The global travel industry is huge. In 2016 the direct economic impact of the industry, including accommodation, transportation, entertainment and attractions, was approximately 2.3 trillion U.S. dollars and it’s still growing. Any industry worth that amount of money has an enormous amount of power, the power to influence governments, the power to influence our own consciences, the power to fundamentally affect how the world works.
Ultimately that power lies in our hands, as the people who pay to travel. So, what should we be asking of the industry to make our experiences richer and ensure they are sustainable and beneficial to the communities we visit?
Our world is always a mixture of inconsistencies and inequalities. While someone is thriving, someone else is suffering. Sometimes it’s hard to balance the needs of people and the needs of nature and the environment. But often, tourism can be a powerfully positive force to bring balance to these issues. Let’s look at 5 ways responsible tourism can address difficult subjects and bring positive benefits.
Populations and Housing
We think of concepts like eco-tourism as being entirely benign, bringing nothing but good to local people. But that’s not always true. As an example, in India and many countries in Africa the creation of national parks, to protect wildlife and draw in tourists, displaces many local people.
Recognizing this in Uganda, research was done into the attitudes of local people to the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to understand how profits should be spent to meet the needs of local people in the immediate area who had been impacted by the park’s creation. This meant any potential resentment or conflict between locals and park authorities could be avoided.
Conservation organizations are increasingly realizing that they cannot ignore the needs of local communities in preserving nature. They need those people onside and being part of the solution rather than the problem. Tourism requires the exact same approach.
Transportation and Pollution
It’s inescapable that tourism requires infrastructure. Hotels and airports need to be built, road and rail networks need to be maintained and extended and more vehicles are required to use them. Technological advances mean we are gaining ever more electric or hybrid vehicles to cruise around our towns and cities, but planes and 4WD vehicles aren’t going to be electric anytime soon. We’ve seen a backlash against carbon offsetting, with people pointing out that reduction is what we really need.
We can all contribute to that in many ways. Should you stay somewhere that doesn’t require such a long transfer from the airport? Could you explore the local area by bike rather than being driven in a taxi? Often these small choices have either no downside for us, or are actually a more fun experience.
Preservation and respect for cultures
Ancient traditions and cultures are disappearing in many parts of the globe. Tourism can be a very valid reason for communities to retain those cultures and pass them down to the next generation. But if we’re not careful, mass tourism can destroy the very thing tourists hoped to come and experience. This has been true in places like Bali, where rampant development has changed local attitudes and the feel of the traveler experience.
Sometimes it’s also important to retain and share the knowledge of why cultures haven’t been preserved. You won’t find many lists of tourist attractions in Johannesburg, South Africa that doesn’t rank the Apartheid Museum at the top.
Preserving culture might also seem free from any negative consequence. But so-called “Tribal Tourism” can be exploitative. It’s important we examine the impact of our travel and expect it to be arranged responsibly and ethically.
Fair distribution of economic benefits
We’ve become familiar with concepts like Fairtrade when choosing products to ensure that local producers get a fair price. That same thinking is also growing within the travel industry although to date there is, as yet, no equivalent international mark. But comparison sites and marketplaces like Eco Companion and The Ethical Travel Guide are becoming more popular, where we can rank holiday locations and operators by their sustainability, not just their popularity.
Most of us can relate to the idea that it’s local people who often provide us with the most memorable and unexpected aspects of travel. Whether it’s the local nature guide who shows you something amazing you wouldn’t have found for yourself, the driver who takes you somewhere by a more interesting route or just a simple act of kindness by someone in the community to share their life experience with you. It’s those people who we hope can benefit in some way from the money we spend visiting their country.
Promoting peace and understanding
Lastly, the world in 2017 feels like it needs all the harmony, communication and respect that we can each spread as we travel. Perhaps the most depressing travel experiences are those where you return home feeling “I went there, but I could have been anywhere”. In those circumstances, we can only look to ourselves. Were we passive observers rather than active experiencers of that place? Did we look out from behind hotel or car windows rather than walk in the streets and use all our senses to create a true experience, to listen to others and share what we love and what unites us?
At Tep, we believe in the power of communication and of sharing our experiences wherever we are in the world. We use technology to connect you to local people as well as those back home.