Well-managed tourism can have a role to play in preserving a country's environment as well as its culture.
More people than ever are travelling for leisure — last year saw a record 1.323 billion tourist arrivals.
Meanwhile, the downsides of tourism have been making headlines, as destinations from Everest to Iceland attempt to deal with adverse effects such as environmental degradation and conflict between visitors and locals.
Indeed, if you’ve travelled even a little, you would have seen the impacts, both positive and negative, that tourism can have.
On the economic front alone, the industry last year accounted for 10.4 per cent of global GDP, with around one in 10 jobs supported by tourism.
Well-managed tourism can have a role to play in preserving both the environment and culture. But conversely, the strain it can put on ecosystems and communities has been well documented.
Responsible tourism aims to address these issues. The British academic and responsible tourism expert Dr Harold Goodwin has described it as being “about using tourism to make better places for people to live in, first; and second, better places for people to visit”.
“The aspiration,” he has written, “is to use tourism rather than to be used by it”. Responsible tourism aims to address what businesses and governments — as well as individual travellers — can do to minimise the negative impacts of tourism, while maximising the positives. A key element is the breadth of issues it considers: not just the environmental effects, but also economic, social and cultural outcomes.
WHERE YOU GO
Whether it manifests as news reports of visitors stripping off in historic Roman fountains or graffiti in European cities imploring tourists to “go home”, overtourism is increasingly a matter of concern for popular destinations. Dr Goodwin has described it as “destinations where hosts or guests, locals or visitors, feel that there are too many visitors and that the quality of life in the area or the quality of the experience has deteriorated unacceptably”. It’s a complex issue, and though Dr Goodwin has written that its causes are “rarely singular” and “are often specific to particular destinations”, he has cited the falling cost of travel and the increasing trend for tourists to stay in more residential neighbourhoods (for example, in rented apartments) in closer proximity to residents as factors.
Venice has been among the most high-profile places affected, and local authorities have taken steps including banning larger cruise ships from passing near the historic centre and docking in the city by 2021 (they’ll take an alternate route further from the city and dock on the mainland). The City of Venice has also launched #EnjoyRespectVenezia, a campaign encouraging visitors to adopt “responsible and respectful behaviour towards the environment, landscape, artistic beauties and identity of Venice and its inhabitants” and raise awareness of the impact of tourism, “with the belief that responsible travelling can contribute to sustainable development”.
Its suggestions for the responsible visitor would equally apply to other popular destinations. They include seeking out less-visited parts of the lagoon (promoted via the city’s Detourism initiative), supporting local artisans and qualified guides, visiting during less busy periods, using public transport and making use of drinking fountains rather than bottled water. It also suggests adhering to basic rules of respectful behaviour such as walking on the right, not littering and not feeding pigeons — which may seem obvious, but are relevant because at least part of the tension between local residents and visitors in popular destinations comes down to real or perceived inconsiderate behaviour by some of the latter. (See more at veneziaunica.it/en.)
To combat overtourism, you might choose to seek out less crowded destinations — although, as Dr Goodwin has pointed out, unless you’re making an effort to visit them in a responsible way, you may just be “spreading the problem”. “The challenge is to make all destinations sustainable,” he writes.
There have been efforts in the travel industry to promote more responsible travel to alternative destinations. For example, when touring company World Expeditions launched its Active Asian Adventures brochure in August, it said that overtourism and responsible travel were “the two big factors” that had influenced the range of tours, which were “designed to get travellers away from the tourist hot spots and to deliver a positive environmental impact”. The range includes self-guided hikes on Japan’s Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes and the Nakasendo Way and itineraries combining cycling, hiking and kayaking in Vietnam’s less-visited Lan Ha Bay, rather than the very popular Ha Long Bay.
