What is sustainable tourism? It's not the equivalent of yesterday's soggy, soy-soaked bran, mashed into an unappealing travel package. It's the best, if not the only, way for us to continue to enjoy travelling and living on this planet. My recent trip to the UNESCO HQ in Paris to talk about sustainable tourism left me with plenty of ideas I want to share with you.
Allow me to explain...
Gah, sustainable tourism. It’s sexy but it sure doesn’t sound like it. On the one hand it sounds like the dull kind of important thing you always mean to get around to (see tax returns. Oops, which reminds me…)
On the other, a mildly irritating fad in a long succession of mildly irritating fads. One that aims to make you feel bad while on holiday unless you wear hemp, catapult crystals around your head and eat reconstituted cardboard toenails to make up for it.
Luckily enough. It’s neither.
Not everyone agrees but in broad strokes...
The UNWTO Definition: "Tourism 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"
But personally, I find the topic easier to understand if we first look at what it is not.
Not just a “third world” problem.
Leaving aside for a moment the terminology, sustainable tourism applies to everyone everywhere. The Palace of Versailles outside Paris needs to manage the principles of sustainable tourism just as much as the Amazon rainforest does.
It's not about "rich white saviours" deciding what's best for other people and their land. It's about everyone working together.
Not just being green.
Ecotourism or green travel makes protecting the environment the main concern. Sustainable tourism goes further than that. It looks at protecting people, their culture and their future as well as their past. It also focuses on the traveller having a good time in whichever way that feels meaningful to them.
It needs to make a profit to be economically sustainable.
Here’s the sustainable part. It has to make money. It cannot be a setup that relies on donations, which could stop at any time, or that relies on the traveller feeling good about feeling bad.
Some industries can just about pull that off. But travel cannot because…
“Travel is my one time to relax and take a break, goddammit!”
In Summary: What Sustainable Tourism Is Not
Here’s what I see as the biggest obstacle to developing a thriving sustainable tourism industry: you.
And, not to be rude, me.
Or, in other words, people.
Now stay with me. Obviously, progress only occurs through the actions of people.
I’m talking about the fact that people are people. We are not perfect (dammit!) and we get busy and we get tired and we forget things and… well, let’s face it, sometimes we’re just struggling to get through the day.
And so, the good deed gets forgotten. The diet gets broken. The tax receipts are stuffed into a box instead of being filed neatly straight away and the New Year resolutions crumble.
And when we’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, what do we look for? The easy way out: television, chocolate, a glass of wine and a holiday.
So many efforts at ecotourism and sustainable travel stumble because they forget that for most of us, travel time is short and precious. And while it may well be a great challenge and chance to open up to the rest of the world, let’s face it, it is also the chance to switch off from so many of our responsibilities.
And the thought of researching every travel company from a sustainable travel point of view, and worrying about whether or not tipping the tour guide is a decent thing to do or whether your cash is luring people away from essential professions like healthcare and teaching can feel pretty exhausting.
So, what I love about the concept of sustainable tourism, is that it takes all that into account.
Tourism has to be sustainable. Which means that it has to be manageable (and I’d wager pleasurable) to the traveller as well as the host community. That’s something that green travel and ethical travel and ecotourism occasionally lose sight of.
Responsible travel is almost the same thing. But it doesn’t sound much fun, does it?! What happened to taking a break from some of our responsibilities for a short while?!
And finally, we can all be very responsible for a short period of time. But is there a system in place that makes being responsible sustainable? That's the key question.
Then there’s the whataboutery. Because once we move beyond our earnest teenage years, we realise that it’s simply impossible to do it all “right.”
There is no country in the world with a perfect human rights record.
The very act of travel doesn’t seem to be green (even if everyone walked, that would have unintended consequences.)
Even on a bigger scale, serious efforts to tackle world problems have to compromise as well (a case in point would be meeting one of the Oxfam Global warming team who realised she took more flights to meetings in this job than she ever had before).
In reality, we all have a hierarchy of concerns, even if we don’t admit it (even to ourselves.)
