“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see”. – Gilbert K. Chesterton
Although I have traveled all my life, sometime in my late twenties I became a traveller. For most of my life I had been more of a tourist trying to rush around the world seeing as much as I could possibility see, never fully understanding what it all meant. It was in my twenties that I went on my first truly eye-opening trip to Peru. Within the first half hour of being on the ground, I was mugged inside a taxi and it was at that point I realized that the world is not a giant playground for me to explore yet a place for me to search for answers and try to understand.
It was in Peru that I first saw extreme poverty and what it does to people. Forcing mothers nursing their babies to ask for handouts through the glass window of a tourist restaurant while I ate. Motivating people to pick you out at the international arrivals of an airport, follow you in a trailing car and at the first chance, bust open your car window with a bat and steal a backpack with only a hairbrush, makeup and book. Unknowingly hiring a company that employed native Peruvians to walk nearly barefoot for three days, carrying 30 pounds of my stuff on their back so I could hike the Inca trail without the hassle.
This was my first eye-opening experience into a world that is much different from the one I had perceived. A world that is unfair, unjust and inequitable. I had finally opened my eyes to the reality of what I was seeing and from that point forward changed myself from a tourist to a traveller and even one step further, a world citizen trying to make a difference.
Over the past twenty years, travel has become much more available to people and more people are traveling than ever before. Travel isn’t only for the rich or the hippies or the retirees, but for anyone who has a passport and some financial means to pay for a trip.
According to the World Tourism Organization 2015 report, tourism is key to development, prosperity and well-being and the future of tourism could never be so bright. A few highlights from the report indicate:
- An ever-increasing number of destinations worldwide have opened up to, and invested in tourism, turning it into a key driver of socio-economic progress through the creation of jobs and enterprises, export revenues, and infrastructure development.
- Over the past six decades, tourism has experienced continued expansion and diversification, to become one of the largest and fastest-growing economic sectors in the world. Many new destinations have emerged.
- Despite occasional shocks, tourism has shown virtually uninterrupted growth. International tourist arrivals have increased from 25 million globally in 1950, to 278 million in 1980, 527 million in 1995, and 1133 million in 2014.
- The long-term outlook of tourism is impressive with international tourist arrivals worldwide expected to increase by 3.3% a year between 2010 and 2030 to reach 1.8 billion by 2030, according to UNWTO’s long term forecast Tourism Towards 2030.
However, it is hard to deny that the massive growth in travel also comes with an exorbitant price as we use up invaluable resources to reach, explore and stay in our destinations. We also run a significant risk of negatively impacting the very cultures, environment, nature and wildlife we are trying so desperately hard to protect.
How can we continue to open up the world to more and more people without sacrificing our planet? By doing our very best to promote sustainable, ethical and responsible travel. That is the only way we ensure that a world worth seeing and exploring still exists for generations to come.
About six months ago, I joined Travel+SocialGood, a global community of travelers, professionals and change makers working as part of a global movement to promote and support sustainable travel. The non-profit organization aligns perfectly with my desire to do good and see the world. The more I travel, the more obvious it becomes that sustainable travel cannot be ignored.
I’ve often been asked why does sustainable, responsible, ethical travel matter and what does it mean? So here is an easy definition:
Expressed simply, sustainable tourism can be defined as:
“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” – World Tourism Organization
Sustainable travel refers to the making a positive, sustainable environmental, economic and cultural impact on a place he or she visits. Here are a few examples.
Sustainable environmental travel can be anything from reusing your towels at hotels, to doing a bike tour of a country instead of renting a car, to not riding the elephants at an Asian “zoo” or taking selfies with wild animals at a National Park. It can also mean staying at certified eco-lodges who protect the environment or deciding to not stay at an all-inclusive luxury resort that wastes water, energy and blasts the air conditioning. Basically, environmental sustainability means deeply considering each decision you make and its consequence (positive or negative) while visiting a city or country.
“Leave only footprints”: Packing in and out while hiking and camping in a tent promotes sustainable environmental travel as I did in the Bolivian Andes.
Despite the incredible rise in tourism revenue worldwide, unfortunately not much of this money actually goes back to the local communities especially in developing and poor countries. Instead, much of this money goes into the hands of rich business owners or international hotel and travel chains. Just think of the difference you can make if you locally source your travel! You can help the communities you visit prosper by staying at locally owned hotels, hiring local guides, eating at local restaurants and shopping at local markets and stores. It is actually much easier than you think and not only helps the local communities prosper it usually gives you a much richer, more authentic experience.
Cultural sustainability refers to preserving and honoring the local culture that you visit and looking for authentic experiences to learn about, engage and interact with the locals.
When I went to Tanzania in 2015 to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, it was a dream of mine to visit a Maasai tribe. However, when I began to research tour companies and read some of the customer’s reviews, I noticed that many of the tours were staged tours and did not benefit the unique culture and customs of these people. Instead of seeing them in their natural surroundings, these felt like a show. Tragically, many cultural excursions are like this around the world however they don’t have to be. With careful research I found a Maasai training institute and research center that allowed tourists to experience life in a real, authentic Maasai village. With careful planning and research many of these opportunities exist, you just need to spend a little more time to find them.