“We recognise that many destinations in Asia are now tourist hot spots and we’ve worked hard to research and deliver itineraries that offer the attractions of those places without the crowds,” World Expeditions chief executive Sue Badyari said. “We’ve calculated the carbon emitted on each trip and offset it by purchasing credits that support the Bac Lieu Wind Energy project in Vietnam, which addresses the SDG’s goals (the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals) of reducing poverty, providing affordable clean energy, providing decent work and economic growth and climate action.”
Fellow adventure touring company Intrepid Travel has started releasing a Not Hot Travel List “in response to concerns about overtourism, with a focus on less frequently visited destinations”. Last year its Not Hot List focussed on European destinations such as North Cyprus, Finland, Moldova and the Tatra Mountains between Slovakia and Poland, while its recently released 2019 list provides alternatives to popular Asian destinations. It includes Komodo rather than Ubud, the monuments and historic buildings Bukhara in Uzbekistan rather than Angkor Wat, the Japanese “art island” of Naomshima in place of Osaka and Sumatra instead of Borneo. “There are now 3.7 million Australians travelling to Asia each year, and the more tourism dispersal, the better,” said Intrepid co-founder Darrell Wade.
Meanwhile, Gavin Tollman — chief executive of coach touring company Trafalgar — recently told Travel the company is employing strategies such as encouraging guests to travel outside of peak season, “moving outside the major cities” on its tours and providing alternatives to overcrowded attractions in the major destinations. In the Vatican City, for example, it has secured behind-the-scenes access to areas “that nobody else goes to”, helping to disperse visitor numbers and avoid the crowds. “We don’t want to be part of the bottleneck, and this is the great, exciting stuff that we can do for our guests,” he said.
HOW YOU GET THERE
Carbon emissions tend to be the main topic of discussion when it comes to the environmental impact of both how you get to your holiday destination and how you get around once you’ve arrived. And, according to UK academic David Banister — currently Professor of Transport Studies at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment — the most sustainable forms of transport follow a fairly predictable pattern. In a 2014 report, he found that walking and cycling came “nearest to being sustainable, as they consume very little non-renewable energy”, followed by trams or light rail and buses, then electric and diesel rail, heavy rail (such as the London Underground) and motorbikes, and then cars and Boeing 727 aircraft.
However, according to a 2008 Getting There Greener report by US science-based non-profit the Union of Concerned Scientists, the relative carbon footprint of various travel options also depends on both how far you’re travelling and how many people you’re travelling with. Having more people in a car, for example, spreads the per-passenger emissions load and makes it a better option from an environmental standpoint.
The report describes travelling by bus or train as “a carbon bargain”, particularly on shorter journeys. “Moreover, because motor coaches and trains are often underused, they may offer what amounts to a carbon ‘free ride’,” it added. At the other end of the scale, driving alone, driving a big SUV and flying first class tended to have the biggest carbon footprint. However, the report says that — perhaps counter-intuitively — “for couples and solo travellers, a nonstop coach (i.e. economy) flight almost always beats an average car” in terms of emissions, particularly for trips longer than 800km.
If you are driving to reach your holiday destination, the Union of Concerned Scientists report recommends avoiding the roads during peak periods when they are congested. “When a car or SUV is stuck in traffic, its fuel consumption rate can be double the rate it gets at steady cruising speeds,” it says.
It also suggests driving or hiring a more efficient car for road trips. Hertz, for example, offers a Green Collection of vehicles in various countries — in Australia, you can opt for a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV hybrid, while in the US, options include the fuel-efficient Chevy Cruze and the Toyota Prius hybrid. Budget also offers eco-friendly options, such as the Toyota Camry hybrid in Australia and New Zealand.
