More and more people are now recognizing and arguing that tourism needs to be sustainable, yet travelling sustainably has proven a difficult ideal to achieve at the macro level. At the heart of this difficulty may lie a paradox: tourism, in so many places, is necessary to ensure economic growth and social development, but, if unchecked, tourism might well destroy itself, as well as the assets it aims to promote. At the same time, regulating tourism may jeopardize prospects of economic growth and development. Unsurprisingly, this paradox haunts emerging and underdeveloped economies more than it affects advanced economies.
On the plus side, however, this situation really drives home the fact that tourism requires swift action from all stakeholders, including those who travel for leisure. In fact, some may even regard leisure travellers, especially those from advanced economies, as one of the most influential agents of change in this context. For instance, as of 2018, the global leisure travel industry was valued at a jaw-dropping 953.9 billion USD, and this number is only expected to grow significantly over the next five years. Tourism is a unique industry in that it is not only deeply profitable but also involves so many active stakeholders. This is a great advantage because there is no universal solution for rampant tourism; it requires a fleet of solutions, and the more simple and actionable these solutions can be, the better the prospects of alleviating the adverse effects of overtourism. In other words, tourists—given the sheer number of them—can create significant positive impact just by doing the simple things right.
Why Do We Travel?
Among other aspects, doing the simple things right involves asking ourselves why we want to travel. In this context, it’s especially worth considering Don Delillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, which features a place called “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” Unsurprisingly, people throng to the place to take pictures of the barn, and when they do arrive, they only seem to end up “taking pictures of taking pictures.” In other words, people seem compelled to visit the barn and live up to what made it famous by obliging to take pictures, irrespective of whether they really want to or not. The famous passage not only shows that we may value the recording of an event more than the event itself but we also tend to let ourselves be overwhelmed by careful hype. As signs advertising the most photographed barn begin to appear, an interesting thing happens: “Once you’ve seen signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn,” writes Delillo.
Let’s compare this to the current situation: the report cited above argues that “pursuit of unique experience” and increase in social media usage are likely to be key drivers of the leisure travel industry. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely amiss to say that one aim of travelling is to advertise the fact that one likes and values the pursuit of unique experience, and sometimes we find ourselves tempted to opt for commercial tour packages that promise to fulfil this need. Sometimes, moreover, these packages may flout the tenets of responsible tourism. Then there’s also our tendency to be assailed by the fear of missing out when we watch other people post pictures of their fabulous vacations.
This is certainly not to denounce social media or social media users altogether. Besides, we’ve all been victims of the fear of missing out at some point in our lives. Moreover, social media has also served as a platform for marginalized spaces and voices; it has enabled a number of grassroots-level sustainable tourism advocates to gain visibility and leverage. Rather, this is just to shed light on how sometimes the need to record and broadcast our traveling expeditions supersedes the experience of traveling.
Avoiding Unethical Commercial Travel
The problem is not even the broadcasting per se. Rather, it is the ease with which profit-minded commercial tour package organizers can capitalize on our desire to share. There are plenty of organizers out there who promise packages with perfect photo opportunities, and sometimes these staged opportunities upset local customs and beliefs, not to mention the adverse effects of unchecked footfall on ecologically sensitive spots.
Avoiding unethical commercial packages is one of the simplest—and best—ways to make tourism a little more responsible and sustainable. In fact, as Miller and Spoolman show in their work on environmental science, sustainable practices are not merely outwardly directed: that is, sustainability does not merely involve the preservation of our surroundings but also of ourselves; it protects and restores all forms of what they call “natural capital.”
Boycotting these packages, which more often than not tend to be tightly packed, also comes with the added benefit of letting us choose what we want to see and how. Responsible travel may just be more enjoyable and less stressful than travel undertaken to impress one’s followers.
One easy way to boycott these agencies is to plan our travel carefully and meticulously. It also helps to research how tourism has influenced our destination of choice. Additionally, we can try and become familiar with our destination’s historical, cultural, and sociopolitical aspects.
Travel is one of the few sectors where swift action from the general public really does help. After all, we all travel, and we are all also directly or indirectly affected by the industry. Which means we do not have to rely on governments and non-state stakeholders to regulate the industry.
We not only have the direct power to effect change but we can also have fun doing so. Sustainable travel is doable, and it is also its own incentive: it helps preserve the beauty of travel destinations, keeps tourism alive, and also saves us from the bustle of thoughtlessly planned tours.
This is a guest post submitted by Dennis Wesley, an independent educational researcher and blogger. His interests include STEM and Humanities education, especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. He mainly focuses on questions of sustainability and mental health. You can follow his personal blog here.