As a matter of fact — our generation travels much more than our grandparents. It is normal for us to pack a rucksack and go for a short break to Europe or spend a few weeks in Asia when it’s getting too cold and nasty here. We roam around much more, but we often follow the same old patterns that probably do not work, as travelling scales up and becomes a mass phenomenon.
It has spurred a lot of concerns among people who love travelling, but want to do it in a way that does not harm the world around us. Together with the founder of WeFuture and expert in sustainability Veronika Marfina, we explore the impact of mass travelling on our personal, ecological and societal well-being. In short, we can afford to travel a lot nowadays — but should we?
The Treasure of Santiago
Katia Ray: In Paolo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”, Santiago travelled far to find the treasure and ultimately found it in his home place in Spain, where he started. The true treasure was not the gold — it was an act of self-discovery that happened through all the trials and tribulations of his journey.
Mindful travelling makes us richer. Seeing new places and meeting people fuels our curiosity and helps understand that we are all different, yet similar. Talking to a berber in the desert or to a professor in Sweden makes you realise that we all pursue happiness, but choose different paths to it. All you need is to observe and listen as you travel.
Mass-travelling deprives us of these genuine experiences. It is often reduced to ticking the boxes and following the route defined by someone else — travel agencies in the early days, and travel blogs now. But Millennial-style tourism like staying in the “art”-hotels or eating a “best-in-town” avocado toast might not be better than being an old style tourister with a hulk of a camera and an ugly panama. It is just putting extra gloss on the same old thing whose name is superficiality.
It is time to become an “anti-tourist” and make conscious choices about where you go and what you want to see, feel and experience. The anti-tourist is not an actor following someone’s script, he is a creator of his own journey. This means that I am going to skip some things and focus on what is essential for me. It also means travelling less, but better, making each journey a unique experience and staying open to all wonderful ‘unknowns’ along the way.
No Planet “B”
Veronika Marfina: Travelling has a huge impact on the environment. The modern way of travelling is far from responsible: tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere by airplanes and the threatening amount of trash is left behind after our journeys.
According to a recent study, tourism accounts for around 8 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and all catastrophic consequences they bring about. With the air travel industry as a major contributor to carbon footprint, simply flying less and avoiding long-haul flights can improve the situation. But despite the well-known downsides, the number of international trips rises each year. Tourist industry has become a massive flywheel dangerous to environment.
Another problem partially caused by mass-travelling is waste, in particular plastic, — one of the greatest threats to the planet’s ecosystems. According to Ellen MacArthur Foundation report, if we don’t act urgently, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans. Bali, the famous Indonesian island, whose economy is mostly dependent on tourists, has already faced the consequences of massive pollution. When I went to Bali for surfing in 2017, I expected to find the clean ocean and beautiful beaches, but had to swim in the water full of plastic instead. Bali is an amazing place, and it was such a pity to find its coastal area polluted. While there are cases when trash can be turned into a tourist attraction spot, waste has become a worldwide problem which we have to solve unless we want all travel destinations look like the waste theme parks.
Local Communities: Harm or Benefit
Katia Ray: The mass-travelling threatens to erase the whole communities and authentic places from the earth. When I stayed in a private apartment in Albufeira, Portugal, the host complained that the increasing flow of tourists over the last decade turned the fishermen village with traditional colourful houses into the rows of uniform hotel buildings. Many inhabitants had to leave.
When the local communities rely heavily on tourism, they often overlook the importance of sustainable development and preserving their true values. Many young people start serving endless hordes of visitors, instead of getting proper education and supporting diversification. For example, lack of schools is still a problem in Peru among indigenous communities, such as Q’eros, though they do not experience lack of tourism. As a result, mass-travelling does not turn quantity of visitors into qualitative benefits for society.
Veronika Marfina: Overtourism, when there are way more visitors that a particular destination can handle to protect its nature, historical heritage and local life, makes the situation even worse.