Aircraft are said to account for about 2 per cent of total carbon emissions produced by human activity, with approximately 40 per cent of tourism’s carbon dioxide emissions attributed to air travel (the next biggest contributors are car transport and accommodation). And air traffic is growing: according to industry body the International Air Transport Association, worldwide air passenger traffic has grown up at least 5 per cent each year since 2011, with the 2017 figures up 8.1 per cent year-on-year. IATA has set a number of targets to reduce the sector’s carbon emissions, including increasing fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5 per cent each year from 2009 to 2020, capping net aviation carbon dioxide emissions from 2020 (which it calls “carbon-neutral growth”) and halving net aviation carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
Aircraft fuel is a major expense for carriers, and can account for up to a third of their costs, depending on fuel prices. So even beyond the environmental implications, it does make sense for airlines to reduce their use of fuel — and thus their emissions. Some ways airlines are doing this include replacing older aircraft with newer, more efficient planes (for example, Qantas estimates that the 787 Dreamliner uses “up to 20 per cent less fuel than other traditional aircraft of its size”) and using technology to create more efficient flight paths.
A number of airlines have also been experimenting with more sustainable fuels. Companies including Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Qatar, Singapore Airlines, South African Airways, Qantas and Virgin Australia are part of the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group, which means they have pledged to develop and commercialise a sustainable aviation fuel that meets certain criteria in terms of land, water and energy use, not displacing or competing with food crops, and providing a positive socio-economic impact.
In January, Qantas operated what it called “the first dedicated biofuel flight between the United States and Australia”. According to the airline, its biofuel can reduce carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared to traditional jet fuel, meaning the 10 per cent biofuel mix used on the January flight resulted in a 7 per cent emissions reduction. Biofuels have been criticised for competing with food crops and causing deforestation, but Qantas says its biofuel is derived from “a non-food, industrial type of mustard seed” called Brassica carinata, which it says is water-efficient, “requires no specialised production or processing techniques”, is sown “in either fallow areas where food crops fail or in between regular crop cycles” and also produces livestock feed. The airline is aiming for its Los Angeles-based planes to be powered by biofuel from 2020.
Meanwhile, Virgin Australia recently completed a trial of a sustainable aviation fuel blended with traditional jet fuel at Brisbane Airport. It says this “biojet” has “lower levels of carbon emissions compared to traditional fossil jet fuel on a life cycle basis and can be derived from sustainable sources including sugarcane bagasse, molasses, wood waste and agave”. The trial involved using biojet to fuel 195 domestic and international flights departing from the airport and was the first time such fuel has been delivered through the general fuel supply system at an Australian airport. Virgin Australia Airlines group executive Rob Sharp said it was “the first important step in ensuring Australian airports and the fuel supply chain will be ready for the regular supply of sustainable fuels”.
Others are focussing their efforts on electric aviation, which has the potential to deliver additional benefits such as reduced costs and lower levels of noise. In Norway — already a pioneer in the uptake of electric cars — the state-owned airport operator Avinor has been tasked by the government with developing a program to pave the way for the introduction of commercial electric aircraft. It is working with industry partners with the goal of electrifying domestic aviation by 2040. With its mountainous landscape and high number of short internal flights, Norway’s domestic network is “ideal for trying out the first commercial electric-powered flights, which are expected to have a limited range and capacity,” Avinor’s chief executive Dag Falk-Petersen said in June. “In addition, Norway’s capacity for renewable energy makes electrification particularly attractive from a climate perspective.”
Electric aircraft do currently exist — Slovenian manufacturer Pipistrel makes small all-electric planes, for example. There are challenges in bringing this technology to larger commercial planes, but a number of manufacturers are working on electric and hybrid aircraft. US start-up Zunum Aero — which is backed by Boeing and American airline JetBlue — plans to deliver the first of its hybrid-electric aircraft to private aviation company JetSuite by 2020. They will seat 12 passengers and have a range to around 1600km. Meanwhile, Airbus is working with Siemens and Rolls Royce on technology that would allow one (and later two) gas turbine engine in a test aircraft to be replaced by an electric motor, with the maiden flight expected in 2020. And budget carrier easyJet last year partnered with US company Wright Electric to develop an electric plane to operate short-haul routes in its UK and European network within a decade.
