Urban sustainable travel at its best?

When Sustainable Travel Goes Urban

What does sustainability actually mean? Trend forecasters have been throwing this word around loosely as they predict the future of travel. Yet as a defined term, sustainability suffers from an acute shape-shifter’s syndrome. In the context of Travel & Tourism, which at about ten percent of global GDP stands as the world’s largest industry, the ambiguous definition is an issue that is amplified on a global scale.

The overall impact of travel

When interviewing travel professionals on recent trips to New York City, Tel Aviv and Yerevan, Armenia, the views of what sustainable travel were synonymous. Costa Rica is ubiquitously accepted and always brought up as the prime example of a sustainable destination, followed by a diverse collection of other eco-focused sites. Sustainable travel has been simplified down to making sure beaches we visit are left clean, and monkey feeding is kept off-limits. And yet while the issue of conservation is important, this narrow definition of sustainability risks severe shortfalls in what the industry of travel can achieve for global amelioration.

Green lungs in New York City

Urban environments, like the beaches and jungles that we studied in high school biology class, are sensitive ecosystems comprised of webs of relationships between humans, animals and plants. As Major cities move from the soot-covered Dickensian nightmares of the past, the desire for a more hospitable urban environment is increasingly vocalized and addressed by city stakeholders. As proposed by Edward O. Wilson in his Biophilia thesis, people have a fundamental connection with nature and other forms of life. We have an instinctive need to be close with nature that is rooted in our very biology[2]. It is of little wonder that the third most visited site in the world — ironically tied with Times Square — is Central Park. Hopping across the east river to Brooklyn, tourists can find activists in the neighborhood of Greenpoint protesting that the borough comply to turn the last remaining parts of undeveloped Brooklyn to designated green zones, demanding access to nature a “Human Right”[3].

Mother Nature has a clever way of extending her reach to the deepest recesses of the concrete jungle. Visitors that have been to Tel Aviv’s central bus station, the largest of its kind in the world, may be surprised to learn it has been declared a protected nature reserve. While most Israelis view the gargantuan building as an eyesore to be avoided, the bat population which now call the station home clearly think otherwise.

Bat country in the heart of Tel Aviv

The case above, as with other examples of our fickle relationship with nature, is a clear example of Gaia theory in action. Living organisms and their inorganic surroundings have evolved together as a single system that greatly affects the chemistry and conditions of the Earth’s surface[4]. And since the urban environment is every bit as sensitive as any other landscape, the principles and goals we aim to achieve with sustainable tourism should expand to include these ecosystems where we spend most of our lives.

In defining sustainability, equal weight should be attributed to the economic, social, and environmental consequences of travel. Impact and sustainability are equivalent and should be used synonymously. Every destination can be understood as a living ecosystem, and travel viewed from this holistic perspective can help to foster the potential of the world’s largest industry for true global amelioration.

From a point of economic empowerment, travel is unrivaled in its ability to catalyze inclusion and a fairer diffusion of income. Pillars of the sharing economy such as AirBNB and Uber have provided a new platform for locals to contribute as paid service providers to incoming tourists. As authenticity and experience become the criteria of choice for visitors exploring new destinations, cookie-cutter attractions and chain restaurants give way to community-based organizations and untraditional experiences. Combine these two elements together, and you have a rise in the positive impact of tourism. An increase in sustainable tourism, where visitors choose to use public transportation and expand their presence across the grid, leads to increased investment in city infrastructure to the benefit of residents and tourists alike. Following the dollars, city governments will add more resources to quality of life improvements, and to a wider radius than ever before. As a result of an influx in tourism, a city becomes a better place to live in.

The link between economic and eco improvement is made clearer when seen through a sustainable travel perspective. Tourists arriving in a new destination often flock to the sites locals forget exist. Parks, rivers, and other green spaces within the urban ecosystem are often kept alive by tourism dollars, providing both funds and demand for constant maintenance and improvement. Locals walking into Central Park or by the Golden Gate Bridge are as likely to run into camera-wielding tourists as they are to their neighbors. In fact, the two parks host almost fifty five million visitors a year. And zooming out to a global view, every tourist who chooses to visit a city is a tourist not traipsing through fragile rain forests and beaches.

The cultural benefit of sustainable urban tourism is often not as quantifiable as economic impact, but is no less powerful. Tourism is often seen as a bridge builder for cross-cultural understanding. Nothing beats eradicating preconceived notions of outside cultures quite like visiting and interacting with the people on the ground. Urban cities are like cultural melting pots that always leave room for surprise by simultaneously bringing together old traditions and the unique results of new-world cross-cultural pollination.

Holi in NYC

Visiting Paris, the traveler can find themselves teleported to West Africa, the Maghreb, or South East Asia. The New York borough of Queens, recently cited as Lonely Planet’s destination to visit in the United States, has gained newly earned fame largely due to its incredible demographic diversity. When breaking bread replaces breaking bones, the entire world benefits.

Similar to green spaces, tourists serve as guardians of a city’s cultural sites. They flock to museums, notable houses of worship and heritage centers, providing a constant stream of the funding and attention needed to keep cultural treasures maintained. While the particularities of a city may be taken for granted by its residents, they often serve as a draw for tourists in choosing where to spend their precious vacation days and hard-earned money.

Last, a note about civility. Certain cities may have a reputation for being tough or kind to tourists, depending on the location. Sometimes, this attitude even serves as a touristic experience in itself. Yet, as cities draw in greater numbers of tourists, businesses, pubic servants and residents can ride the dovetails of success to gain greater exposure in an increasingly globalized world. Just as several countries in Europe understood after two worlds wars that it is in its best interest play nice, the rising significance of a tourism sector can tighten cross-border bonds and help promote a more peaceful world.

2007 was the first year on record in which more than half of humanity lived in cities. This explains why forty-eight of the top fifty most visited sites, as reported by Travel+Leisure Magazine, are either in cities or otherwise manmade. Leading the list of most visited places is the grand bazaar in Istanbul, garnering a staggering 91,250,000 visitors in 2014. When we consider the UNWTO definition for Sustainable tourism as an action “that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”[1]. We can conclude that if the majority of the population chooses an urban environment as their destination of choice, sustainable travel must step beyond the niche realm of ecotourism to the universal standard of travel.

The world’s #1 most visited site

Cities are living and breathing ecosystems, and tourism can either help or hinder their fragile existence. The significance of this is stark when considering the socio-economic and environmental footprint associated with urban tourism. As humanity continues to urbanize and the travel industry continues to grow, sustainable urban tourism is now more pertinent than ever.


Gilad is a social entrepreneur in the travel space, having founded Travel+SocialGood, Only Six Degrees and Sustain the Stoke. He lives in New York City, and is always planning the next escape.

The tourism industry is projected to reach over 10 trillion dollars in annual GDP by 2020, employing more than 1 in 11 around the globe. What if every action you take as a traveler can amount to social good?

Travel+SocialGood is expanding to a global network, and we’re looking for leaders to build innovation hubs in your series. Join us! For more information email me at Gilad@Travelsocialgood.org

[1] http://sdt.unwto.org/content/about-us-5

[2] http://www.wilderdom.com/evolution/BiophiliaHypothesis.html

[3] http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/38/12/dtg-bushwick-inlet-park-protest-2015-03-20-bk_38_12.html

[4] http://www.gaiatheory.org/

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