But spotting the sustainable travel heroes isn't as easy as it once was.
Ecotourism first entered the dictionary in the 1980s, and soon became synonymous with a range of ‘nature experiences’. In the 1990s, it drifted into the mainstream – hotel chains got in on the ‘green’, recognising that money could be saved through careful environmental management. Before long, tired of imported cookie-cutter interiors, food, and pre-scripted guided tours, travellers sought out more authentic and local experiences. Likewise, in the luxury world, bling was pushed aside for the sake of wilderness, provenance, and a sense of place. By 2019, the words ‘purpose’, ‘meaning’, and ‘positive impact’ started to permeate the communications of many travel brands. Today, it is up to consumers to establish who is walking the talk.
So what is sustainable tourism? The UN World Tourism Organization defines it as: “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities." With 8 billion people vying for finite resources, how can travel be sustainable if the needs of both the industry and visitors are on an equal footing to those of host communities and the environment?
Having less of an impact is no longer enough. To be truly sustainable, our travel experiences must help solve environmental and societal problems. This doesn’t mean that every holiday we take has to involve grandiose planet and people-saving outcomes. But it does mean that as travellers, we must think harder about who and what we’re spending our money on.
Even under the crippling cloud of the Covid-19 crisis, we cannot ignore global problems that desperately need solutions. Intricately interwoven, the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis are no longer disputable. Atmospheric carbon dioxide has increased 25% in the last 50 years, and we’re losing species at 1000 times their natural rate. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), we are witnessing the greatest extinction crisis since dinosaurs disappeared from our planet 65 million years ago.
Such environmental devastation is the result of short-term gain prevailing over long-term prosperity, as we continue to churn out carbon and destroy ecosystems to get more stuff, more convenience, and more comfort for less money. Even the present global pandemic is most likely linked to our relentless destruction of nature, via the wildlife trade.
Travel is woven within these crises. Before Covid-19 ground it to a halt, the tourism industry was responsible for a hefty 8-12% of the world’s carbon emissions, with air travel playing a major role. Development for the sake of tourism can also lead to urban sprawl and the destruction of critical wildlife habitats. Irresponsible destination management has a devastating impact on local lives: at best, clogging streets with souvenir shops; at worst, draining water supplies.
But equal to its power to harm, travel has an enormous potential to heal, restore and protect.
As Sibylle Riedmiller, founder of the world’s first Marine Protected Area, Chumbe Island Coral Park in Tanzania, once said: “Tourism is the only industry with a vested economic interest in protecting the natural world.” At Chumbe Island, a palm-fringed island seven kilometres off Zanzibar, a low-impact ecotourism business funds the protection of East Africa’s most pristine coral reef. It also re-trains fishermen as park rangers and provides conservation lessons (including snorkelling) for over 500 local students each year. Chumbe Island is a founding member of The Long Run, a charity that supports models like this from Hawaii to Indonesia.