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What is it?

We hear so much about sustainable tourism in the travel industry these days. But exactly what do we mean by it? Sustainability, in scientific terms, refers to a recharge rate which is speedier than the withdrawal rate. For example, if we wanted to talk about water being a sustainable resource, we would talk of measures that assure that the water source is being replenished faster than it is being used. In other words, it’s about having a positive balance when it comes to our natural resources budget. Sustainability in tourism is a philosophy held by companies in the tourism sector who commit to making a low impact on the environment while promoting economic empowerment of the communities who inhabit tourist areas. This economic gain, in turn, helps to preserve the local culture and community. In addition, sustainable tourism fosters understanding and respect for the people and places we visit. Sustainable tourism seeks to leave communities that are visited with a positive balance.


Why is it important?

Let’s talk business first. Why is tourism economically important? To put it plainly, tourism is a huge industry worldwide. It encompasses ten percent of worldwide gross domestic product and supplies over 230 million jobs across the globe. According to The International Ecotourism Society (TIES), four out of five countries site tourism as one of their top five “export earners” (sources of foreign capital). In other words, the bottom line here is huge; In developing countries, such as those in Africa, South America, and other African Diaspora locations, these stats are even more crucial: TIES statistics also show that the 40 most impoverished countries depend on tourism as their number two foreign exchange and 83% of foreign dollars flowing into the developing world come from tourism. In fact, the African continent actually saw a five percent increase in tourism, even as a four percent decrease in tourism occurred throughout rest of the world. Clearly, tourism is becoming even more important to the economies of developing regions.  So it looks as if tourist money would come into these places anyway, regardless of whether it were “green” tourism or not.

But this isn’t the end of the story. Given the growth in tourism to some of the world’s most critical regions, it is of utmost importance that we examine the consequences of it—both the positive and negative ones. These industries provide much needed jobs, no doubt. But take, for example, the fact that out of 190 tourist destinations with coral reefs, 90 of them experience degradation of the reefs largely due to tourism. Or the fact that the average 18 hole golf course can take as much as 525,00o gallons of water—per day. Imagine the devastation to forests, oceans, the local water supply and ecosystems that local people depend upon. In addition to environmental concerns, other human rights breaches like poor working conditions, displacement and cultural loss, unspeakably low wages, and sexual exploitation are among the list of concerns. When businesses don’t have the interest of the local environment in mind, these issues are overlooked and the devastation is increasingly significant.

What is being done?

Fortunately, people are becoming more and more aware of these problems. When we travel to different lands visiting different cultures and engaging with local people, we develop understanding, respect, and tolerance for the various identities which make up the world we live in. We come to understand that these cultures are important and deserve the same respect that we would want others to have for our us. As Mark Twain so graciously said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”


Organizations like The International Ecotourism Society, the World Heritage Alliance, Tourism Concern, Sustainable Travel International, and Travel Green are making efforts to make people aware of and further responsible tourism.  Visit there sites to find out what specific measures they are taking and decide if you want to support them. Becoming a member of, donating to, or volunteering for these type organizations or even displaying their banner on your blog are ways to lend support. You may also want to note whether the organization of your choice is more environmentally or socially focused. For example, some organizations may have or fund programs to clean and protect local beaches or coral reefs while another may help to provide clean drinking water for local people.

Keeping the impact on the environment low can take on many forms. It could be a hotel which uses solar or wind energy to power its facilities or a touristy restaurant committed to recycling a certain percentage of its waste and buying organic ingredients locally. Maho Bay Camps is one such resort location in St. John, USVI that utilizes solar energy, composting, recycling and collecting rain water to reduce environmental impact. Uthando South Africa is a non-profit responsible tourism initiative that conducts non-commercialized tours to the communities that they support.

And You?

Of course, it is not all up to companies to make sustainable tourism possible. Remember economics 101, supply and demand: As a consumer, we show our demand for something when we spend money on it. And businesses respond by supplying more. If we want to see sustainable tourism, well… sustained, or growing actually, it will take some conscientious decision-making on our part as consumers when it comes to the places we visit and the businesses that we patronize when we’re there in order to tell companies, “yes, we want to see more and more sustainable tourism.”

