A life of travel is a fantasy.
But what about when it’s not?
Today, I want to talk about the environmental issues of traveling in developing nations.
Let’s be straight. Tourism has been shown to have terrific effects for a developing nation’s economy. It contributes to 5% of the world’s overall GDP and to 6% of the world’s export services1. It is essentially a foreign exchange income, and is one of the most profitable and sustainable for many developing and least developed nations, constituting the first or second highest export product for 20/48 of the world’s least developed economies1. And a part of these earnings goes straight into the local economy, affecting different groups in society by providing local job opportunities, increased market sales, and opportunities to run community-based businesses – all of which have been shown to have a positive impact on poverty levels. And we can’t just not mention the fact that many jobs for locals in tourism are particularly suited to women and to ethnic minority populations. When done right, it can be an extremely empowering industry.
Here’s the “but.”
I started off brainstorming for this post as a travel diary of my friends’ and my trip to north Viet Nam. I wanted to highlight some of the agencies we used to approach traveling in a more conscious way, or maybe just talk about the phở. But it just didn’t seem quite right. I kept thinking about the experiences I had and the stories I heard, but the two images that were coming back to me were like night and day. On one hand, I remembered the visit to the quaint fish farming village and their near zero waste existence, and on the other, I remembered Trash Island. I wasn’t even trying to catch that image. From a distance, it was just a beautiful landscape. 200% crop showed otherwise.
Keeping up with the demands of tourism does not come without a cost. These costs are hard to calculate (although they did a pretty good job in my second listed source2). But they are not invisible; they are easily seen when a moment is taken to slow down, look around, and ask.
Upon the pause and upon asking those who know best, it becomes clear.
The heightened demand for convenience caused by the tourism industry is unable to be supported by developing and least developed locales. Because tourism is such a powerful industry, convenience and pleasure for the tourists is obtained at the expense of the locals, impacting the least privileged most directly. These areas don’t often have waste management systems suitable for the degree produced by tourism, and tourists are more likely to be wasteful on vacation than at home.3 Eating on the street in a more sanitary manner results in increased plastic waste.4 Indulging in holiday pool and bathing routines results in water overuse3. Creating and maintaining resorts results in sludge pumped into natural water systems.2 Creating more tourism suitable development sites results in the draining of wetlands.4
Go ahead and name some examples of your own – but let’s not even get into the waste associated with air travel. I’m sure an entire book can be written about that if it hasn’t been written already.
Here’s the “yikes, so now what.”
I wholeheartedly encourage you to research. Research into every destination, accommodation, and excursion that you want to do. If you find something is unethical or unsustainable but that you still want that experience, search for alternatives. Alternatives! Always! Exist! There is always another way of doing something – an incredible phenomenon, really. A demand for a more conscious tourism industry is present and ever-growing, and I encourage you to take part in the movement. Just be careful of businesses and companies who pretend to be more ethical or sustainable than they really are (I dig into this by looking into their “About Us” pages and “Yearly Reports.” If either or both of these items don’t exist, Red! Flag! Number! One! From these sources, it can usually be pretty easy to tell how transparent and honest they’re being).
Admittedly, this isn’t the easiest way to get things done, but it is definitely the most empowering – for you and for those who you impact. Ignorance is only bliss for the ignorant.
There are also Carbon offsets. Someone had to say it. Carbon offsets have many conflicting opinions on their worth, but I’ll let you decide.
Carbon offsets are essentially programs you can donate to that aid the environment in an equal and opposite manner. Companies specializing in carbon offsets make it easy to tell how much you need to donate to offset your carbon footprint by using online calculators. It is a surprisingly cheap way to clear your conscience and to give back. Look into this more if you’re curious, but essentially, some people say that carbon offsets are just shortcuts made to make people feel better but that their offsetting benefits are not clearly proven, and other people argue that if everyone decided to offset their carbon footprint, it would at least be better than doing nothing.
Simply: you have to inform yourself. And don’t just trust the word of others. Heck, don’t just trust my word either. (Actually, please don’t just trust my word. Better, more peer-reviewed sources exist.)
Dig into my sources.
Pick them apart.
Find your own.
And above all else,
don’t stop trying.
The world needs all the good that you can do.
1http://step.unwto.org/content/tourism-and-poverty-alleviation-1 – UNWTO, United Nation World Tourism Organization
2https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1cf5/b71185f1609d0fe9f142ba6d0213a22daa95.pdf – Research paper on the global environmental consequences of tourism
3https://www.cbd.int/tourism/doc/tourism-manual-2015-en.pdf – CBD, Convention on Biological Diversity; UNEP, United Nation Environment Programme
4https://www.gdrc.org/uem/eco-tour/envi/one.html – GDRC, Global Development Research Center
http://www.unep.fr/shared/publications/pdf/3207-TourismAgenda.pdf – UNEP, United Nations Environment Programme
https://www.wttc.org/ – WTTC, World Travel and Tourism Council
http://www.unep.fr/scp/ – UNEP, United Nations Environment Programme
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This post was contributed by Kelsey Moreland, a 2018 Global Ambassador.
Don’t get left behind. Read more about Kelsey’s experience abroad>>