July 4th is the most popular day for beaches, which also results in the most beach litter. In response to that, July 1-7 became Clean Beaches Week, which means we should all be focusing our efforts on keeping our beaches pristine and our oceans clean. Sustainable tourism may be a phrase you are unfamiliar with, so what exactly is sustainable tourism, and why should you care about it?
Sustainable tourism reduces waste and pollution by providing a more environmentally friendly alternative to commercial tourism. One of the ways you can detract from “over-tourism” and step into sustainable tourism is by making a conscious effort to go off of the beaten path. Do pay close attention to areas where there are lifeguards and where there are no lifeguards if you intend to swim in the ocean though. When we consciously make steps into sustainability like this, we’re not only supporting our planet, but we’re also being respectful of the communities where we’re visiting.
You might be wondering, “what is over-tourism, and why is it bad?”. Many of the most popular tourist destinations have this problem. Too much traffic through certain areas decreases the quality of life of those living there, and hurts the environment as well. Venice’s residents are concerned about the cruise ships that dock there: they over-crowd the city, dominate the skyline, and cause environmental damage.
Many years ago I visited Venice, and although I am not a local, I can completely understand those statements. The streets were very crowded, and there were not always railings to keep you from falling into the water. The waters were also inundated with boats, most of them filled with tourists taking photos. It was a very charming city, but I started to feel bad for the residents. Living there seems like a dream, until you remember that Venice has no moments of respite away from the hustle and bustle. Their small quaint town is always filled with crowds akin to a theme park or New York City.
Barcelona has similar issues, as with many other locations. Bruges, Belgium stopped advertising day trips, and major cities like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona are limiting the number of beds available in hotels. They are actually fighting Airbnb with the intention to decrease overtourism. To reiterate how much environmental damage overtourism causes, it was reported that Nepal had to airlift 100 tons of waste from Mount Everest after receiving over 100 thousand visitors, and 40,000 trekkers.
Support Sustainable Cities
A substantial way to support sustainable tourism is to visit cities that are sustainable themselves. By going off the beaten path, not only will you get a more cultural experience, but the locals will be happier to have you there (since tourism in these areas is not as common). So, what exactly is a “sustainable location”? 80% of people visit only 20% of destinations. Despite there being a plethora of places to visit, the majority of people call on the same locations.
Visit somewhere out of the box or, even consciously seek out somewhere you’ve never heard of before. Some of these vacations turn out to be the most enriching. In addition, you can rest happy knowing you are not contributing to the immense traffic and pollution in over-visited areas. As with any travel to an unknown place, it is important to do extensive research to learn about the culture, crime, customs, and what to expect. Travel is an enriching experience when we approach it from a holistic perspective.
If you are looking for some of the most sustainable cities, I’ve got you covered. Locations in Slovenia and Spain were as nominated the best places to visit and leave a light footprint in 2019. Slovenia’s capitol, Ljubljana, was voted the greenest city in 2016 by the European Union. This award was thanks to its infrastructure and the fact that it is conductive to walking and cycling. Its vast public transport system, commitment to saving waste water, and protecting environmental areas also came into play for this award.
Palau, a Micronesian island, is another notable choice. Before entering, visitors must pledge to preserve the culture and environment of the island. This “Palau Pledge” is then stamped into their passport, allowing admittance to the island as long as visitors remain mindful. Palau also created the world’s first shark sanctuary, and pledged to protect large areas of the ocean from overfishing. In 2020, Palau became the first tourist destination to “ban the sale and use of sunscreen products containing toxic chemicals.” These sustainable destinations are a great start when finding less-visited places to visit and support.
It is equally important to visit cities that need your financial support. Places without strong economies would be grateful for the economic stimulation that results from tourism. Seek out places rebuilding from a natural disaster, like Puerto Rico. The extra income will help their efforts. If you want to go above and beyond, you can even volunteer to help in the rebuilding efforts.
Have you thought of vacationing locally? The greenest form of vacationing is staying within your own area. This can include visiting museums in your city, checking out local parks, and exploring new places in your neighborhood that you’ve never seen before. And if that doesn’t satisfy your itch to travel, you can always try driving (or carpooling/taking public transportation) a few hours to a forest or beach.
Visiting new natural locations can make you feel like you’re worlds away from your home. It may even spark greater appreciation for the outdoors and nature. For those that are looking to vacation on a budget, staying local is a great way to stay on-budget. It’s also a great way to visit local businesses and support them financially.
Visiting Popular Locations, Sustainably
Do you have a dream location you have been dying to visit? Regardless of whether it’s plagued by overtourism or not, the good news is that there are still ways to visit popular locations sustainably. Although it won’t be as sustainable as visiting lesser-known locations or staying local, it will still reduce your cultural and environmental footprint.
Experts recommend going during off-peak times, in order to reduce peak travel traffic. Stay for longer amounts of time, and avoid tourist traps: instead, favor activities that will give back to local residents and environments. Also, be sure to use accredited booking websites, like BookDifferent.com, that confirm claims of sustainability from third parties.
Now that you know how to travel sustainably, one of the biggest steps is increasing awareness and demand. Following a sustainable tourism travel plan is enough to satisfy it. In new places, you vote with your wallet.
Increasing demand for sustainable activities and locations, in turn, will make it more popular, and increase the places that offer sustainable tourism. For example, if a popular tourism location finds that cycling is a smash hit in other popular tourism destinations, they may start offering more bicycle rental locations, and may even change infrastructure to be more cycling-friendly. We have the power to shift demand – therefore we have the power to make tourism more sustainable.
If you want to help even beyond voting with your wallet, you can also spread awareness. Post about your sustainable trips on social media, or tell your friends about the great vacation you just had. This can influence others to vacation sustainably, or even visit the same (sustainable) location. You can also get involved and start promoting or even protesting for sustainable tourism in your own home town, or to raise awareness for sustainable tourism overseas. Writing positive reviews on sites like Trip Advisor also helps to increase awareness.
Whichever options you choose, be proud that you’re vacationing sustainably. Not only are you saving the environment, you’re relieving traffic from over-visited areas, preserving local cultures, and helping out lesser-known communities. Next time you book a plane ticket, have an executable plan on how you can bring value and sustainability to the location.
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