Is there such a thing as sustainable tourism?

Sustainable tourism is a booming business, but one must wonder; how sustainable is an activity which involves hopping on an aeroplane? When you boil it down to that, it seems as though the inevitable answer to the question posed is no. As with many of these things however, it ain’t that simple.

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The most frequent flyers among us are business types; the one per cent (or those who work for them). With the exponential growth of multinational corporations, and increasing number of flights, businessmen are the ones clocking up the most air miles. Not the average human being who is lucky to get away once a year.

Every person wants a once in a lifetime experience, and as long as it is a ONCE in a lifetime experience, which includes some form of balancing activity, it will be ok. The key to all these things is awareness. If you have an awareness you can personally try to offset your impact on the environment.

Air travel is without a doubt one of the most damaging modern trends. Its contribution to climate change is quite staggering. According to ETA, a flight to New York and back emits 1.2t of CO2 per traveller. With flying there are other environmentally detrimental impacts such as water vapour, which visibly blankets the earth. Air travel with this and other effects means that it has twice the effect of CO2 emissions alone. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says that we must cut emissions by 90 per cent by 2050 and moreover believe it can be done through more direct flights and a raised consciousness if planned growth in the industry is stopped.

Unfortunately even the most eco-conscious among us will struggle to travel less when there is so much beauty in the world, and so much bad to make good around the globe. Volunteer travel is at an all-time high, as is the altruism to try and save the world by, well, going out into the wider world and doing some good. The industry that has grown around this desire however, has not always had the best rep.

There are some companies out there that will charge a premium and promise a package that facilitates you in making positive change in a community, but in reality that is not delivered. It will either be explicitly not sold as seen which will become apparent once you land, or worse; you will believe you are taking part in an activity needed and appreciated by the local community when actually it is unsustainable, useless, and unwanted. Real Gap for example, often use local providers to run trips for them, which although is better in some respects, it also means you are paying for two sets of overheads through adding another layer of bureaucracy but moreover may not have the opportunity to research the company you are actually being hosted by. This subcontractor organisation may not be enabling positive volunteerism at all but instead shallow projects such as hospital tourism (visiting sick children as though they are an exhibition), running expensive sports days when the kids can’t even afford the uniforms to take part, and so on and so forth. There can be a great deal of intentional corruption, but also unintentional ignorance by companies who do not know how to have the best impact and just jump in head first with ill-thought out projects.

Volunteer travel becoming an industry was the worst thing that could have happened. Independent SMEs with independent traveller types that have a real love and understanding of the host country are the way to go, not big corporations that glean profits from naïve do-gooders. People who have immersed themselves in the local culture, and actually live in the country they are selling tours in too.

If you go independent you also have a better chance of being able to do a diverse array of activities that can make a tangible difference to local communities. You get more bang for your buck, and your buck gets invested back into the area hosting you. One great example of this is Island Spirit Eco Holidays based on the islands of Fiji. Director Kirsty Barnby takes an active interest in sustainability, and ensures all of her trips are run with the local people included. Environmentalism is the lifeblood of Island Spirit, demonstrated through the number of green travel tours including eco-kayaking (which featured on The Guardians best adventure holidays list 2015) eco-surfing, eco-hiking, and eco-diving, interspersed with some yoga and community projects such as coral gardening, tree planting, and compost heap building. Island Spirit has also taken a lead on many projects on the islands such as solar lanterns and water management projects. Fiji is one of the places that is already starting to suffer from climate change effects and so is a place where you can make a tangible difference.

Sustainable tourism has been championed by academics and scientific experts particularly in the Pacific region. It is a huge economic opportunity for smaller countries who are cut off from traditional markets. There is much more money in keeping the seas and scenery healthy, and animal attractions alive than there is through destructive tourism and industry. Development and caring for the environment can go hand in hand. If these two things are linked and facilitated by truly sustainable tourism that is localised and feeds back into the local economy and community, then travelling can have a more positive effect than negative all things considered. As with all these things it is about awareness, and conscious effort to do better, more often.

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