Why sustainable travel matters

[Myriam Schweiger is a communication specialist and globe trotter. She was a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course in October-December 2019. Myriam wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

The travel industry has increasingly come under scrutiny with regard to its environmental impact – and more people will fly in the future, with passenger numbers expected to reach 8.2 billion in 2037. It’s without doubt that big efforts from all players in the tourism industry are needed. I love to travel but I’m also convinced that we need to protect the planet. Find out below why it is important to be aware of our impact while travelling and learn how to make better responsible travel choices.

The impact of the tourism and travel industry in the world is massive. With travelling becoming more accessible and with growing consumer demand for flights, the intensity of travel will further increase… as will our impact.

The consequences are many and varied, whether from pollution, exploitation of natural resources, or overuse of plastic.

C02 and infrastructure

With growing air demand, airlines’ CO2 emissions are rising. Flying takes a lot of energy and produces greenhouse gases, which means releasing a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Hence, a lot of contribution to global warming.

Many countries in the world don’t have waste disposal or collection systems, infrastructure for recycling, or sewerage systems. Some don’t have access to electricity or experience regular blackouts during the day, while others don’t have adequate water supplies or full access to clean water. In some areas, local populations are unable to pay for many basic items. On top of that, tourists can actually make everyday life harder for local people.

Iconic places damaged by tourism

Let me show you some instances. In some countries, establishments discharge their sewage right onto the beach or into the sea, as occurred last year in Boracay – the Philippines’ most popular tourist destination which has now been temporarily closed. Combining tourist congestion with an inadequate infrastructure, the island has exceeded its carrying capacity. As a result, the environment has been severely damaged.

The same goes for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, half of which has already disappeared. Climate change is the main culprit, with increased sea temperature (in an already unusually warm ocean) causing coral bleaching. Other environment damaging activities such as coral mining, pollution, overfishing, and increased tourist access to islands and bays are also playing a role.

Another example where tourist behaviour has put the environment at risk are the famous Spanish steps in Rome. Tourists can no longer sit on the 135 steps (built in 1723-1726) and can now be fined for doing so. The monument was cleaned and restored in 2016 to remove the many stains from coffee, chewing gum or wine left by people using the location to eat and drink.

Last but not least is the Taj Mahal in India. In order to preserve the iconic white marble mausoleum, the government has set limits on visitor numbers, and has increased prices to better manage the crowds. This intervention was crucial as the pale marble is turning yellow due to air pollution, which could put pressure on its foundations, and due to the contamination of the River Yamuna which runs alongside.

Common sense and respect

Unfortunately these are just a few examples: there are many other less well known places in the world that have also been damaged by tourism.

We should not just talk about preserving the environment. Yes, nature is important, but the social aspect also matters. It starts by adapting yourself to and respecting your new environment. For instance, not taking outrageous numbers of pictures without asking people. You wouldn’t like strangers taking pictures of your child and then posting them on the internet, so you can’t expect others to like it.

Travellers must be more conscious on their journeys, so they can make responsible choices and keep in mind the impact of their presence or their behaviour. I believe it’s a mix between being responsible and behaving properly. In fact, it’s critical to respect every place you visit, in the same way that you would respect your own home town.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia: Photo by Myriam Schweiger

How travel broadens your horizons

In 14 years of travel, I have seen incredible places and met extraordinary people. I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. Travel taught me a lot. I have travelled in various countries and lived in eight; either alone, or with my partner or friends; sometimes backpacking, studying, volunteering or working; and then in the past few years being an expat. No surprise that I’m a fervent advocate of travelling.

I believe sustainable travel is a much wider topic than simply protecting the environment. It also involves respecting the people, their cultures, religions and beliefs; being open-minded. If something is different from your own experience that doesn’t mean it’s wrong; it is just another way to live or think. This mindset is very enriching!

Travel offers you the freedom to experience the world and to help you grow; as you will face situations that can only be taught by experiencing them. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone and explore the world. You will also learn how huge the world is and how tiny we are.

