The tourism industry is a major contributor to economic growth and community development. Combined, the travel and tourism sector is accountable for 10% of the global GDP. However, the benefits it brings to the table are far outweighed by its negative impacts on the environment. About 8% to 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the tourism industry, which is huge relative to larger industries.
Achieving sustainability in tourism requires the cooperation of everyone. The contribution of businesses in making travel more sustainable will have a significant effect on what tourists, communities, and governments can do on their part. But before we discuss what actions tourist operators can take, we first need to understand how travel and tourism impact the environment.
The impact of travel and tourism on the environment
Behind its stabilizing effect on the economy, the cultural exchange it facilitates, and the heritage it helps preserve, travel and tourism have a slew of negative effects on the environment, especially on the destination. Here are the major environmental costs of tourism:
- Helps accelerate the depletion of local natural resources through over-consumption
- Contributes to land degradation and loss of natural habitat, putting more pressure on endangered species
- Leads to the overuse of water and the release of chemical contaminants such as pesticides and fertilizers
- Contributes to greenhouse gas emissions due to transportation
- Contributes to plastic waste that ends up in the oceans
Sustainability isn’t just being eco-friendly
The term “sustainability” used to be exclusive to being eco-friendly, but the term has expanded since then. This is why it’s critical to make the distinction between the two. McGill University’s definition nails it on the head — “Sustainability means meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” When applied to tourism (sustainable tourism), it means tourism that operates in a manner that maximizes the benefits it brings to society, economy, and environment while also minimizing its harmful effects.
Put things into perspective
Compared to its effects on the economy and society, the impact of tourism on the environment is harder to measure. This is why the advisable first step towards sustainability is to begin carbon accounting. Through carbon accounting, organizations can get a precise knowledge of how big their carbon footprint is. Once a business understands its impact on the environment, it’s easier to set decarbonization goals and create a sustainable development strategy.
Is the business helping the local economy thrive? Is it uplifting the welfare of the local community? How is it affecting the environment? After these questions are answered, a business can begin exploring options.
For the environment
Switch to electric vehicles
Making the switch to electric-powered vehicles for transporting tourists presents a huge expenditure, but it’s guaranteed to improve the sustainability of operations significantly. Despite carbon being emitted in the manufacturing of its batteries, electric cars still emit 50% less CO2 across their lifetime than cars running on fossil fuels. In regions where renewable energy is more widely used, electric cars can save as much as 70% CO2.
Offer trips to sustainable tourism sites
Making travel and tourism sustainable is easier to do if the destination is already practicing it. Tourism operators can ensure travel is more sustainable by offering tourists trips to places that are known for their sustainability practices. One example of such a destination is the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan’s tourism industry follows the “high value, low impact” model, making it among the best sustainable tourism destinations in the world. Promoting eco-friendly activities such as rock climbing, hiking, sailing, and wildlife viewing is also advisable.
For the economy
Promote local businesses
Host communities will not benefit from the economic gains resulting from tourism operations if travelers mostly patronize foreign-owned businesses. To ensure the locals reap the economic benefits, tourism operators should promote local businesses. One way this could be done is by partnering with local business owners. Actively endorsing locally produced goods is also good practice.
Promote off-season trips
When tourists pour into destinations during peak seasons, it places a lot of pressure on tourism infrastructure and the local community as a whole. Tourism operators can help decrease this pressure by encouraging travelers to go on off-season trips. Instead of directing a lot of tourists to one site at once, operators can bring smaller groups throughout the year. This prevents infrastructure from breaking down and provides the locals with year-long employment opportunities.
For the society
Educate tourists on the local culture
One of the advantages of tourism to host communities is the exposure it provides to their culture. Tourism helps destinations that are home to rich and unique cultures to be discovered by more people, which results in more people visiting the site.
However, this cultural exchange can be hollow in the absence of proper education. It’s important that tourists not only know a culture exists, it’s also vital that they understand it. It falls on tourism operators to make this cultural education take place. This can be done in various ways such as co-creating tourism experiences with the locals and hiring local staff.
Book accommodation in remote areas
Among the social costs of tourism is the risk of culture clash, wherein the culture of the visitors comes in conflict with the destination culture. While this can be avoided by open-mindedness and education, it’s still likely to happen especially if tourists are crowding the center of the community. By encouraging tourists to stay in remote areas, you ensure there isn’t too much contact between the locals and tourists. They’d still be able to experience the local culture when they travel to the city during the day.
Most of what tourism operators can do to make travel more sustainable boils down to encouraging tourists to engage in more sustainable tourism activities. While various technologies, such as electric vehicles, can completely transform sustainable tourism, the power of tourism operators still lies in their influence over their customers.
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