No tacky tourists here! Three tips for thoughtful travelers

Making travel plans for the summer? You’re not alone: according to the World Bank, a staggering 1.3 billion people traveled internationally as tourists in 2017, and reports estimate that number will continue to grow. There’s no question that we are adventuring more than we ever have, and modern technology continues to make it easier and more affordable to tackle our travel bucket lists. But what does all this movement mean for people and the environment?

Tourism provides opportunities for people around the world to grow their economies by sharing their communities with visitors. The tourism sector provides 1 in 11 jobs globally and accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP. The United Nations World Tourism Organization, a specialized UN agency advocating for sustainable international tourism, promotes tourism as a tool for achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals and offers resources and guidance to travelers and tourist destinations. Responsibly managed subtypes of tourism, such as ecotourism, can contribute positive conservation outcomes and promote understanding between people from different backgrounds. But not all tourism is created equal. When communities are unprepared for an influx of visitors or when activities are not properly managed, tourists can strain the resources and systems locals rely on and damage local plants, wildlife, and livelihoods.

When we choose to travel, it’s important to understand the impact our presence and activities could have on the local environment. Here are some things to consider when planning your next big adventure:

Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda is highly regulated and contributes to local economic development and gorilla conservation.

Wildlife

Wildlife tourism is exactly what it sounds like: visiting a destination for the purpose of seeing wild animals. There are many exciting ways to see animals in their natural habitats, from snorkeling with marine life to hiking a volcano to see mountain gorillas. But as the market for wildlife tourism grows, it’s getting more difficult to make sure what looks like the trip of a lifetime for a tourist isn’t a regular nightmare for the animals. Before you book a wildlife adventure, do your research about the animals you’re expecting to see and the organization facilitating it. Are the animals native to the area? If not, why are they there? If they are native, how and why does the organization have access to them? Be wary of opportunities to touch, hold, or feed wildlife, as this can cause stress for the animals, expose them to sickness and disease, and alter their natural behaviors. While you might reasonably find yourself in close proximity sometimes – when diving, for example – it is almost never in a wild animal’s best interest to directly interact with humans.

A hotel in Cape Town, South Africa informs guests about water conservation.

Water, Utilities, and Waste

 Tourists tend to use more water and electricity on vacation than at home, and often leave garbage behind for locals to deal with. This all strains a destination’s local resources and infrastructure, especially in places that are newly popular or not prepared for so many users. When choosing a hotel and booking excursions, find out what the companies do to conserve water and energy and reduce waste. Plan ahead so you’re prepared to do your part, including bringing a reusable water bottle and saving space to bring home packaging from products you’ve traveled with. Finding a hotel owned or led by locals is often a win-win: they know best how to run the hotel according to local standards, and your money goes back into the community that is hosting you.

Social media can attract visitors to destinations unprepared for tourism growth. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Social Media

Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine traveling to a beautiful place and not sharing photos of it on social media. But sometimes spreading the word about a destination is exactly what causes its popularity to explode, leading to some of the problems described above. Instagram has begun doing its part in combating this, and in 2017 started targeting the use of hashtags that have been associated with wildlife trafficking and irresponsible tourism. This is not to say we have to swear off sharing completely; just think about whether posting a picture and tagging a location is really what’s best for keeping a destination sustainable. World-famous attractions like the Eiffel Tower are prepared for mass tourism; on the other hand, a lesser-known beach where turtles get some peace and quiet might be better kept as your little secret.

As with any activity that involves the use of natural resources, tourism can be both helpful and harmful for conservation. Fortunately, there are numerous resources to help eco-minded travelers plan and think carefully about their impact. Next time you’re planning a getaway, check out some of these resources and share your trip with us on social media! Or, on second thought, maybe keep it a secret.