Other ways you can practice cultural sustainability is learning a few words in the local language before you go or reading a book on the place you are visiting. Also simply interacting with the people around you in a different place. I’ve found even the taxi drivers have usually a wealth of information about the culture and life in a place.
In theory, sustainable travel is the only travel of the future yet in practice it is not always so easy. I have admittedly made many decisions along the way that in retrospect haven’t been the best. I also find it to be a challenge when traveling with children especially to less-developed nations where health and safety are an issue. However, I have learned from my mistakes and moving forward will strive to be a more ethical, responsible traveller. All it takes is a little planning and critical thinking before booking the next adventure to make a difference.
About Travel+Social Good:
Travel+SocialGood was founded in an effort to propel the travel industry to be more sustainable. We believe social good should not be an afterthought when it comes to travel. All travel should have positive economic, environmental, cultural and social impact for traveler, place and resident. Our global community is led by a team of volunteers: motivated, forward-thinking professionals with a passion for building the travel industry of the future. To learn more, click here.
The Travel+Social Good media network is an alliance of journalists, content creators and social media influencers around the world, Travel+SocialGood’s Media Network is a collective passionate about sustainable tourism in order to promote awareness and positive change within the industry. We believe that the power of the pen and authentic storytelling are far reaching in their scope to both humanize and bring attention to communities around the world whose narratives are often left out of the mainstream media.
The group works together and cross-promotes content, with the aim to share stories of people and places as they naturally are, shed light on innovative solutions, and collectively take the steps to mainstream “sustainable tourism” from niche to norm.
I am part of the Travel+Social Good Media Network and am always looking for good stories to share on my blog about sustainable travel. Please contact me for more information.
Good summary of an aspect of travel that so many people overlook or, more often, just find it too hard to figure out. As you have written here and in previous posts, hiring local guides and patronizing local businesses is such a great way to make one’s dollars have a more positive impact. It can be hard! I know because I try to do it in every country I visit, and sometimes it’s really tough or even impossible to get access to certain local resources. I got so lucky in Mongolia to truly “happen upon” a small company with whom I could see the country. I was only seeing the big names as I searched online, yet I knew I wanted a more intimate, authentic experience. As a bonus, using a more local company can also save money!
Wonderful Lexi! I can’t wait to hear more about your trip and especially who your guides were.
Thank you for an excellent assessment and succinct guidance on moving from tourism to travel to sustainable travel. As a couple of empty nesters, we are exploring the parameters of how far we can push this logic of “positive social and environmental impact’. This has led us to something more akin to sequential living, with a social impact set of activities.
We applaud your encouraging travelers to go local, stay local, eat from locals, as you are quite right, that not only does this make for a more enriching experience but it has real impact on people’s day to day lives and their ability to feed their families and put a roof over their heads, in many cases.
You are quite right that sometimes this desire for sustainable, low foot print travel, requires some effort. But the rewards are definitely proportional.
Terrific thought provoking post!
Peta & Ben
Thanks Peta! I know you have also written about your experiences a great deal and you also have a wonderful focus on sustainable travel. Will look forward to reading more as you move back abroad again.
Great post Nicole. Anything at all we can do to help make travel more sustainable is worth the effort.
I grew up in Peru (which I still consider one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, in spite of the crushing poverty) so I share your values of trying to do something positive through my travels. But I’d never before considered it as deeply or holistically as you present it here. Thank you for this wonderful post — you’ve said it all, and so beautifully.
Thanks so much for the comment! My trip to Peru was now 15 years ago and I am amazed how much it changed me. I am so much more aware.
Stepping waaaay outside our comfort zones can do that, eh? It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for your blog; your awareness and appreciation of other cultures really comes through.
What a wonderful compliment! Thank you! I try my best. I am so grateful for what travel has taught me and being able to see and learn about the world. Thanks again.
It sounds like a very worthwhile group to be involved in, Nicole. It’s such a shame that there’s enormous emphasis on all-inclusive hotel holidays and cruises these days.
Thanks Jo! It is and I am learning a lot too.
Sounds like Peru truly opened your eyes to the world and what it really means to be a traveler as opposed to a tourist. Wonderful post Nicole, thanks as always for sharing your incredible insights.
Yes thankfully it did Miriam. 🙂
It’s like you spoke what I was thinking recently as I reflected on my travels. I often rush through as many places as possible, to absorb as much as I can but in the end what is it all for. I’m going to make it a priority to submerge myself in culture and step back to take it all in. Thank you for this.
Thanks so much! It took years to get to this point and I wish I would have understood it sooner. I lived and backpacked abroad in my early twenties and I’ve changed so much now.
Great post! This is such an important topic. 🙂
Thank you so much Mari!
Great post Nicole! I completely agree with your thoughts. Although I feel we are rushing through our two months in Europe, we are taking every opportunity to immerse ourselves in the local culture. We are able to do this, I believe, because we took the time to research and design our own trip. But, since this is our first trip to Europe, we certainly fit into the tourist mold as well.