Why Ecotourism and Sustainable Travel Must Be the Wave of the Future

As much as I love to travel, there is no doubt I feel concerned about the negative impact that travel can make on a place due to overtourism and additional stress on the environment. As the world economy improves and more people are being lifted out of poverty, tourism is on the upswing as well. World Count estimates that approximately 1 billion people arrive in a new destination each year which translates into a new arrival every 30 seconds somewhere around the globe.

“Should we feel guilty for traveling”?  and “How is tourism the harming the environment and what we can do about it?” are excellent moral questions us as travelers have to often consider when planning a trip, especially to a threatened destination such as The Great Barrier Reef, Iceland, and Machu Picchu to name a few.

In this thought provoking piece, Dafina Zymeri of SUMAS (a Sustainability Business School in Switzerland), shares some areas where travel has negatively impacted the environment and the very culture of a city and how we as travelers can travel more consciously. I have added in my insight where I deemed necessary to expand upon a topic. I am hoping this is the first of many conversations on the importance of sustainable travel for we must protect and think responsibly about our impact as travelers upon the very world in which we desire to see.

It has been estimated that over half of the Great Barrier Reef has died since 2016. What impact does tourism have on this fragile ecosystem and should we go there? Photo credit: Pexels

The Burden of Overtourism

If you search on Google “How tourism is…”, the first suggestion to finish the sentence it will give is “How tourism is killing Barcelona.” Pretty sad, isn’t it? Well, we travelers – or tourists, whatever you call yourself – are destroying the environment of those beautiful countries we’re visiting. Of course, we don’t mean to do so but we are flying, visiting and trampling all over the planet. Our increase in visiting some of these destinations is undeniably having an impact and perhaps not such a positive one.

Let’s take the case of Barcelona. Check out the Guardian’s recent article “How Tourism is Killing Barcelona – A Photo Essay“. We have all seen and experienced beloved destinations like Barcelona that have sadly began to lost their charm and have become overrun with all things tourist. Trinkets, t-shirt shops and crowds and crowds of people is making a once culturally rich city feel more like a Disney-styled theme park. Will Barcelona eventually loose the charm and uniqueness that initially made it so popular with tourists in the first place?

If this isn’t sad enough, the huge increase in popularity of Barcelona is having its own negative impacts on its own people who live there. Barcelona native residents are enraged with the cost of living that they say was inflicted by tourism. Per The Guardian, it used to cost 250€ (or around $280) for a short-term rental permit but now that they are not being issued anymore. Needless to say, the average monthly rent in Barcelona (which is the most expensive in Spain) is around  700€. Residents are seemingly being forced out by high rents in Barcelona neighborhoods with a high presence of Airbnb. Since Airbnb’s intention is “revitalizing neighborhoods”, how is that possible when neighborhoods in their presence are actually losing population to a large degree?

 

Is tourism ruining the charm of such beautiful places as Barcelona?

 

Here’s another example to touch your conscience: The beautiful beach of Maya Bay of Phi Phi Lei Island in Thailand had banned, for a certain time, boats of tourists from landing on the shore. The tourists that want to take the trouble to visit need to do it by foot from the neighboring beach Loh Samah Bay. I was heartbroken when I read what the Chief of Mu Ko Phi Phi National Park said the reason behind the temporary closure was that the marine life and corals need time to recover.  How utterly devastating. The beach we go to see, swim in, and take pictures of to need a break from us!

And what about Machu Picchu, a World Heritage Site? Thousands of tourists are trampling across ancient ruins every day at a level that is truly unsustainable for keeping them around for further generations. Although UNESCO has strongly recommends that they cap the number of visitors to 2,500 per day, 5,000 tourists visit and walk across these threatened ruins daily. Don’t we want to safeguard and protect Machu Picchu for future generations to enjoy?

Isn’t this how Machu Picchu is supposed to look? Untouched?

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Backpacking with a Purpose with Operation Groundswell

For the past two years, I’ve been a proud member of Impact Travel Alliance, a global community of change makers, passionate about transforming the travel industry into a force for good. Through this amazing network of sustainable travel organizations, writers and travel enthusiasts around the globe, I’ve learned a lot about how we can use travel to make the world a better place.

For the next several months, I am working on putting together a searchable database of the best ethical impact-focused and sustainable travel organizations on the planet. While I’m researching these different organizations, I will be sharing guest posts to uncover each organization’s unique mission and how you can travel for good. This guest post is written by fellow Impact Travel Alliance Media Network member Marissa Sutera (creator of Little Things Travel Blog) who introduces us to Operation Groundswell a Toronto-based organization whose mission is to create a more equitable, just, and sustainable world through travel and backpacking with a purpose.

Operation Groundswell

Operation Groundswell Ecuador trip

Backpacking with a Purpose

When seeking out more purposeful work to do while traveling, it can be challenging to dig deep enough to find the best route to take and the organizations that are truly carrying out positive work. In this interview you’ll hear from Justine Abigail Yu, Communications and Marketing Director at Operation Groundswell, who will be sharing her insight into what questions to ask when volunteering abroad, where to begin, and how to know what sort of impact you will make.

Operation Groundswell is a non-profit organization that facilitates experiential education programs on a host of social justice issues around the world. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability. Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in. Their programs are intentionally designed to uncover the intricacies and on-the-ground realities of each region they go to. With ethical travel at the crux of their philosophy, they always work in partnership with local non-profits and charities on community-requested projects to ensure true sustainability.

Their aim is to build a community of “backpacktivists” that are socially, environmentally, and politically aware of their impact in the communities they travel to and live in.

Operation Groundswell

Meeting with our partners at De La Gente, a coffee cooperative in San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala

How can someone seeking a volunteer program abroad determine if they will actually be making a difference?

First and foremost, whatever volunteer project you work on abroad should be done in partnership with the local community. If you want to make even the slightest difference, be sure to find an organization that puts the needs of the local community first. Contributing to a project that your host community actually wants and needs is the first step towards responsible international volunteering.

But it’s also important to set realistic expectations of what exactly “making a difference” means. For many people, this requires a bit of a rethink. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many volunteers going abroad expect to “save Africa”, or Asia, or Latin America. And that’s just not the reality.

The majority of volunteer programs are often short-term projects that range from one week to a few months. So when you’re seeking a volunteer program abroad, consider the time you’ll be spending abroad and align that with your expectations. Because real talk – if you’re only going to be spending one or two-weeks in any given country or community, you may not actually make that much of a difference.

You’ll accomplish some things, of course: you’ll likely gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of development and what it takes to actually achieve social change, you’ll make a strong connection with a handful of people who you will hopefully stay in touch with, and you’ll contribute in some small way to a project.

But honestly, you’ll likely leave with more questions than answers. And that’s ok. This is a process.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight or even in a couple of weeks or months. Often, the work that you do when you return home, as a result of what you learned abroad, will be where you make the most difference.”

Just remember to have humility when taking part in work like this!

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