As concerns about climate change grow, worries that tourism is contributing to environmental destruction have increased. Suddenly, global warming is changing what it means to be an “ethical traveler.” New questions are reshaping the idea of socially conscious tourism. Should long-haul travel be avoided altogether? Or is there a way to travel without abetting these massive social and ecological problems?
Even ecotourism — the ethical traveler’s method of guilt-free travel — can harm sensitive ecosystems by, among other things, stressing wildlife populations, introducing invasive species, causing soil erosion, deteriorating water quality, and exacerbating coral reef destruction. The promised economic benefits to local communities are sometimes fleeting; too often, there is leakage of income from the host country to foreign-run tour companies. The hope for a cultural exchange component is often unfulfilled: Do many Ecuadorians or Rwandans regularly backpack through Europe or the US? Ecotourism, however well-intentioned, is no quick fix for the ethical traveler’s conundrum of to go or not to go.
Still, few things have as much potential for advancing global and cross-cultural understanding as does travel. Ecotourism promotes conservation while generating economic revenue and foreign exchange for remote, impoverished areas. Tourism-generated capital for community infrastructure development often helps improve local social and educational services. “Many developing countries are economically dependent on tourism,” says Brian Mullis of Sustainable Travel International. “It is likely that environmental degradation and pollution caused by extractive industries would ensue if visitation to these countries ceased altogether.”
Aside from purely recreational tourism, socially responsible travel often promotes the dissemination of international aid, medicine, progressive values, human rights, and even scientific discovery; imagine if Darwin had never gone to the Galapagos. There is no current substitution for these vital, substantial returns. The question becomes, then, is it ethical not to travel?
Travelers are in a unique position to play a key role in alleviating poverty, protecting ecosystems, and contributing to a better world if they are up to the challenge. Companies large and small are responding to consumer demand for responsible and sustainable travel options by generating a cornucopia of green and philanthropic travel alternatives that give back to host communities. This type of tourism is predicted to grow to five percent by 2024, with some travelers going only to places that protect or benefit the environment and local peoples.
Of course, even this kind of green tourism won’t eliminate the pressure on natural resources, or aviation’s contribution to climate change. “Perhaps new eco-trends will favor wind and solar-fueled vessels and revive ocean travel,” says Dominique Callimanopulos of Elevate Destinations. “Unless the airlines become more regulated, I don’t think travelers are going to stop their long-distance travel.”
Hopefully, in the future, the tax breaks given to the airlines will be redirected, making railway travel and international ship travel cheaper and more accessible, thereby reducing demand for domestic and international flights. Until then, ecotourism and carbon-offsetting projects are acceptable interim solutions.
Exploration has always been a uniquely human instinct, and travel will continue to be part of our lifestyles for the foreseeable future. However, travel should never endanger the very places or ideals ethical travelers cherish. Now that it has begun to, we have to re-evaluate how much, where, and why we travel, and adjust appropriately.
— Lili DeBarbieri
Ethical Traveler works to make travel a positive force in the world. Visit www.ethicaltraveler.org for detailed travel resources. If you must travel long distance, extend your stay, spend money locally, offset your emissions, use the least polluting form of transport, and, as the saying goes, “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”
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