Language and cuisine

Learning new languages is another point. Languages represent barriers between people and are often a source of misunderstanding. When you learn a new language by living in a country, you learn much more than ‘just’ the language. You will get the opportunity to communicate with local people and learn from them.

And let’s not forget an essential point when you travel; you will discover new dishes with exciting flavours all over the world. The more I travel, the more passionate I am about tasting new dishes and experimenting with world cuisine.

In the future, people will travel even more whether for leisure or business, including more and more people from developing countries. Maybe you will travel to study or work abroad; or to get international experience or learn a different language. Often this is now requested by employers, so it will definitely be an asset on your CV. Plus at work it is not unusual to have multi-cultural teams, especially within international groups. Hence, learning how to manage cultural differences is becoming a key skill in the workplace.

Of course, another part of the debate could be that change is not happening as fast as it should, but the truth is that we are being assisted by a host of new initiatives and trends, technological breakthroughs and innovation.

When innovation meets creativity

First, we are fostering the emergence of eco-friendly hotels, also called sustainable hotels – establishments that try to reduce to a minimum their consumption of natural resources, their expense of energy and their level of emissions, so their environmental impact is as low as possible.

Second, the growing development of organic products such as reusable water bottles and straws, solid toiletries, organic sun cream and the like. Switching to these products which better respect the environment is something that we can all do. Small but worthwhile steps. When I was backpacking in South East Asia, most of the time I had showers in tiny bungalows near the beach, and the soap and water just went directly into the sand. The same goes for sunscreen where all chemicals go into the water and contribute to damaging coral reefs. Fortunately, the new products are helping people to better protect the environment while they’re travelling – and not only then.

Third, putting caps on tourism levels to ensure it is better managed has become essential to control the social and environmental impact of tourists; whether by raising prices, issuing permits to certain attractions or banning some cruise ships. Avoiding peak season travel can also be an alternative as well as supporting local initiatives as much as possible. Indeed, this approach offers you a better connection with local people and a more authentic experience.

Whenever you travel, try to spend your money with local people whenever you can – that could mean staying in guesthouses, eating at local restaurants or taking tours with local guides. Overall, we need to ensure that local residents, habitats and wildlife benefit from our presence rather than the opposite. It’s important to generate revenue for local people who most of the time are relying on the tourism industry.

The future of mobility

Finally, I would like to mention the future of mobility. People will fly more, and the needs and expectations of travellers are constantly evolving. Mobility is quite essential and is at the heart of our lives. It matters to people, whether travelling, getting to work or school or visiting friends. A number of key mobility trends such as electrification, optimising shared mobility, and autonomy are on the radar. The increased level of congestion in cities all over the world, as well as concerns about air quality, will make it inevitable to move forward and find solutions.

Naturally, airlines are also tackling the challenge. For instance, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing policies that address environmental impact and assist airlines in improving their environmental performance. The organization has set ambitious industry goals: one of their key objectives is to reduce net CO2 emissions by 50% by the year 2050.

Photo by Myriam Schweiger

Alternatives such as biofuels and electric flight are a huge investment but it is a slow process. Last June, at the Paris Air Show, ‘Alice’, the ‘world’s first’ commercial all-electric airplane was introduced. This was a good step for the alternative mobility sector. Back on the road, the transition towards electric cars is accelerating as well. As demand starts to rise, more manufacturers are unveiling new electric cars.

Conclusion

Clearly, the tourism and travel industry is facing many challenges and the consequences are numerous. However, new initiatives and technological trends are also shaping the future of travel and mobility.

The aim of this article is not to list all possible impacts or solutions – you can find further outstanding alternatives or deeper insights on the internet – but mainly I wanted to give you some food for thought. I love to travel but it makes me sad to see how it impacts the environment and the local population. As travellers, we have a significant role to play, raising awareness of these challenges in order to help people make better, more responsible choices. We need to enhance and further support local communities.

When booking your next trip, think about ‘how’ you travel. I hope you can pick up some ideas from this blog post.