The subject of sustainable tourism can be approached in a number of ways. We tend to put our focus on the environmental impacts of tourism. However, the consequences of our society’s adventures abroad reach much farther than one might realize.
We are passionate about our environment, hence that’s what we are most knowledgeable on. That however doesn’t mean that other aspects of sustainable travel are less important. That’s why we have a story to share from a guest writer who’s not just passionate about sustainable tourism, but is currently finalizing her masters on the topic.
As our current population size is soaring with an unprecedented speed, increasing the awareness of the negative consequences of mass tourism has never been more important. Tourism not only adversely affects our environment, but influences societies and cultures around the globe. Here’s what our friend Moniek Zwiers has to share with you today considering sustainable tourism.
Cultures and livelihoods
Back in 2005, I met Marijke at high school, and at that time we were only twelve years old. Our age has doubled by now, and we have both followed an interesting path in life. I’m glad that even after all these years, I have the opportunity to follow Marijke and Jordy on their journey towards a zero waste, sustainable way of living. I can only immensely appreciate how they are living their life: traveling inside a van!
Being a student in the field of sustainable tourism, their story is one that inspires me. One that brings light in a world where the tourist system in many perspectives is not optimal, to say the least. I would like to add to the sustainability mindset Marijke and Jordy are sharing with you – this time not only the “materialistic” side of the story, but sustainability in terms of cultures and livelihoods.
On safari in South Africa
I had the privilege to travel to South Africa when I was nineteen years old. The family of my boyfriend at that time invited me to join them. Coming from a less wealthy family, I had limited travel experience, and did not know much about other cultures. Hence, I did not really know what to expect, other than the wildlife and Big Five everyone always talks about.
The first few days are a bit of a blur in my memory. It’s probably due to the minor culture shock I was experiencing whilst trying to adapt to the way of living in a place that was completely new to me.
After spending a few days in South Africa, I realized I was not seeing and experiencing the country and its many cultures – I was experiencing a staged version of it. It seemed as if I was the only one minding this ‘tourism land’ we found ourselves in. No one else appeared to be bothered by the Western accommodations, facilities, food offer, and power relations.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked seeing a lock on the door of the fridge to keep the monkeys from stealing your things. But after having a hamburger for four consecutive days, because it was the only thing on the menu, I started to think more critically. Would the people who manage this place only put this type of food on the menu because this is what the (mainly Western) tourist wants?
Where does the money go?
As for most wildlife parks in South Africa, guests can either stay in the government-regulated campgrounds, or in the more expensive so-called ‘private’ areas. During my trip, I stayed in the governmental campgrounds in Kruger National Park, and in private lodges in places outside Kruger.
In these small-scaled private accommodations the atmosphere is often informal and guests are frequently in contact with the owner. These owners were always immigrants from Europe, at least in the places I stayed at, and often have a large network “back home” of people who would come and visit. Some even told us they brought construction workers over from Europe to help build the place.
On a positive note, these Europeans have the capital to invest in tourist accommodations and therefore create work for locals, thus influencing their living conditions. In contrast, they tend to keep most of the work to themselves, and only provide jobs that others do not want to do. Besides this, most of the money earned will therefore travel back to the Western countries, where not only the lodge owners are from, but also where the tour operators are located.
On average, 30% of the tourist expenditures remain within the country of visitation. The other 70% goes back to the country of origin of the tourist (to the tour operators mostly) or to the Western countries where the headquarters of large hotel chains and airlines are based.
In the following years, I travelled to some more places. However, the extreme divide between the tourist and the local, and the staged authenticity as I had seen in South Africa, never left my mind.
I decided to enroll in a master’s program about sustainable tourism. Nowadays, the term is criticized ever so often, but I do not worry much about the terminology. I would rather talk about its practice. Sustainable travel means that whilst visiting a place, one tries to make a positive impact on the cultural and natural environment, the society, and the economy.
During my studies, I learned about a wide variety of negative effects that the tourism industry and the local community encounter on a daily basis. This goes from the downside of voluntourism in developing countries to the giant ecological footprint of (all-inclusive) hotels and resorts. From sextourism in Asia to “last chance” tourism in the Arctic regions. And from the power of tour operators to the effects of mass tourism.
Going into full detail of these effects would be too long for today, but I would highly recommend to take some of your spare time to educate yourself on the negative sides of tourism.
There’s one aspect I would like to highlight in terms of sustainable tourism. This is the concept of mass tourism, which basically affects everyone of us.
To do so, I quote my professor: “A flight to Barcelona is cheap, but what does is really cost?” Often, when we are talking about costs, we think about the monetary aspect, but not about the social or environmental costs. Yes, a flight to Barcelona is cheap right now, but what will it cost you and all human and non-human populations on the long term? Yes, a flight to Barcelona is cheap, but what is the social effect of you and 8 million other tourists wandering around the narrow streets? Yes, a flight to Barcelona is cheap at the moment, but is it really?
I am beyond grateful of having the opportunity to learn about tourism within a diverse group of people, as my class consisted of a wide variety of cultures, languages, nationalities, and experiences with the tourism industry. Our discussions were sometimes endless because of the different perspectives we have on the issues, but on one thing we would always agree: creating a bigger awareness of things happening in the tourism system as whole is of high importance.
If a larger part of tourists would, for example, take the train to Berlin next time; or book a tour via a local operator in Peru; or stay at a local hotel in Indonesia. It would result in them having a smaller ecological footprint, minimizing “tourism leakage”, and reducing the social impact on the local community.