It’s estimated that about a third of airlines worldwide currently offer carbon offset options. According to a 2018 report by Australia’s Climate Council, “given that the airline industry does not yet have commercially available low-carbon fuel options, offsetting emissions via such investments into renewable energy and carbon sequestration projects is generally seen as the only viable option to reduce the climate change contribution of air travel”. However, such schemes do remain somewhat contentious. Indeed, the Climate Council report weighed positives — such as the fact that “funds from offsetting projects can support worthwhile initiatives such as renewable energy” — against negatives such as low participation levels (it said that “only 10 to 16 per cent of Australians have purchased carbon offsets in the past”), and concerns that offsetting “does not encourage more significant changes in consumer behaviour”.
It’s worth knowing a little more about how carbon offsets work to understand why some argue against them. As researchers Susanne Becken and Brenden Mackey, of Queensland’s Griffith University, have written, “the concept of ‘carbon neutral’ promoted by airline offsets means that an equal amount of emissions is avoided elsewhere, but it does not mean there is no carbon being emitted at all — just relatively less compared with the scenario of not offsetting (where someone else continues to emit, in addition to the flight).” Some commentators — notably the British writer and activist George Monbiot — have likened carbon offsets to the moral indulgences sold by the medieval Catholic Church, describing them as “an excuse for business as usual”.
This debate has come into sharper focus recently, as the aviation industry gears up to begin implementing the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, which has been developed by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation as part of the industry’s attempts to achieve “carbon neutral growth” by 2020. From January, airlines operating international flights will have to monitor and report their fuel consumption emissions. From 2021, they will need to purchase offsets for any emissions above 2020 levels, initially on a voluntary basis. According to Dr Becken and Dr Mackey, carbon offsets will be “institutionalised at large scale” through this program. “The availability of carbon credits and their integrity is of major concern,” they have written.
However, Dr Becken and Dr Mackey’s advice for travellers does include supporting “a credible offsetting program”. They describe the offsets offered by Qantas, Virgin Australia and Air New Zealand as “relatively advanced and well-articulated”, for example. They also recommend packing light (“every kilogram will cost additional fuel”) and minimising carbon emissions while on holiday by cycling or walking once you’ve arrived.
Other experts suggest choosing airlines that pack their flights with passengers when you do fly. “Less legroom and no spare seats may mean less comfort in a squished flight, but this means that more people are benefiting from the fuel being used and there are less emissions per passenger,” RMIT University’s Andrew Glover has written. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ report recommends choosing nonstop flights when possible, rather than taking a number of connecting legs. “Take off, landing, and ground operations produce a lot of carbon, and connecting flights require more of these high-carbon activities than nonstop flights,” it says. Then there’s the most obvious suggestion: simply flying less.
It’s worth noting that you can also offset carbon emissions produced by other elements of your holiday. Europcar, for example, gives customers the chance to purchase offsets that help to replant koala habitat on the Great Ocean Road through a partnership with not-for-profit Greenfleet, and lists the per kilometre carbon emissions of its vehicles during online booking to help renters make an informed decision. Some touring companies also provide an opportunity to offset your trip, while others factor the cost of offsets into their itineraries. For example, World Expeditions recently announced that it would offset its 2019 Asia trips by supporting projects related to renewable energy in Vietnam and China and forest conservation in Tasmania and Zimbabwe.
WHERE YOU STAY
Hotels & the environment
Many travellers’ image of environmentally sustainable accommodation has tended to encompass luxurious eco-lodges, those little cards that encourage you to reuse your towels and bedding in hotel rooms, and not much in between. And though both have their place — in the US, it’s been reported that linen and towel reuse programs can reduce the number of loads of laundry washed by 17 per cent — there’s now considerably more to the picture if you’re concerned about your hotel’s ongoing environmental impact.
Indeed, it’s now relatively common for large hotel chains to have initiatives to improve their environmental record as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. For example, Accor has a program called Planet 21, which includes funding tree planting, using bedding made from recycled bottles, reducing food waste and banning overfished fish species in its restaurants. IHG has a Green Solutions program that provides four levels of certification for its hotels, depending on the steps they take to minimise their environmental impact through initiatives such as rainwater harvesting, water and energy-efficient fittings and appliances, alternative energy sourcing and so on.
