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The concept of sustainable tourism is on the rise in the industry, with all of us becoming much more aware of the environmental and social impacts of the choices we make as consumers, and this is reflected in the travel experiences we choose. More and more travellers are turning their backs on traditional holidays provided by large multinational organisations, in favour of more authentic experiences from smaller companies. These smaller companies are generally more respectful to the natural environments, cultures and traditions of the destinations they cover.
But is sustainable tourism a concept that can truly be implemented, in a complete sense? Is the impact that travelling has on developing economies and vulnerable communities simply too great for tourism to be truly sustainable?
Here we take a detailed look at whether ecotourism companies are doing enough to ensure the positive benefits for these communities, and examine what travellers themselves can do to contribute to sustainable tourism development.
What is sustainable tourism?
Sustainable tourism is about securing positive benefits for local communities, and eliminating negative effects. To put it simply, the concept is designed to preserve today’s tourism services and experiences so that they can be enjoyed long into the future. There are social, economic and environmental aspects to sustainability, all of which are closely linked and interdependent.
For example, buying only from local businesses while you are travelling boosts the local economy, which also has a positive social impact on local living standards. In turn, this supports better environmental protection in the region, preserving the resources of the planet and ensuring the natural world can still be enjoyed by future generations.
Respect for the environment is also an important part of sustaining the cultures and traditions of indigenous peoples when we visit their traditional homelands. In addition, it supports biodiversity and the survival of native species of animals and plants, protecting the natural environment as a whole and ensuring tourism is a harmonious and constructive experience for all rather than a conflicting and destructive one.
But there are many factors at play within the tourism industry. The ethos of big business is not always cooperative with the ethics of sustainable tourism. For this reason, there is a raging debate within the tourism industry about whether ecotourism companies are doing more harm than good, and whether, in fact, truly sustainable tourism is realistically possible at all.
The sustainable tourism debate
Recently MPT’s General Manager Glen participated in a debate organised by Victoria’s Young Tourism Network to discuss this question. As members of the team on the negative side of the argument, Glen and his teammate, a professor from Latrobe University, presented a humorous, over-the-top but thought-provoking case for why sustainable tourism could never truly be possible.
Some of the thought-provoking included:
- Should suppliers be required to offer sustainable options to assist travellers as they make sustainable choices?
- Can tourism only be truly sustainable once all transport options have biofuel / non fossil fuel solutions?
- Is the Palau Pledge, which tourists have to sign to protect biodiversity in the country, a viable global model? Can we avoid the downsides of over-tourism without closing a destination completely (like Thailand has done for some beaches, e.g. Ko Phi Phi)?
- Should destinations ban visitors/travel companies that don’t ensure that the majority of money spent is directly delivered to the local economy?
- Should local governments provide co-contributions to support local businesses with their eligible sustainability projects?
Obviously, MPT is passionate about sustainable travel and protecting the rich and diverse cultures and natural environments of the places we visit. But it was necessary to have both sides represented in this argument, so that an interesting debate could be held, and Glen was happy to play devil’s advocate for a day!
The argument was not regarding whether sustainable tourism is a good/bad, right/wrong concept, but whether we could realistically envisage its effective implementation across the industry. And what a valid and important question that is! It is something that increasingly needs to be discussed, as climate science shows us that we can’t carry on in the way we are. Tourism, in its traditional forms contributes to a number of the major problems facing our planet and its inhabitants, so solutions are urgently needed.
Sustainable tourism development
While large multinational travel companies are still dominant on a global scale, smaller ecotourism companies are serious disruptors within the industry. They are offering something that many traditional companies aren’t – bespoke travel experiences in destinations which are off the regular tourist trail. These types of holidays cater for people who actually want to immerse themselves in the culture of a place, rather than simply visiting the main attractions and then spending the rest of the time relaxing by the pool. In addition, these types of travellers are more concerned about the environment and preserving the cultures of indigenous peoples, and they want to know their tour operators are doing everything they can to support these things too.
These travel experiences are becoming more and more popular in Australia and elsewhere, as increasing numbers of people are waking up to the environmental costs of their actions. This means more tourism businesses are having to devise and implement sustainable measures, to cater for their customers as well as taking their corporate social responsibility seriously.
Some initiatives implemented by tourism stakeholders, ranging from innovative disruptors to modern industry standards include:
- Airlines look to reduce waste produced on flights, have launched flights powered by biofuel, offer dedicated incentives to customers living in certain areas, and offer customers the ability to offset the emissions produced from their flights;
- Hotels installing green power initiatives such as solar, certain accommodation options becoming entirely carbon neutral;
- Tour operators driving demand for experiences that avoid over-touristed areas and have greater consideration of cultural and indigenous sensitivities;
- Countries such as Palau introducing their own ‘pledge’ which all visitors to the country must sign and acknowledge. This pledge is to respect to protect the local biodiversity.