So, which is more important? Saving the rainforest? Or providing employment for local villagers whose children might otherwise starve? Preventing global warming? Or preventing a nervous breakdown with a fly and flop in the sun?
How can we choose? And how can we manage the exhausting and competing demands on our consciences, our bodies and our time?
Sustainable Living: Key Takeaway
We can't wait until we're perfect to start doing something better.
And that’s where the power of sustainable tourism comes in.
It seeks a win-win situation.
A formula that works for today and tomorrow.
A method that benefits tourists and hosts, that conserves the environment and which, crucially, is both affordable and makes enough money to keep the whole show on the road.
One of the most powerful interviews I’ve ever done in my life (except for with a woman who survived the Nagasaki blast) was with a banker turned philanthropist.
"If we become a loss-making organisation, we are no help at all. We must be stable and sustainable. Running a business that depends on yearly grants and fundraising provides no security at all."
Jean-Marc Debricon, founder of the Green Shoots Foundation.
I’m not kidding, that one interview had a profound effect on the way I think about my life (I wanted to say that it had a profound effect on the way I live my life but it’s still a work in progress.)
We all know we won’t live forever. But the effects of our time on this planet will.
Coffee and red bull may help us hit deadlines but living that way is not sustainable.
Neither is refusing all sponsorship for your art. Bills just go on having to be paid (again, dammit!)
Sustainable tourism, at its heart, is a quest or a gentle plea to make everything we do better in a different way. Kinder. Self-sufficient. Reliable. Sustainable.
The truth is, we can’t do it all at once. Not as the human race. Not as a solo traveller.
What we can do is to make small changes, bit by bit, and focus on those changes that bring the best results.
That’s my overriding resolution for 2019: to do everything I can to promote sustainable tourism but to do it in a sustainable way for my life and my livelihood. (Do you see what I did there?!)
So, in the hierarchy of change, let’s start with the steps that are easy to do, that bring guaranteed results and which (quite frankly) don’t involve a lot of effort.
Subscribe to reputable sources of information on sustainable tourism and ethical travel. When I have a great list, I shall share it here.
Contribute to a reputable charity that supports my beliefs. I’ve contributed before but usually sporadically. Having interviewed staff at numerous charities, monthly direct debit is far more beneficial so that they can plan ahead.
Do that thing at hotels where they want a card on the bed, on the floor, dancing on the ceiling, to stop them from changing the sheets. (This one is a real cheat as, of course, I do that already.) But I will also look for other things too.
Take my eco water bottle with me travelling instead of buying plastic at the airport (I’ll let you know how I get on, whether cafes will fill it up or whether I’ll have to buy plastic anyway.)
Be bold enough to say “No thank you, I don’t want the straw.” Not a big deal to many but my British shyness chokes at this. I’ve already “mastered” saying “without the straw” when asking for a drink. But usually that’s ignored and I’m given one anyway. My next step is to be bold (rude?!) enough to hand it back.
Without realising it, I’ve been writing about sustainable tourism for years. This year, I’m going to restructure my site to make that message clearer.
What can you do in your work?
There are big questions I’ve been meaning to write about but haven’t – yet.
Articles about the pitfalls of voluntourism, of raising money for charity through travel, evaluating ethical tourism and tackling head on the problem of overtourism.
Why not? Perhaps I’ve been reluctant to put my head above the parapet for fear of whataboutery.
Perhaps, as a new mum with pregnancy and newborn complications, sleep deprivation just got the better of me.
But the reality is, I have experience in medicine, neuroscience, and tourism development and have travelled widely, interviewing people as I go. I also have a wealth of contacts throughout those fields. Time to really focus and put those skills to further use.
And how about you?
How will you incorporate aspects of sustainable tourism and sustainable living into your life for 2019?
What do you think sustainable tourism should mean? And what ideas do you have that we can put into place right now?
Let me know in the comments or by email! And join me on the year ahead!
I wonder how we'll all look back at it this time next year?
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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