Marriott has an environmental and social responsibility program called Serve360, which includes tracking and reducing its energy and water use, putting its hotels through sustainability certification programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s widely used LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, running recycling programs, and implementing responsible and local sourcing policies. It also has also an “eco-conscious longer-stay brand” called Element, which includes 30 hotels around the world and will open its first Australian property, in Melbourne’s Richmond, in December next year.
You’ll also find such initiatives — some quite extensive — at independent and smaller hotels. For example, the Alto Hotel on Bourke in central Melbourne lays claim to being the country’s first “carbon neutral” city hotel, and underwent a carbon audit that showed a one-night stay at the hotel produced an average of 11.8kg of carbon, compared to an estimated 24-26kg for other hotels. Its other environmental initiatives include use of 100 per cent renewable energy and collection of rainwater for toilets, gardening and cleaning, plus on-site composting and recycling of used cooking oil into biodiesel.
Also within Australia, Queensland’s Lady Elliot Island Eco Resort has been described as a model for sustainable tourism on the Great Barrier Reef. It has implemented environmental initiatives including a revegetation plan, carbon offsets to fund tree planting on the mainland, wastewater treatment and reuse, use of more environmentally friendly propeller-free outboard boat motors and installation of a solar power station that has substantially reduced its diesel use and carbon emissions.
When looking at environmentally friendly accommodation, you’ll come across a large number of environmental certification programs, such as the European Union’s Ecolabel and those offered by non-profit Ecotourism Australia . You may find these a helpful starting point in your search, but NOW — an initiative calling for sustainability in the hospitality industry — says the “easiest, quickest way” to known if the hotel you’re booking “genuinely cares about people and planet” is to simply ask questions. It suggests asking about topics such as the property’s sustainability policy, energy efficiency plan, carbon footprint, water conservation efforts, waste management and recycling policies, use of single-use plastics, supply chain and support of the local community through hiring local staff and supporting local organisations and artisans. (The full list of questions is at itmustbenow.com/travellers.)
Conservation & community development
Some accommodation holistically integrates conservation into its mission, demonstrating some of the benefits that well-managed tourism can bring. For example, Cardamom Tented Camp, which opened on a concession within Cambodia’s biggest national park late last year, offers small-scale, low-impact accommodation plus activities such as working with local rangers to monitor wildlife. Part of its revenues go to supporting conservation efforts within the park through the non-profit Wildlife Alliance, helping to keep the land and its ecosystems “out of the hands of loggers, poachers and sand dredging operations”.
This model is well established in southern and eastern Africa. One example is eco-tourism company Wilderness Safaris, which operates luxury safari camps, mostly in southern Africa, with a strong conservation focus. It says its properties help to protect more than 2.5 million hectares of African wilderness and 33 species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species, all of which it says are increasing in its areas.
Among Wilderness Safaris’ properties are a series of camps in Namibia run in partnership with local communities through the country’s successful conservancy system. It recently reopened the rebuilt Serra Cafema Camp in Namibia’s remote north-west as part of a long-running joint venture with the local Marienfluss Conservancy, which is collectively owned primarily by the semi-nomadic Himba people. Benefits to the conservancy and local community include income and employment, as well as support for development projects such as a school. The eco-friendly camp is also 100 per cent solar powered and includes various elements made by Namibian social enterprises businesses.
Indeed, considerations around sustainability can go well beyond the environment, and travellers may also choose hotels that play a role in supporting local communities and economies through where they stay. Other examples include Nihi resort on the Indonesian island of Sumba, which employs 93 per cent local staff and, though the Sumba Foundation, supports a wide variety of local water, health, education and economic projects with an “aid philosophy” of helping “the people to help themselves”. Similarly, Guludo Beach Lodge in Mozambique was founded as a means to address local poverty. In addition to overwhelmingly employing locals, the lodge channels part of its revenue into a charity called Nema, which works in local communities on projects such as providing safe drinking water, building schools and funding education scholarships.