For example, Venice has experienced the record number of visitors during the last years, making it possible that it won’t be the flood which destroy the city, but the tourists. Skyrocketing rents and overcrowded streets are forcing residents to abandon Venice. Its population has reduced almost three times in the last fifty years. Increasing amount of waste along with cruise ships damages the city’s fragile lagoon and waterways. Of course, everyone should have a chance to see this splendid city, but the consequences of ever-rising tide of tourists can ruin the great experience for both visitors and residents.
Not only Venice — many other destinations such as Barcelona, Dubrovnik, Amsterdam, or Machu Picchu also struggle with overtourism. Local authorities, governments and tour industry leaders look for solutions which reconcile tourists’ desire to travel with residents’ comfort and environment’s safety. Such solutions can involve restricting the number of permits for access to local highlights (like Inka Trails in Peru) or shutting down the tourist spot for a while for ecological rehabilitation (that is what happened to Boracay in Philippines).
How to Become a Responsible Traveller?
Travelling less seems the easiest way to stop feeding the beast of tourism industry. But travelling is a pleasure. We feel that our life is deprived if we cannot get in touch with other cultures and ways of life. So, there are ways to travel more responsibly. This approach not only helps conserve environment and local communities. It will give you a far more authentic experience and satisfaction from your journey.
Travel with meaning
Travel with the purpose in mind, not just to tick the boxes. You might set a goal of learning something new while travelling. This might be short courses of yoga, handcraft, or improving a foreign language. Link it to your broader life goals and inspirations. This will help you stay focused and avoid wasteful use of your time and resources.
Choose travel destination carefully
Having in mind your broader purpose will help you narrow down the destination. You might not want to visit highly popular and overcrowded places, opting for something quieter, but more authentic, that still offers you plenty of opportunities. If you still want to go to the hype place, try to visit it outside of the peak season. This experience will be more pleasant for you, and less burdensome for the local residents, nature and infrastructure.
Support local communities
Support local initiatives which conserve traditions and uniqueness of the place. Choose independent businesses with sustainable practices, like restaurants that use home-grown and local produce. Try to ensure that your money support locals and don’t just stay in the pockets of middlemen. For example, a good alternative to hotels are homestays where you live with local families in their houses. This is a good way to immerse yourself in a local culture and give back to the community, so check it out!
Develop ‘treating as home’ attitude
Treat the place where you stay as though you will live there for a long time. This includes avoiding excessive amount of garbage, saving the water and electricity, etc. Choose reusable alternatives wherever possible. Having your perfect reusable cup for hot beverages, a bottle for water and a cutlery travel set can save a lot of single-use plastic contaminating the landfill and oceans.
Reduce CO2 emissions
Choose transport with less environmental impact wherever possible: a train over an airplane, public transport over a car, bike or walking around over any above options. If air travel cannot be avoided, look for the shortest flight to your destinations and think about offsetting your carbon footprint. You may also reconsider your holidays habits and take one or two long holidays per year instead of several mini-breaks: not only it helps you reduce your environmental footprint, but also gives you time to explore your travel destination in more depth.
Choose sustainably managed services
Do your research and look for sustainably managed hotels or tour operators. If there is no official certification scheme at your destination (like Clef Verte in France or Green Tourism in the UK), try to find out what environmentally-friendly and ethical practices they abide to. Give preference to those businesses, who give back to local communities.
If you want to make your holidays even more meaningful, then consider volunteering. Restoring historic buildings, saving endangered animals or working in local farms — there are many ways to make a positive contribution to the community. Make sure that these activities are truly helpful and choose reputable non-profit organizations, so that your actions don’t actually have the negative impact on the community.
It is possible to enjoy travelling and reduce the downsides of extensive trips. A responsible traveler is a curious explorer who feels a lot of genuine sympathy and respect to local culture, people, and environment. If you treat your destination with the same respect as it were your home, you’ll get much more than a mass-traveler can ever imagine.