The Top 3 Threats to Sustainable Tourism And Why To Avoid Them
Travel is now accessible for a large segment of the world population.
What once was a privilege of the wealthy, now is literally at distance of a click from middle-class society in most countries. With this trend arriving to once-underdeveloped countries like China and India, whose middle-class is bigger than the entire US population, we can only expect to have more people traveling over the next few years.
Don’t get me wrong, this is great. Traveling abroad is an experience everyone should do to grow, learn and enlarge their vision of life in general. You can tell if someone has done their fair amount of independent travel just by listening to the way they walk and to their perspective of the world.
However this is also raising serious concerns on the society and environment.
Here are some of the biggest threats to sustainable travel.
Airbnb and all the subsequent competitors came to revolutionize the travel accommodation market, promising an authentic local experience as opposed to one-note hotel chains. The concept was — and still is — alluring but it has had devastating impact in the housing market everywhere in the world.
First of all, there’s little authenticity left when booking a room or flat through an Airbnb. Chances are it’s just one of the dozens of properties the owner has for rent. How is that different from a hotel? Knowing you’re contributing to a business like any other takes away the fun — what is so authentic about that? Plus, properties in Airbnb often comply with much less quality and safety standards than hotels and hostels.
But that’s not the worst part. The real issue is what it’s doing to the cities. The true locals are forced to abandon their homes in the center in favour of short-term rental for tourists. Ironically, the exact same tourists who come and seek for the “local” experience. Places like Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Lisbon, just to mention a few, have now an extremely unbalanced housing market. Rents in Lisbon has risen to 90% of the average salary.
Next time you book an Airbnb, know that you’re probably not booking an authentic experience anymore. You’re simply contributing to the pockets of a massive company and leave the true locals with no other option than to move away from where they lived their whole lives.
#2 Cruise Ships.
Personally I don’t understand the appeal of cruise ships. Being stuck on a floating block of cells with thousands of strangers and spend the day eating, drinking and standing on long lines is my definition of hell. But hey, each to his own. That’s not the problem.
The real issue is these are MASSIVE polluting machines. Not only it’s terrible for you just to be aboard the ship — the air quality inside is 20 times worse than in a busy city center — but it also contaminates the air and water all around. To give you an idea, the ecological footprint per cruise passenger is estimated to be 3 times higher than an airplane one. Carnival Cruise lines for example state they release 712.kg of CO2 per kilometre (!).
As such a clear threat to the environment, how this industry does not have heavy regulations is beyond me. Sadly it’s another case of economic interests overriding any environmental protection efforts.
#3 Short-term thinking.
It’s 2017 and unfortunately there’s still a long way to go to achieve a global respectful travel style.
Mass tourism puts an immense pressure on the local resources (water, food, energy) and overall infrastructure, specially if we’re talking about under-development countries who struggle to find a balance for their own citizens.
Travel destinations need to take the lead in protecting their own resources and not succumb to any greedy business men who promise to make the place rich. This is the short-term thinking and we’ve got inumerous examples why it only works for a matter of years, at best.
Perhaps the most shocking place I’ve been in this sense was Phu Quoc island in Vietnam. I was allured by photos of dreamy beaches and crystal clear waters with colorful corals only to find out the island has become a massive construction land for resorts and villas. Most of the beaches are EXTREMELY dirty with sewage and debris being a huge contrast to what is depicted online.
Another example: Phi Phi Islands in Thailand. Known for the movie “The Beach” (2001), it soon became a hotspot for lush honeymooners and drunk backpackers. Today it’s a sad sight with hundreds of boats polluting what it was once was the unspoilt and peaceful turquoise cove of Maya Bay in Phi Phi Lee.
My home islands, Azores, have been “discovered” too in the last couple of years, so it’s a matter of time until these same issues arise. Last time I was in São Miguel I started to see careless behaviour all around: trash left in nature reserve areas, people bathing with shampoo in small creeks that lead to the sea and even subwoofers spreading infamous rap music to a nature paradise (yes, noise pollution is a kind of pollution too and is still way underrated).
What is really ironic about all this is that the reason travelers came in the first place, the beauty and essence of the place, eventually gets quickly degraded. Worse, the remains are often not of value no either the tourists or the locals.
But there are some places who seem to have tackled these issues smartly. Take Bhutan for example. The government has put sustainability and happiness of its citizens as the top priority and all tourism measures and laws are taken accordingly. The number of visitors in the country is limited and the development is restricted. Win-win situation for all, including the environment.
Amongst all the South East Asian countries, the Philippines seem to have taken a bit more seriously the impact on tourism on their land, in particular regarding the conservation of their unique underwater ecosystem. In El Nido, Palawan, they have bravely taken some extreme measures like forbidding plastic in the entire town. If it is what it takes to preserve their land for future generations, so be it. It may not be enough — and Philippines also have negative examples, such as Boracay — but any government effort that values should be praised and it makes the country even more attractive as a travel destination.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
It all comes down to trying to make a positive impact on the environment, society and economy of your travel destination. Have this mindset present at all times and it will be clear whether you’re doing any harm during your vacations.
Small is better. Simple things like favouring local accommodation businesses over Airbnb, preferably small hotels or bed & breakfasts where the owners themselves can make sure you have a great travel experience.
Be critical. Make a background check on tours you might book to find out if they pose any ethical threat to the environment and local community in general. Example of what NOT to do: riding elephants in Thailand and the whale-sharks feeding in Cebu, Philippines.
Go local. Spend the days in a new place trying to indulge in local culture as much as you can. Isn’t that one of the best things about travel?