The United Nations declared 2017 to be the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Its objective was to help promote a fairer, more environmentally sensitive global tourism industry. While the UN has done lots of groundwork and research, there is still plenty the average tourist can do. Here’s how to be an eco-traveller. By James Teo.
KUALA LUMPUR, 29 October 2017. Reasons for stamping 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development (IYSTD), according to the UN’s mandarins, include the fact that it can have a positive influence on “the protection of the environment, the improvement of quality of life and the economic empowerment of women and youth, especially in developing countries.” Which all seem to be great objectives. Ones which you might care to think seriously before your next trip, especially if you are travelling to underdeveloped countries. Eco-travellers are not born but made!
Sympathetic hotel and destination design and development, sourcing from local producers and workforces, low-impact transport options, and commitment to a circular local economy all play their part. Sustainable tourism also relies in large part on tourism operators making serious efforts to ensure the right things are being done on the ground – and in the air. But the key to enabling sustainable tourism is the tourist. Understanding the key issues will help you choose, behave well and gain more rewards from any trip.
The best way to put pressure on the notoriously disposable tourism industry is opt out of profligate tour and service operators. To be an eco-tourist, before you book, always check to see if your tour, travel and booking company give at least a nod to environmentally friendly practices. If they don’t, you don’t. Ask if your airline offers carbon offsets? Choose another if not. Do the places you intend to visit have local cooperatives to visit and support, or is it just local business bigwigs that run the show? Try to find out beforehand. Is there a fund or commitment that helps employ or reskill local people affected by the tourist activities you will be participating in? Preserving local culture could depend on this.
These issues are more important than they might seem; in 2018, emerging and developing economies are forecast to grow 4.8 percent, up from just over 4 percent in 2016. And a significant part of that growth will come from tourism – today, adventure travel and interest in indigenous cultures are both booming. Additionally, the UN World Tourism Organization research has indicated that by 2030, 57 percent of international tourist arrivals will be to developing countries. That is a lot of people that can help, if they do the right thing, sustainably.
As well as looking at travel options like taking more efficient and lower carbon-footprint trains rather than flying, taking less stuff is an easy road to sustainability. Lightening your load saves fuel – and your back muscles. Buy local t-shirts and shorts if you need more clothes. Leave the fancy suitcases at home and take light, soft luggage that can expand a bit if you need more room. Cut down on non-essentials (cosmetics, electronics, multiple cameras). Take biodegradable washing powder instead of an extra set of trousers. Take your own water bottle (and steritabs if needed). Make the difference as an eco-traveller.
And make sure when you arrive, you understand how to behave and what to expect. Find out about and get your head around the local customs. Head touching, shaking hands, bowing, eating first and even paying with money wrongly can all put local people offside. You are the stranger, and you will be going to experience a new culture so don’t expect default McDonalds service everywhere you go. Find out about local music and food, religion and lifestyle. And language too - just saying ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ in the local tongue will make a huge difference; remember that UN ‘quality of life’ objective. Prepare to make yourself a curious traveller, not a tourist.
BE AN ECO-TRAVELLER. HERE ARE MORE HINTS AND TIPS:
- How to be a responsible traveller
- Understanding the cultural significance of Bali's mountains and lakes
- WildAsia's travel tips for green tourists
- The 10Rs of true eco living
We are not talking saving money here, but these things will probably help do that too. This is about saving energy, resources, and the environment.
First and easiest, don’t overuse local water resources. Buy fresh coconuts if you are thirsty. Take short showers, do your own washing in your room, turn off the taps while shaving and brushing your teeth, and always re-use towels. Don’t whack on the aircon full blast, don’t leave the TV on, don’t use disposable plastic bottles from the room, and don’t take all the free stuff from the bathroom and fridge just because you can.
Lastly, don’t treat the toilet like you do at home – flush only water and your effluent, nothing manufactured as the system may not be built to handle solids. And even if you are tempted, never steal the towels. The cleaner can lose their valuable job if you do.
Remember that waste disposal in many developing countries means dumping rubbish somewhere out of sight. Even so, tonnes end up on beaches, in the jungle and in polluting fires. Never buy or accept plastic wrapped food. Ask the hotel for paper or leaf-wrapped sandwiches and fruit. Get your own water bottle refilled with boiled water. If you are a bit anal, take your own hiking soap and shampoo. Take a spare bag with you to pick up rubbish dropped by other, less aware visitors. That makes a statement to the people that live there that you care about their environment.
Even if you think you are the next David Attenborough, keep to the paths. You don’t tread like the locals and can unknowingly seriously harm the local flora and fauna. And lastly, keep a few small things like soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, pencils, paper and even combs in your pack to give away to local children (ideally at a school, but not on the street if possible). Never, ever give sweets though. They are a real problem if the local kids don't have toothbrushes and good dental hygiene. Take books and pens and you will get mobbed once word of the giveaway gets out – but the smiles you get until they run out will be worth the hassle and will help with hygiene and education.
If you are visiting a locality because of its unique culture and art, don’t buy copy artefacts made in China or Vietnam. Look for indigenous artisans who you can talk to and buy stuff from, direct. That way you help maintain local traditions, not an international supply chain. But always make sure the local artefacts aren’t made from bone, feathers, wood or other natural materials that are on the IUCN endangered list. Don’t be afraid to put your toe in the cultural water (as long as you don’t touch somebody else’s foot). Eating with your hands, wearing a headscarf, not wearing shoes and taking food from strangers will all enhance the local view of visitors as ‘like us’ people, not just visiting exploiters.
Always ask before if you can take a photo, and don’t be offended if some say no. It’s not personal, it’s mostly cultural. And do show the photo to people you have taken - would you like it if a visitor took a random photo of you at work without asking, then walked off, talking about you in a foreign language? Try to understand and respect local traditions, and avoid offending the people whose culture you’re there to experience.
The UNWTO puts forward five key pillars as the basis for sustainable tourism. They are: Inclusive economic growth; Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction; Resource efficiency, environmental and climate change protection; Preservation of cultural values, diversity and heritage; and Mutual understanding, peace and security. If you travel with those at the bottom of your backpack, you won’t go far wrong.
Further reading: Responsible Travel Report 2017: http://responsibletravel.org/docs/The%20Case%20for%20Responsible%20Travel%202017_Final.pdf