There have been high-profile concerns that home rental platforms such as Airbnb may be contributing to increased rents and decreased housing affordability in cities as diverse as New Orleans and Barcelona. Essentially the concern is that landlords are renting homes they do not live in on such sites, reducing the available housing stock for residents and putting them in competition with tourists for accommodation in popular neighbourhoods. In cities such as New York and Berlin, this has sparked moves by some local governments to regulate rentals via these websites.
Airbnb has countered that it “creates economic opportunity”. “The typical middle-income host in the United States can earn the equivalent of a 14 per cent annual raise sharing only the home in which they live at a time when economic inequality is a major challenge,” it says. Airbnb’s co-founder Joe Gebbia has said that most of the website’s hosts live in the property they rent out.
UK charity Tourism Concern recommends doing your own research into possible issues at your destination, and searching for hosts who are “long established, with a track record you can check on”, “living in the property or personally overseeing it”, “able to show how they conform to local government regulations” and “keen to share how guests can benefit their neighbourhood”.
WHILE YOU’RE THERE
Excessive waste and in particular plastic have been much in the news lately, prompting a growing number of hotels and resorts, tour companies and cruise lines to take steps to eliminate single-use plastic items such as drinking straws and disposable water bottles from their operations.
At an individual level, US organisation Travelers Against Plastic — which works with both travellers and companies to eliminate single-use plastics within travel and tourism — recommends carrying one or two reusable water bottles on your trips. “An increasing number of hotels and tour operators are supplying safe drinking water for you to fill up with,” it says. Apps such as WeTap can also help you find places to fill up, or you can also purify water as you go using a small, portable system such as the SteriPEN (available through outdoor shops such as Anaconda and Paddy Pallin).
TAP also suggests bringing your own reusable shopping bags to avoid plastic, and bringing toiletries in refillable travel-sized bottles rather using small disposable bottles or those supplied by your hotel. “On one 10-day trip, you could avoid 20 little bottles going into the garbage,” it says. Other tips including bringing your own lightweight reusable cutlery to avoid plastic ones (see outdoor shops and online eco-stores such as floraandfauna.com.au for options).
Reducing waste also extends to other resources, including electricity and water — and indeed some have expressed concerns about the disparity in water use between tourists and local residents in the developing world, particularly in places where water can be scarce. The Global Sustainable Tourism Council, for example, encourages travellers to remember that “water is precious in every holiday destination”. “Don’t leave taps running, take showers rather than baths and re-use your towels,” it says. It also says you can save energy by switching off lights, fans and air-conditioning when you are out of your hotel room, ensuring appliances are completely turned off when not in use and avoiding leaving chargers plugged in when they’re not being used.
Another consideration might be the toiletries you’re putting in your refillable bottles: chemicals commonly found in sunscreen (including oxybenzone and octinoxate) have been found to contribute to coral bleaching, even in very low concentrations. For example, a 2015 study by marine scientists in the US and Israel found that oxybenzone could be toxic to juvenile coral at concentrations equivalent to a drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. Hawaii even took the step of outlawing sunscreens containing these chemicals earlier this year (the ban will come into effect in 2021).
As part of its Protect Yourself, Protect the Reef campaign, the US National Parks Service has advised that “while no sunscreen has been proven to be completely ‘reef-friendly,’ those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients, have not been found harmful to corals. Sunscreens sold for children or for those with sensitive skin may contain these gentler compounds as the active ingredients”. A number of resorts adjoining coral reefs have adopted this message. For example, Outrigger Hotels and Resorts — which includes properties in Hawaii, Fiji, Mauritius and the Maldives — offers “reef safe” sunscreen, while the Banyan Tree resorts group recently launched its first sun-care range, which includes an SPF50 broad-spectrum oxybenzone-free sunscreen.
