Making the tourism industry part of a sustainable future

11 May 2016

Woman on beach

People love to see the world, and it’s what increasing numbers of them are choosing to do when they get the chance. Over 1.1 billion people took a foreign holiday in 2014 and we can expect this to continue to grow.

As I’ve explained elsewhere on this site, I believe in finding a mainstream form of sustainability for the future, one that celebrates life, enables people to do the things that enrich and inform them, whilst making those things low enough impact – environmentally and socially – that they can continue indefinitely into the future.

I understand the mind-set of people who see the impact of travel, and the negative side-effects of influxes of people into communities that are not well set up to deal with them, and see it all as a big problem. But I genuinely believe that the resultant perception that all environmentalists are kill-joys who don’t want people to enjoy anything in life has been an important barrier to acceptance.

We need to push those who have their hands on the levers that can reduce the impact of tourism in total

It just comes down to what you think the exam question is. If it’s “how can we appreciate and enjoy this beautiful world and its cultures and people whilst protecting and preserving it,” then that’s a mission that can be embraced by everyone. And that includes the mainstream holiday providers and airlines (who know they have to be on that journey, and increasingly are).

If it’s “how can we persuade people to stop flying for any purposes so trivial as enjoying themselves” then it’s not a saleable proposition.

Tourist meeting the locals

The footnote to this position is all the environmentally-conscious people who end up on a plane anyway, but wracked with guilt. As a process, guilt never removed an ounce of carbon from the atmosphere.

A world where almost nobody can travel is a world where we failed, and had to impoverish ourselves to recover the consequences of our failure. It’s not what we aspire to. And nobody who does aspire to it will ever be elected to anything on a platform promising to bring it about. 

So does the holiday industry have to adopt eco-tourism en masse to make this work?

Actually, heretical though it may be to point this out, a lot of the traditional holiday resorts – densely packed hotels with all the swimming pools, on-site entertainment, tennis courts and the like – are probably actually quite sustainable depending on how they’re managed. In the same way that it turns out that people living in cities can have an overall lower footprint, which was counter-intuitive when the data first emerged to suggest it.

Reducing the impact of those holidays becomes a relatively less complicated one of reducing hotel energy and water use, bringing down carbon emissions from air travel, setting up more sustainable supply lines of food and other resources. All things that can be managed at scale.

I actually went on such a holiday for the first time in my life a little while ago. I’m glad I tried it. There were some things I enjoyed. But if I’m going to travel, generally I want to experience the local culture and people. The mentality of ‘full board’ holidays where people stay in the hotel because everything is already paid for – it’s fine but not for me. But I see that as a point of preference rather than a moral principle.

Crowded beach
Holiday heaven, or holiday hell? It's a point of preference, not a moral principle

Like many other people, my ambitions to see the world are more about the cultural and natural treasures out there, rather than a swimming pool and some guaranteed sunshine. The trick is to realise that the fact of seeing the thing changes the context of the thing itself, and so to be educated about how well managed some of these areas are so that you can avoid the real problems.

In other words, those of us who want to see the ‘real world’ when we travel have a more complex set of impact issues that need to be considered than those who want to sit beside a swimming pool or a beach.

There’s no doubt how bad it can get when we get it wrong, and when the simple weight of human numbers destroys the very thing that is the attraction. Destinations such as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Pyramids in Egypt are all in a delicate state and having to have access better managed to protect them.

Out of those three, the only one I’ve visited to date is Machu Picchu. I trekked the Inca Trail some years ago. It was a wonderful and magical experience. But, of course, access to the trail is tightly controlled to avoid too heavy numbers creating damage, and that’s almost certainly how it should be.

So what about ecotourism? It’s an option as a specialist process designed to view some of the most remarkable natural environments and to actively aim to enrich them by supporting conservation and local communities. It’s an interesting specialist strand of adventure-based holiday that I could see myself trying at some point.

Some of the top destinations include Cape Verde, which is seen as a model for political and civil rights in Africa, Uruguay, with its high percentage of renewable electricity and strong civil liberties, Costa Rica, which was one of the earliest ecotourism locations, and Samoa, the South Pacific island that is credited by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council as leading the pack.

Tourist chatting to the locals

A survey last year of 32,000 travellers by booking.com provoked over half to claim that they considered environmental impact when choosing where to go. But that does sound a little bit like yet another one of those surveys that gets told the message that it clearly wants to hear.

The thing is that we need to reduce the impact of the sorts of holidays that people most want to take. It’s great if there’s a thriving eco market for those that want to have a themed holiday. But it’s a sideshow. And surveys like the booking.com one rather play to the perception that what we need is for holiday-makers to choose their holiday on the basis of a set of eco-criteria.

They won’t. Not unless those criteria feature more heavily in the price signals. So it’s really about finding ways for us, as a society, to enjoy what we want in a better way, and not to get too worthy about it.

I wish I saw more positive narratives about that.

But then what do I know? That holiday I mentioned above was my first for something like ten years. I usually travel to speak at events, and most enjoy seeing places as a traveller rather than a tourist. There’s a fine distinction there, but it does exist. 

If you love what you do, then holidays become less important. Maybe if we didn’t have so many people in crappy jobs that they hate, they wouldn’t need so many holidays in the first place. 

But I still want to see more of this amazing world before I die, and have an active note in my to-do list to make the time to do it.

In the mean time, we need to push, cajole and encourage all of those who have their hands on the levers that can reduce the impact of tourism in total. More efficient flights, plus attractive alternative modes of transport. Reduced impact hotels. More positive integration with local cultures.

So long as low impact holidays require people to plan and worry and stress about how not to be too much of a nuisance whilst trying earnestly to enjoy themselves then they will remain very much a minority sport.

Arctic tourism