitate this high number of visitors.

The good thing about it is that it brings in a lot of money and local jobs, and it can be a vital lifeline to countries with underdeveloped economies due to historic political unrest, colonialism and natural disaster. But it’s also an unsustainable source of income and relies on the attention span of far wealthier countries. Examples of it are everywhere — from Venice, which gets flooded by 20 million visitors a year that quickly overwhelm its 55 thousand permanent residents, to Peru’s Rainbow Mountain, which is being damaged by around 1,000 hikers a day.

Mass tourism is also based on the idea of a country or culture as packaged product; it’s “the commodification of what should be revered as unique,” writes Anna Pollock for The Guardian. “Tourists ‘do’ places and rarely get the chance to stand in awe and wonder.”

This leads to a negative cultural exchange, as money-making via tourism takes precedence over community welfare. The social pillar of sustainable tourism looks at this relationship between travellers, local people and their communities and strives to make it a positive and reciprocal exchange.

Sustainable Travel is More Than Just the Environment
Peru’s Rainbow Mountain sees over 1,000 hikers a day

Disappearing culture

Developments in an area’s tourism create economic opportunities, but this must also be carefully weighed against the intangible implications that affect the local community and culture of that destination. Over-tourism is often the double-edged sword that comes with an area becoming “the next big thing.” Risks include the dilution of local culture and may even result in communities becoming under-represented or neglected as a whole.

Tourist influxes are also often detrimental to the livelihood of locals. Amsterdam is one example; the city draws almost 20m visitors a year, and locals complain that an influx of Airbnbs catering to visitors doesn’t allow for local culture to develop and is alienating those who have made the city their home for decades. This leads to tensions between locals and tourists, compromising the very cultural exchange we should all travel for.

Short term rental platforms have also contributed to this problem; driving an increase in rent prices so now, locals can no longer afford to live in their own neighbourhoods resulting in dispersed communities.

Social media is making it worse

There’s no doubt that social media has made travel more accessible — and it’s an affordable and fun way to connect with other communities, learn about your destination from people who actually live there and share your experiences.“Tourism is changing, and Instagram is in the center of this shift…people are searching and discovering new places through Instagram,” Putri Silalahi, communications officer for Instagram’s Asia-Pacific region, told Atmos. “It has become the guidebook for travelers.”

But it also has its drawbacks. Instagram’s geotagging feature has led to a massive increase in visitors; in 2016, Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism invited dozens of social media influencers on a “Trip of Wonders” promoting areas around Indonesia. Visitors hit 15.8 million in 2018, far more than the 6.2 million in 2008.

But locals argue tourists flooding to #nofilterneeded natural wonders has led to more litter, trail erosion and wildfires, to the point that some parks in the US have asked visitors not to use the geotagging feature.

Sustainable Travel is More Than Just the Environment
In 2017 the Peruvian government enacted a two-turn system of visitation, limiting tourists to a morning or afternoon visit.

Check your source

The issue of mass tourism is also incredibly racialised, something that travel media exacerbates — the majority of the travel media space caters specifically to a white audience (as of 2018 the PR industry in the US is 87.9% white), and often leans into the idea of culture as a packaged product.

Without partnering with local creators, traditional travel media dangerously distorts authentic narratives. This tends to portray local cultures, communities and identities with western-washed expectations and creates an unmanageable demand of a specific “culture” and how to interact with it. In order to keep up with these expectations, locals compromise their cultural integrity into something palpable for the tourists (namely westerners) to experience.

Conscious travellers should consider all the above when researching for their trip. Make sure to read local sources, try to skip “package deals” and be conscious of the footprint you’re leaving as you venture into a new space.

Other tips

Airbnbs can be great, but just because it feels like home doesn’t mean it is your home. Be careful about any noise or possible pollution you’re bringing into a local neighbourhood. And if you read into local tension between residents over Airbnb, maybe consider a hotel instead.

Avoid the chains — do your research into businesses, restaurants and other hospitality that are locally owned. Skip the chains or anything that you suspect could be supporting an international conglomerate.

Do your research beyond “best bars in the area.” How do people interact with one another? What kind of clothing is seen as respectful? What’s the local tipping culture? All this should help you interact with a space without leaving too much of a trace.

Sustainable Travel Is More Than Just the Environment
A backpacker pauses to take a photo in the Caucasus Mountains.

Photography by Andy Watkins, Marcin Simonide, Alvaro Palacios, and Jeremy Bishop