A key component of responsible travel is that it should be beneficial to local people living in a tourist destination, and a major benefit can be economic. In its The Thoughtful Traveller guide, published in April, World Expeditions advises trying to support the local economy by travelling with companies that employ local people and provide safe and fair working conditions. “Not only will you have a richer experience with someone who knows the land and the culture intimately, you will also be helping to support the prosperity of the very place you have sought out as an interesting destination,” it says. Additionally, it suggests, you can support the local economy by eating in local cafes, restaurants and markets when possible, and by buying locally made products — and paying “a fair price to the vendor” for them. “Too much haggling is inappropriate.”
Recently, G Adventures unveiled a new “Ripple Score”, which evaluates its trips according to the percentage of its local expenditure that remains in the local economy. “Over the past few years, we have undertaken a thorough analysis of our supply chain to find out how many of our suppliers are majority locally owned, and thus how much money stays in the destination,” said the company’s vice president for social enterprise and responsible travel Jamie Sweeting. “When travellers use local businesses it has a positive economic and social impact on communities, and we seek to encourage more of this.” G Adventures scored 640 of its roughly 700 trips (some, such as Antarctic cruises and new itineraries, weren’t included), with the trips achieving an average score of 93 per cent. These scores will now appear alongside each itinerary on the company’s website and in its brochures.
You may also choose companies that support social enterprise, conservation, health and other projects in local communities. These can include grassroots efforts, such as Lombok’s Rinjani Women Adventure, which trains and employs local women as trekking guides, and not-for-profit Emu Trekkers, whose volunteer guides run hikes in Sydney and the Blue Mountains to raise money for disadvantaged children and youth. A number of larger touring companies also support projects in the communities they visit through associated not-for-profit foundations. For example, Latin America and Antarctica specialist Chimu Adventures donates 10 per cent of funds from its tours to charitable organisations through its MAD Project non-profit. Luxury touring company Abercrombie & Kent supports schools, community hospitals, clean water projects, conservation projects and the like through its philanthropic arm, while luxury ecotourism operator &Beyond supports socio-economic development of rural communities living in and around conservation areas through its partner, Africa Foundation.
Tourism also has the potential to support and preserve local traditions and cultural heritage. However, specialist UK agency Responsible Travel advises some caution when visiting tribal and indigenous communities to ensure the experience is handled responsibly. First of all, it says you should be sure that the community you’re visiting has extended an invitation to tourists. “If you are in any doubt, the best advice is not to visit.” Here, any lack of transparency “should ring alarm bells”. “Any holiday company which has built up a good relationship with a community will be happy to talk about their involvement with them — explaining how tours are conducted in consultation with the community, and how local people benefit from them.”
More generally, this feeds into the idea of being culturally sensitive when you travel. World Expeditions’ Thoughtful Traveller guide says this is “a particularly hot topic in destinations that are feeling the weight of increased tourism numbers and is important for places yet to experience regular tourist visitors”. “Making yourself aware of appropriate clothing (what to wear, what not to wear, and when to take those shoes off), when photography is allowed and when to be quiet, for religious or sacred sights or for just wandering the streets and lanes in towns and villages, will help you to be accepted and welcomed as a visitor,” it says. Furthermore, it recommends learning a few phrases of the local language so you can better engage with locals. “This also indicates your interest in their culture and has the happy by-product of making your trip a little easier, through better communication.” (You can download the guide at worldexpeditions.com/Thoughtful-Travel.)
Animals and wildlife
There seems to be an increasing awareness of animal welfare in at least some sections of the travel industry. For example, international non-profit World Animal Protection has worked with more than 200 travel companies to move away from offering elephant rides and shows, which it says are among “the cruellest types of wildlife tourist attractions”. Based on research by the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit which it commissioned, the organisation also encourages travellers to avoid attractions it says are associated with welfare or conservation abuses, such as tiger selfies, holding sea turtles, watching performing dolphins and visiting civet coffee plantations.