Finally, ecotourism is not about anyone’s political agenda. Rather, in addition to being an environmental issue, it is a human rights issue. For those of us who engage in culture tourism, we mingle with the locals, learn a few phrases in the local language, and when we’re lucky, a local family might even host us for dinner. We return to our home country sharing our experiences with friends and family, claiming to have crossed cultural barriers and to have gained genuine understanding. But we cannot consistently make such claims about cross cultural respect without embracing our responsibility as a tourist to these places and cultures. It is their forests which are being cut to make way for that new Hilton Hotel and their ecosystems that are degraded when we steal pieces of the coral reef or litter on the beaches of a foreign land. With this in mind, here are some ways that you can make a difference with relatively little effort.
 

1. Do your research and ask questions before you book!


When you have chosen where you are going, start by finding a travel agent or tour operator that specializes in tours that are sustainable to both the environment and people of your destination. A good place to start is Tour Operators Initiative, a non-profit organization supported by the World Tourism Organization, UNESCO and UNEP.  Tour operators and agents have to meet rigid requirments set by the organization in order to be members and listed on the site.

If you have already chosen a tour operator, inquire about eco-touristic, green or sustainable tour options. There is an abundance of tourism suppliers who understand this growing market and may be willing, if they do not yet have this option, to create a package for you. Don't forget to be specific when asking questions. Inquire about fair wages for the employees working for the hotels and operators and environmental conservation efforts to name a few.  

2. Buy your souvenirs and other good from local vendors.

Yes, buying your last minute gifts at the airport may be convenient, but you can't be sure of your purchase's economic benefits. It's safe to assume that most of the money does not go directly to vendors, but to the large corporations who own the stores and the large manufacturers that mass produce the products. Instead, make sure you arrange time in your schedule to visit locally-owned stores and boutiques. Not only does your patronage sustain local business, but also you will  be able to find unique hand-crafted gifts and souvenirs and possibly get to know about the artisit who created them.


Spicevendor3.  Eat on the street!


Many have found that buying a bite from a local vendor can just be tastier than the commonplace menus you may find at big hotels. So much of culture travel is learned through the food and watching the eating customs of the people, not to mention that by experiencing the local gastronomy, you in turn, support it. Perhaps, it sounds risky, and there is a chance you may wind up with food poisoning that threatens to ruin your trip, but food poisoning is a risk we take, even if you eat at a five star restaurant in a hotel with an American name. Alternatively, if you really don't trust cooked street food, then shop with a local farmer. It not only supports the local farmer, but it encourages local farming practices, giving large industrial farms –whose practices often result in a negative community impact and who keep money in multi-national corporation hands—a run for their money. In addition, your shop with a local may inspire a conversation, experience, or adventure—an intangible and unexpected outcome—which you may remember for a lifetime.

4. Do something.

Okay, getting up and getting out into the city or village and visiting heritage and culture sites, festivals or sports games as opposed to lying on the beach all day is a great way to interact with the people and satisfy your culture-seeking taste buds. By buying tickets to a game or paying entrance into the local late night hang out spots, you are having fun and giving back.

5. Visit the local salon or barber shop.

We all want to look at least presentable when we travel, so why not make an appointment with a local barber or stylist outside the hotel? Bevan Springer, Director of Caribbean Media Exchange (CMex) at Counterpart International, an organziation that works to promote sustainable tourism in the Caribbean, says "you don't have to be a major philanthropist to use your presence to make a difference. For example, I've heard of someone who starts to look a little shaggy before a trip to Africa, explaining he can suppress his vanity for a few weeks just so he can get his hair cut in Africa - to give a local barber a little extra cash."

AshandKids6. Charity changes lives.

Charity is the most obvious way to give back to the local community, but you don't necessarily have to go through an organization to do good. "Instead of hopelessly giving cash and candy to children you meet", advises Bevan Springer of Caribbean Media Exchange, "estimate what it costs to pay for a month of schooling for a child of yours, take that amount, go to a school, ask what they need and use those funds to pay for school supplies in honor of your child. Give the principal your child's name and address and sit back and await the letters to your child from grateful children in far away lands touched by your gesture."

7. BYOB- Bring your own bag, that is.

You can use the same canvas bag that you use for you grocery shopping to do your tourist shopping. This will save small business owners the cost of a bags, reduce the amount of plastic being consumed, and you'll even look less like a tourist! In addition, it'll save you in the case that you buy from a local market that doesn't provide bags with your purchase.

For more information and tips on sustainable tourism, visit www.friendsofworldheritage.org

 

*Top photo courtesy of The International Ecotourism Society (www.ecotourism.org)