Last month, the last tourists were allowed to ascend Ayer’s Rock or Uluru, Australia’s most famous rock and a drawcard for international and domestic tourists. Uluru is now closed to tourists in respect of its traditional owners, the Anangu people, whose culture and law forbid people to climb Uluru. The decision to close Uluru comes after many years of debate between local indigenous communities and local government, and is one of the few times where Indigenious values have actually won over other (financial) interests. The decision was made by the Australian government, in extension of its support for the Indigenous Protected Areas (IPAs) program, which enables Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to manage existing and creating new IPAs, in an effort to protect and conserve Australia’s rich biodiversity. Even if that means tourism revenue is lost as a direct result.
It is just one example of a growing travel trend we are seeing around the world – a trend where more value is being placed on ethics than on profits, where environmentally and socially sustainable outcomes are being emphasised over ‘experience vacationing’. It is the rise in sustainable tourism, and boy is it about time. Consumers are becoming increasingly conscious: they want a holiday, but not if it is to the detriment of a local community or the local environment.
Millennials are driving the shift, fueling demand for more sustainable accommodation, tour agencies and group holiday experiences. They are also prepared to pay more for the experience, 73 percent of them are, in fact. They would rather not visit a major tourist attraction if they know its profits are used to further corruption within the government, and they will skip out on a walking tour of a slum community if they feel it will have a harmful impact on those residing within the slum. They would rather avoid visiting an elephant orphanage if they know the elephants are ‘rescued’ under false pretences and then abused. Even if it the best location for wildlife watching, the new age conscious consumer is not interested in staying at an African safari lodge if it uses plastic bottles for drinking water, or if lodge profits aren’t used to better the surrounding community. They know what we want, and thankfully so, because the future is more or less in their hands.
It’s not just millennials driving the trend though, 105.3 million U.S. travellers are prioritising vacations that give back to the environment and community as much as they take, according to Sustainable Travel International, and 60 percent of leisure travellers in the U.S. are sustainable travellers. The UN even aptly named 2017 the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, taking advantage of global momentum to further the efforts of sustainable tour operators, airlines, organisations and companies seeking to lessen travellers’ impacts on the world. According to the UN, the fastest growing group of sustainable traveller is that which would rather travel to a pristine, remote area and contribute to conservation efforts there than go on an all-paid luxury holiday to a tropical beach. People want to come back from a holiday feeling reinvigorated and inspired, not as though they have laid on a beach for a fortnight drinking cocktails.
For a destination to be certified as sustainable by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, it must follow a very specific set of criteria, from supporting local businesses to conserving natural resources. Yellowstone National Park and Vail, Colorado, are two U.S. destinations on the path to becoming certified as sustainable destinations – but a place must tick a lot of boxes in order to make the cut. Beyond this particular certification, well-known destinations right around the world are doing what they can to negate the impacts of the hordes of tourists they welcome on a daily basis. Cinque Terre, Machu Picchu and the Great Barrier Reef are some of them, by limiting the annual number of visitors they receive, while authorities of places like Koh Tachai in the Similan National Park are prohibiting visitors altogether in an effort to conserve the pristine environment.
The thing is, if we wish to continue being able to explore all corners of planet earth, bathe in its waterfalls, swim on its beaches, walk on its mountains, we really do need to change the way we travel.
According to Sustainable Travel International, travel and tourism are responsible for 5 percent of total carbon emissions globally, contributing significantly to climate change, thus putting all these still-pristine destinations at risk of destruction. The World Tourism Organization expects the international tourism market to climb to 1.8 billion by 2030, and has confirmed that in the past 20 years alone worldwide destination seeking has grown by more than 50 percent. The tourism industry is not shrinking any time soon. The choices we make in terms of the food we eat, the agencies we travel with, the modes of transport we use, and the types of activities we engage in, all have significant impacts on both the physical and social or cultural environments in which we find ourselves while travelling. Even the dirt and dust we carry home with us after our travels to foreign lands can have monumentally significant impacts on the integrity of our home country’s ecosystem if introduced. It is no wonder we are all beginning to question how we can do things better while on the road, enjoying ourselves while not putting global communities or ecosystems at risk. With proper measures and by trying wherever possible to travel sustainably, we can negate our impacts and in some circumstances even restore environments to their pre-discovered state.