Over the last few years, destinations and travel service providers have invested in rewilding efforts, doubled down on their climate commitments, and published tourism pledges and impact reports. But even as the tourism industry fine tunes its strategy for creating a less extractive and more community-focused model of operation, is there enough being done to offset the negative impacts that still plague the industry?
In Ngorongoro, Maasai are being forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands to make way for a safari game and trophy hunting reserve. Eager to make up for lost time, tourists are rushing back to popular attractions — and their not-so-awesome behavior has returned too. And then there’s the fact we are still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic and have yet to resolve the carbon-heavy aviation sector problem.
Historically, the tourism industry has turned a blind eye when it comes to the invisible burdens it causes and the negative impacts it has. One of the things that has improved today is the industry’s willingness to acknowledge (at least to some degree) the harm it has caused and continues to cause. But is that acknowledgement (and the actions that some companies and destinations have taken to “improve” the industry) as well as the financial and environmental benefits enough?
Last fall, I led a workshop with the editorial team at a travel media company. We had an in-depth and spirited conversation about what the company could do to use its reach and influence to encourage readers to make better decisions when traveling. Then, one of the editors asked a question for which I had no answer: What if the best solution is not to travel at all?
One of the editors asked a question for which I had no answer: What if the best solution is not to travel at all?
Looking around the virtual room, I could see this was a question that had been discussed before. And I have to admit, it’s a question I’ve asked myself repeatedly, especially since early 2020. As a global citizen who has found incredible learning opportunities, enjoyment, and personal growth from traveling over the course of my life, I can’t imagine not traveling. And as someone who works in the tourism industry, obviously my livelihood depends upon people traveling.
I have personally changed the way I travel over the past several years. I’ve ripped up my bucket list and gone through transportation gymnastics in order to cut out flights where possible. I take the time to look for certain certifications and terminology on tour companies’ websites so that I know they’ve put in the hard work to maximize their positive impacts. I have thought a lot about what a fly-less world would look like (and I’ve learned about the far-reaching impacts of aviation that I’d never considered before).
But it is not easy, even for someone who lives and breathes this world … so imagine what it’s like for travelers simply trying to take the comfortable, easy path of least resistance to their dream destination. For every trip I skip because I don’t think the positive impacts outweigh the negative ones, how many travelers who aren’t thinking about these things are jetting off on holidays that encourage tourism gentrification, leave massive environmental footprints, and spend money that funnels straight out of the destinations they visit?
I recently asked others working in the tourism industry their opinions on the subject. Everyone who responded acknowledged that tourism is not without its problems, however they noted that smarter, more intentional, and less carbon-heavy travel is essential. They pointed out the positive benefits of tourism, and underscored that the lack of travel can devastate tourism-reliant destinations such as small-island nations — something that happened when COVID-19 shut the industry down practically overnight.
For every trip I skip because I don’t think the positive impacts outweigh the negative ones, how many travelers who aren’t thinking about these things are jetting off on holidays that encourage tourism gentrification, leave massive environmental footprints, and spend money that funnels straight out of the destinations they visit?
They are fierce advocates for travel, which obviously makes sense. And while there have been changes in the way travel is being delivered, and conscious travelers may slowly be changing their habits as well, travel is steadily rebounding to pre-pandemic levels in a world where the climate crisis and biodiversity loss are in more precarious positions than ever.
Recent research published in the journal Nature Communications quantified the amount of “black carbon” (smoke and soot) that each person creates as a result of traveling to Antarctica, and the results are staggering. The authors calculated that each visitor between 2016 and 2020 melted the equivalent of 83 tons of snow, largely due to emissions from cruise ships.
Some of the cruises that travel to Antarctica invest heavily in offsetting their carbon footprints. Travelers participate in citizen science on some of these trips that advances scientific research in a meaningful way. And, yes, in some circumstances, seeing the raw beauty of Antarctica is a deeply transformational experience — one that can spur real, tangible action that has powerful, positive ripple effects.
But what if the best solution for our planet’s future is not to travel to Antarctica at all?
Perhaps Antarctica is an extreme example, but it’s also one that has been measured in a very succinct way. When we can clearly see what the negative impact is on a local community or environment, do we have an obligation as global citizens to agree not to exploit a place even though we would like to visit?
Travel to Antarctica is full-speed ahead, and more people are actually visiting as it takes on the title of a last-chance tourism destination.
In Antarctica, so far the answer has been no.
Travel to Antarctica is full-speed ahead, and more people are actually visiting as it takes on the title of a last-chance tourism destination. When the negative impacts are not as measurable — or different stakeholders are at odds about whether sacrifices should be made to keep tourism alive — it’s even less clear about whether tourism should cease altogether in certain places or under certain circumstances.
There are no easy solutions to this challenge and no clear answers to this question. Like most things, this is an issue tinted with shades of gray. But as those in the tourism industry continue to develop new ways of creating and delivering travel experiences, they need to be willing to have conversations that frankly evaluate the impact they have on the world.