With people cooped up at home, the world seems to be healing. How can we stop hurting the environment once we’re able to travel again?
Yep, according to social media, the environment is “healing”. Without tourists or human activity, swans have returned to the Venice canals, Nara’s deer are in the street, and city skies are no longer covered in smog. While some stories turn out to be fake, it’s true that travel often harms the environment.
One of the viral posts about how the coronavirus is “giving the Earth a rest”, with over 15k shares and 552k views. Photo credit: VIX via Facebook
In fact, travel is one of the most waste-intensive activities we can do in our lifetime. A study published in 2018 found that tourism accounts for at least 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. And it doesn’t just hurt the natural environment, but also the humans and animals who live in it. Whether it’s by littering, unknowingly supporting exploitative or wasteful businesses, or just catching that plane, travel often does more harm than good.
We can see some of travel’s consequences during the current lockdown — Beijing’s blue skies, tourist animals wandering the streets. Other consequences aren’t so visible now, but that doesn’t make them less destructive.
The skies over Beijing before and after the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo credit: Simon Song
It’s a shame because travel can cause significant positive change — creating jobs and income for local communities, as well as the woo-woo–but-real benefits of experiencing a new culture. But that won’t mean a thing if we destroy the planet in the process.
COVID-19 will pass eventually (we hope), but we need to make sustainable tourism the new norm when we’re allowed to travel again.
Here’s five of the biggest problems in travel, and practical ways we can make things better:
1) Air pollution
Because of lockdown measures in cities like USA and China, the usual smog is gone, clearing the way for blue skies. A big portion of that comes from fewer flights and road travel.
In 2018, commercial flights produced 2.4% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, a 26% increase from 2013, and it’s only set to increase once travel picks up again. To put that in perspective, if the aviation industry was a country, it would be the sixth-largest in CO2 emissions, between Japan and Germany. In fact, just one flight produces as much carbon emissions as driving over 3,200km.
How we can travel better:
Until we learn how to teleport, travelling by air is unavoidable. But you can make up for your carbon footprint by purchasing carbon offsets. These are credits which help you ‘make up’ for pollution-causing travel by supporting emission-reducing projects, like solar projects in India and cleaner cookstoves in Rwanda. Reputable platforms include Gold Standard and Green-e, with projects that are verified to reduce the amount of carbon released in the atmosphere.
Also, as much as possible, use public transport, cycle, or walk. You’ll even get a more local experience this way!
2) Animal Tourism
The COVID-19 travel lockdown has also led to strange side-effects with animals that are used to human interaction.
Without the usual snacks from tourists, macaques in Thailand’s Phra Prang Sam Yot Temple viciously fight over small scraps.
Animal tourism has always been controversial for two main reasons. Firstly, the animals start relying on humans for food and can get aggressive when not given any.
Secondly, it alters important natural behaviours. With constant human intervention, many tourist animals don’t learn to support themselves. Adults may even stop caring for their young — in the past, this has led to dolphin deaths in Western Australia.
Western Australia now strictly regulates its dolphin feedings at Monkey Mia, to prevent altering their natural behaviour.
How we can travel better:
Do your research and try not to support attractions which exploit animals, unnaturally alter their behaviour, or leave them reliant on humans. A good resource is PETA’s guide on how to tell if a place is a real animal sanctuary.
On a similar note, there are tourist attractions which exploit the people in that community. What’s most insidious is that these establishments may seem to promote a good cause.
Voluntourism has become one of the biggest travel trends, with well-meaning tourists trying to do good in the countries they visit. The problem is that corrupt organisations have jumped on the trend, manipulating kindness for personal profit.
Of the ~16,500 children living in Cambodia’s hundreds of orphanages, most aren’t actually orphans. Poor families are encouraged to rent or sell their children to fill these shelters. This separates the children from their parents and prevents them from getting an education (which could help them escape poverty in the longterm).
An orphanage in Cambodia. Photo credit: The Atlantic
These children are often subject to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, either from the orphanage’s directors or from tourists themselves, who are allowed to take the children on outing with zero supervision or background checks.