But can these measures realistically make a difference, and increase sustainable tourism development as a whole, around the globe? And in spite of climate warnings reaching serious levels of severity, is there enough incentive for traditional tourism companies to change the way they operate?
The economic benefits of ecotourism
If truly sustainable travel is ever to become a reality, the major travel companies have to be satisfied that there is something in it for them, to make it worth their while to change their current practices. This is already starting to be realised. The sustainable tourism industry is growing rapidly around the world as travellers become more aware of the impact of their activities.
Research shows that 73 percent of travellers now intend to stay in sustainable resorts and accommodation when making their travel plans for the coming year, with 70 percent saying that they would be more likely to book accommodation that was eco-friendly. This applies regardless of whether or not they were specifically looking for a sustainable travel experience. Additionally, 45 percent of travellers now take the sustainability credentials of travel providers into account when booking trips. This figure has almost doubled since 2014.
These statistics show how important sustainable resorts and tourism options are to modern travellers. Sustainable tourism development is something all travel providers will need to concentrate on if they want to continue to provide their customers with the travel experiences they are looking for. Companies whose track records are not impressive enough when it comes to ecotourism will quickly find themselves losing their customer base, as environmental and ethical issues become increasingly important to the consumer market as a whole.
The increase in bookings expected by ecotourism companies and sustainable resorts demonstrates clearly the economic benefits of this move. However, this is only a small part of the picture. These economic benefits stretch far beyond the travel companies themselves. One of the most important issues for sustainable travel is the direct delivery of economic benefits to local communities.
In the past, tourism has often put a financial and social strain on communities and indigenous cultures. Their lifestyles have been disrupted by large numbers of tourists invading their homelands, bringing their own cultures with them, and not understanding traditional ways of life. All too often, large multinational travel companies have provided these experiences, so they have brought their own workers with them rather than employing local people.
Sustainable tourism development
Sustainable tourism redresses the balance. Ecotourism companies ensure money is being put back into the local economy. They employ tour guides from the local community, who are much better placed to provide authentic experiences and teach travellers about local history and culture. They also encourage travellers to spend money only with local businesses rather than recognised international chains. This creates value for the traveller as well as the local community, as it enables them to try local food, drink, produce and crafts, making for a more complete and memorable cultural experience. It also helps to support the local economy.
In turn, this has other benefits. If more money is available, local businesses can afford to provide their workers with better pay and conditions. They can also make a greater number of environmental provisions, contributing to a more sustainable and ethical global culture and economy.
The more travel companies become aware of the many economic benefits of ecotourism, the more measures they will be prepared to put in place. There are already some excellent initiatives underway, such as carbon neutral sustainable resorts, flight operators pledging to produce less waste, and carbon neutral travel companies reducing the amount of plastic they use. However, there is still much more to be done if the travel industry is to survive the challenges presented by the threat of climate change.
How travel companies can make a difference
A typical sustainable tourism experience is conducted in a small group. This is important, as it avoids over-tourism in vulnerable areas. Large groups of people congregating regularly in the same place can have a hugely negative effect on biodiversity, not to mention causing huge increases in pollution. It can also adversely affect local cultures, particularly if indigenous traditions are not being respected. One of the main features of ecotourism is a recognition of, and respect for, the cultures of people whose homelands are being visited.
Tour operators can play an important part in reducing over-tourism. They can encourage people to visit less popular areas, which are often more rewarding experiences as they are off the beaten track, and offer a completely different experience of the country. They can also ensure that travellers are well-educated about local populations and their cultures, and take care that no disrespect is shown.
In addition, they can provide travellers with all the information they need to make sustainable choices while travelling. For example, many travellers are now interested in volunteering for local charities or getting involved with environmental schemes. Ecotourism companies can make these things easier for travellers by pointing them in the right direction, and letting them know about facilities and attractions which are working to protect and conserve the environment.
More information about sustainable travel
MPT wholeheartedly wishes to preserve the natural environment which is so precious to Australia and our nation’s own business operations. We’re excited for future initiatives to ensure we can showcase our beautiful country to our guests in a responsible way. We believe the key to success in this regard is that many hands will make light work!
We are also delighted that four of our tours have been awarded eco certification by Nature Tourism. This is an honour, as it shows that our hard work in maintaining our corporate social responsibility is paying off. Travellers know that when they book with us they can enjoy an ethical and environmentally sustainable experience.
Of course, completely sustainable travel on a global scale is probably still a long way off. Not everyone is yet persuaded of its benefits. But, if all of us who care about the future of the planet continue to do our bit, our combined efforts will enable us to be heard, and help to make the world a better place.
If you would like more information about MPT and the sustainable travel experiences we provide, please contact our team, and we will be happy to help.