Instead, WPA suggests seeing animals in the wild and by visiting genuine wildlife reserves or sanctuaries, “making sure there isn’t direct contact between visitors and animals and animals are rescued not bred in captivity”. It says travellers should also buy souvenirs that are locally produced and free from animal products, and follow the general rule of thumb that “if you can ride it, hug it or have a selfie with the wild animal, the chances are it’s a cruel venue”. “When properly managed, wildlife tourism can hold a range of benefits for both the environment and wild animals,” the organisation says. “This includes the funding of the protection of natural areas, as well as improving animal welfare and alleviating poverty.”
You may also encounter domesticated animals on your travels. If you’re going to be riding donkeys, camels or horses, you might keep in mind the guidelines offered by Intrepid Travel, which says these are the only types of animal rides offered as an included activity on its trips — “and only when the wellbeing of the animals has been previously established”. In general, it says, animals shouldn’t be made to carry more than half their body weight, and less in hot weather or on steep declines. Furthermore, travellers should look for the following: that the animals look well fed, with “bright, clear and alert” eyes and their coat in good condition and free from sores (“check near the mouth, shoulders, spine and belly, as these areas are typically in constant contact with harnessing equipment”). To encourage good practices, it suggests praising owners and handlers whose animals are in good condition.
Food products from endangered species are also to be avoided. This includes whale meat, with conservation organisations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare arguing that whaling in countries such as Iceland is driven, at least in part, by demand from tourists.
The question of whether to give money to people who are begging is an emotive one. A number of travel operators advise against it. For example, in its Traveller Conduct Policy, G Adventures asks that its guests “do not hand out sweets, change, or gifts as this may create or re-enforce a begging mentality”.
It has worked with Cambodia-based child protection organisation ChildSafe, which advises travellers not to give to begging children. “When you give money, food or gifts to begging children, you encourage them to continue begging, which prevents them from going to school and locks them into a cycle of poverty,” it says.
“There are better ways to support children and youth: use businesses with a social impact, such as training restaurants and shops, or donate to organisations supporting children and their families.”
In some countries, begging has even been linked to organised crime and human trafficking.
ChildSafe further encourages travellers to “travel ChildSafe” by avoiding so-called “orphanage tourism”, which it says can cause more harm than good and has been shown to contribute to the separation of families. “Children living or studying in schools, orphanages or slums shouldn’t be exposed to tourist visits,” it says. “These places are not zoos.”
One alternative to handing out gifts or money is to participate in Pack for a Purpose, which allows you to select your destination and find lists of supplies that local schools and community groups have specifically requested, which you can bring with you and drop off with an affiliated accommodation or tour provider, who will then deliver them. It covers more than 60 countries: at the time of writing, for example, if you were going to Bali, you could bring supplies such as stationery, text books, sports equipment and musical instruments for local schools. (See packforapurpose.org for more.)
“Voluntourism” might seem like an ideal vehicle for responsible travel, but there are a number of issues to consider. According to Responsible Travel — whose tours and packages include selected volunteering opportunities — such trips must “be very well managed in order to be of genuine benefit to wildlife and communities”. “If volunteers are not well matched to a project, they risk being of no use, or worse — causing more harm than good. Additionally, volunteer work should be carried out alongside local workers to ensure their jobs are being supported — not replaced.”
Responsible Travel advises asking any organisation that you’re considering volunteering for plenty of questions, including why your skills are appropriate for the project, what work you’ll be doing and how it will be helpful as part of the wider project, whether you can speak with some former participants and local contacts, the level of training and support you’ll receive, and what evidence it has that the project both benefits local people or conservation and is based on a real local need. “For a project to be sustainable and grow, the drive needs to come from local people and address real local community or conservation needs, with local jobs protected and supported by the work of volunteers,” it says.
(Top image: Intrepid’s Not Hot Travel List for 2018: Finland.)