As for the clothes and toys you donate — orphanages often take and sell the items given to the children, without giving anything to the child or their family. As one former ‘orphan’ said, “(The orphanage director) dressed us up looking poor so the visitors see us, they feel pity for us, and they donate more.” The road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.
Photo credit: Osman Mohamed Osman via Al Jazeera
So orphanage tourism is definitely bad, but what about slum tourism? Every year, over a million tourists take guided tours through India’s slums, South African shantytowns, and other impoverished areas. While many visit out of morbid curiosity, others are motivated by more noble causes, like wanting to face inequality in the flesh.
While most guided tours donate some of their profit to the local community, it’s often negligible — after all, if these slums were helped in any significant way, they’d no longer be an ‘attraction’.
How we can travel better:
Do not support practices which perpetuate poverty. For example, giving money or gifts to street beggars encourages a begging economy, and visiting a Cambodian orphanage encourages the exploitation of local children.
Instead, find credible organisations which provide genuine, long-term help. The best organisations provide less-privileged locals with marketable skills and resources, which help them achieve a better quality of life for themselves. For example, Tiny Toones Cambodia gives impoverished street kids a safe, nurturing space, with breakdancing training, peer mentoring, and an education program, all for free.
As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” It’s the epitome of sustainable tourism.
4) Leaving your “mark” at popular tourist attractions
The Colloseum. Photo credit: MZeta via Shutterstock
The Colloseum. Mount Everest. The Eiffel Tower. All beautiful wonders of the world, but somehow we can’t keep them that way. Travellers have left disgusting piles of litter around the base of these attractions.
Mount Everest has become the world’s highest rubbish dump. Photo credit: Doma Sherpa
That’s not all. In China, The Great Wall is marked with chicken-feet scribblings, made by tourists who’d happily destroy its beauty just so they can leave their mark. Same goes for various otherwise-beautiful sites around the world.
Unsightly graffiti on the Great Wall of China. Photo credit: Post Magazine
How we can travel better:
– It goes without saying — don’t litter, don’t vandalise, and don’t destroy public property!
– Minimise your waste by separating trash into food waste and recyclables.
– To really cut down your carbon footprint, bring your own reusables (like bags and utensils).
5) Greenwashing Establishments
Single-use plastics, a common sight in hotels. Photo credit: India Times
Maldives is a beach resort paradise, so you’d be shocked to know about that they’re also home to Rubbish Island — a hulking landfill of waste collected from luxury hotels.
While we can lower our own carbon footprint, it’s perhaps even more important to hold big businesses accountable. If we support businesses which produce a lot of waste, we’re enabling them to continue these planet-harming practices. Many tourist establishments continue to use single-use plastics like straws, plastic-wrapped disposable toiletries, and elevators and lights that stay on even when not in use.
The Maldives’ Rubbish Island, filled with plastic waste from resorts. Photo credit: Elin Høyland
It’s not enough to just put up signs asking guests to reuse their towels. Many businesses are guilty of greenwashing — branding themselves as eco-friendly without committing to actual change.
Look out for a company’s effects on the community too. If you’re in a developing country where locals could benefit from a good job, glance around before you enter. Do they employ local staff, or are the slots given to other foreigners? Are they harming wildlife by capturing them as entertainment? Are you contributing to a bad cause by giving them your money?
How we can travel better:
Research on the establishments you intend to visit and make sure that they’re truly sustainable. If a business claims to be eco-friendly or sustainable, check their website to find (1) concrete examples of what they’re doing to help, and (2) if they have the data to justify their claims. If both are missing, the business is probably just greenwashing.
– Support businesses which employ and empower locals, especially in poorer countries, so your money goes to those who need it most. Examples include taking tours which employ local guides, eating in a locally-owned restaurant (rather than an international chain), and buying souvenirs made by locals.
Sustainable Tourism After COVID-19
Venice’s canals during the COVID-19 lockdown. Photo credit: Manuel Silvestri via Reuters
Besides showing us the importance of good hygiene, responsibility, and care for others, the COVID-19 crisis is also a huge wake-up call on every traveller’s effect on the environment. There’s no better time to relook at how we travel, before we head out and start exploring again.
The world is a beautiful place. Let’s keep it that way!
Got any other tips for practising sustainable tourism? Share them with us in the comments!